The marriage of science and ethical, focused marketing can lead the sports nutrition market out of the dark shadows cast by spooky pre-workout products whose labels feature laundry lists of ingredients supposedly derived from rarely-mentioned botanicals, experts say.
In recent discussions with NutraIngredients-USA, formulation experts in the sports nutrition sphere said a new center of the market is forming, and it’s coming together around a commitment to safety and to demonstrable benefits.
“Start with the research. I’m an evidence-based practitioner. There has got to be some evidence. The idea that twelve athletes have used this and it makes them feel great may be a great place to start. But it isn’t any way to start a business and develop a product and tell people that it works,” said Susan Kleiner, PhD, an author and consultant within the sports nutrition sphere. Kleiner consults with multi-level marketing firm USANA on its sports nutrition lines.
“I think that it’s kind of a two way street. I think that the public expects honesty from manufacturers. But it requires that the manufacturers also lead and do the research to show that there is actually some evidence behind their products,” she said.
Recent launches typify trend
Two recent entrants in the sports nutrition sphere typify this trend toward the middle. In mid-September, Idaho-based Thorne Research announced a new line of sports nutrition products , followed a week or so later by the launch announcement of Klean Athlete, a line of sports products from Douglas Labs . Not coincidentally, both of these manufacturers have long histories in the health practitioner side of the dietary supplement business.
“We wanted to create a line of products that are not so much operating at the fringe of sports nutrition,” Tim Monk, senior vice president of marketing for Douglas told NutraIngredients-USA.
“We wanted the parents to feel good that if their son comes home from football practice and has a can of the Klean isolate that they are taking whey protein and there is nothing else in that product.”
Real world science
In addition to a commitment to purity and safety, Kleiner said, manufacturers need to cleave to science that drives toward real world benefits, rather that seeking to clear statistical significance hurdles that are too arcane for the middle-of-the-market consumer to care about. Kleiner said having experts with real world experience on board can help manufacturers achieve this goal.
“I think it’s important to work with experienced sports nutritionists, sports dieticians, and exercise physiologists who can see that the data may show that a product statistically ‘works’ but in the real world, in a clinical sense, it’s kind of irrelevant," she said.
The statistics may show a 10th of a second of improvement. That may matter to some guy like Michael Phelps, does it matter to most of us? No.”
The heavy hitters of sports nutrition
Among the ingredients that can deliver on these demonstrable benefits, Kleiner listed first Vitargo S2, a patented, super-high molecular weight carbohydrate. In addition, Kleiner mentioned creatine, beta-alanine and l-carnitine as sports nutrition ingredients with true, solid science behind them.
She’s also a fan of an old sports nutrition standby, provided it’s offered in the correct dose.
“I love the efficacious doses of caffeine in products now rather than the energy drinks which are a lot of hype and nasty chemistry. We have products that are really focusing on an efficacious does of caffeine – 70-80mg – with perhaps some other combinations,” she said.
Old player at a new position
But underlying it all, Kleiner said, is a old-line, well-known ingredient that few might associate with sports nutrition, namely, fish oil.
“Fish oil. DHA and EPA. What we are really dealing with in a big way with people who exercise is inflammation and recovery from inflammation. DHA and EPA are incredibly potent, legal and safe supplements that shut down inflammation. They don’t just control inflammation, they actually shut it down,” Kleiner said.
“You could take cortical steroids. Those have some really bad side effects. You can’t take those forever. You could take NSAIDs. But those also have some really bad side effects after a while. Or you could take fish oil.”
Kleiner said higher doses are necessary to achieve these effects. Health authorities and the Global Association for EPA and DHA Omega-3s (GOED) recommend a baseline of 500 mg of EPA and DHA per day in relation to the cardiovascular and brain health benefits of omega-3s. But to take aim at inflammation in a sports nutrition setting, Kleiner said you’ve got to load your guns with at least 1000 mg of omega-3s per day.
While inflammation is important at the beginning to stimulate muscle growth and training effects, too often athletes, even weekend warriors, get into an inflammation spiral, Kleiner said. Work out too hard, too often, and inflammation proceeds unchecked. Back in the day athletes used to talk about burning out or getting stale. Now there is a more science-backed description of the problem, Kleiner said, and fish oil is the answer.
Aiming at the bulls eye
The new product launches aim toward a picture of the sports nutrition consumers as people in need of basic health support in addition to fringe performance benefits.
“We want to really focus on the middle of the market because there is really nothing there. No one has really focused on the core health of the athlete,” Monk said of the Klean Athlete line.
“It is a little bit of a new narrative for sports nutrition. I think it resonates not only with the bulls eye of the market, the serious athlete, but it carries over further and further out from the bulls eye because everybody wants to be healthier. And there are a lot of people who would like to think of themselves of athletes. So (manufacturers) can capture the imagination of the consumer in that way,” Kleiner said.
“That narrative of taking care of your foundational health I think is profound. I think it’s a brilliant marketing strategy,” she said.