What does ‘clean label’ mean in sports nutrition? Experts weigh in

By Adi Menayang

- Last updated on GMT

Photo: iStock/Lecic
Photo: iStock/Lecic

Related tags Sports nutrition Whey protein

How clean label is defined in sports nutrition depends on the end goal, experts say. Bodybuilders tend to not care as much, while performance athletes may sacrifice taste over efficacy and health impact. All groups, however, are demanding more transparency around ‘proprietary blends.’

More American consumers are looking for functional benefits when purchasing food and beverages, said Mintel food and drink analyst Beth Bloom at the Sports Nutrition Forum​ hosted by NutraIngredients-USA.

“Mintel estimated that sports drinks sales in the US reached $7bn in 2015, which was a 4% growth over 2014,”​ she said. “For performance drinks, that market reached $2bn in 2015, which was a 7% growth over 2014 total.”​ Included in these numbers are products like Gatorade (sports drink) and Muscle Milk (performance drink) bought from mainstream channels like supermarkets and convenience stores.

And with more access to information at their fingertips, consumers are increasingly looking for tailored sports nutrition that meets their end goal, sifting through endless forums, blogs, and news sites to find out what ingredients and products can benefit their goals the most. 

Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst, Mintel
Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst, Mintel

Panelists Dr Victoria Coleman, VP of clinical education at Douglas Laboratories/Klean Athlete, and Jeff Del Favero, director of private label at Bodybuilding.com, both said that they noticed upticks in e-retailing and online consumer engagement.

Is having a clean label relevant in sports nutrition?

In the packaged food and beverage sector, there is a big push for brands to create products with simplified ingredients lists, addressing consumer concern for the long-term effects of what they put in their body, a trend that the industry, from bloggers to marketers, are calling ‘clean label.’ As more consumers adopt active lifestyles and eye the once-niche sports nutrition category, does this trend still hold true for purchases of sports supplements?

Bloom said that Mintel’s ‘better-for-you’ eating trends report indicated that high fructose corn syrup, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and GMO products are what US consumers avoid most, while high protein, fiber, and antioxidants are what they want. Zoom in to the sports nutrition space, Bloom said 29% of performance bar buyers look for products made with no artificial ingredients, with a similar number for the functional beverage space.

Jeff Del Favero, director of private label, Bodybuilding.com
Jeff Del Favero, director of private label, Bodybuilding.com

For bodybuilders, the percentage is even smaller, Del Favero said: “Given our consumer being very physique and performance driven—we do not see those similar trends. We see some people trending towards that direction, but that is a very small percentage of our category’s sales.”

But seeing how rapidly the trend is growing, Del Favero said he wouldn’t be surprised if eventually his company’s clientele will also shift away from artificial flavors and sweeteners. In the meantime, “they’re a major part of our industry,” ​he said, adding that bodybuilders of today want their products to work and to taste great.

Proprietary blends, broken down by ingredient and why it’s in there

But Dr Coleman argued that for a lot of performance and endurance athletes—Klean Athlete’s largest buyer group—overall health is the main concern, not just game-day performance or appearance. “People are willing to sacrifice a little bit if they need to from a taste perspective to ensure that they’re using a very clean product—not containing some of the ingredients that aren’t offering benefit to the body.” 

Victoria Coleman, VP of clinical education, Douglas Laboratories/Klean Athlete
Victoria Coleman, VP of clinical education, Douglas Laboratories/Klean Athlete

And while Dr Jose Antonio, CEO and founder of the International Society of Sports Nutrition and editor-in-chief of its eponymous journal, said that non-GMO and no artificial claims are largely “marketing fluff”​ due to the lack of research on their adverse effects, all panelists agreed that there should be a move away from simply listing ‘proprietary blends’. Instead, ingredients should be listed out, with the doses and an explanation on what it does.

Jose Antonio, CEO and founder, International Society of Sports Nutrition
Jose Antonio, CEO and founder, International Society of Sports Nutrition

“Having access to data online has made it easier for consumers to get the information in terms of what the effective amounts of these supplements should be,” ​Dr. Antonio said. “In the past I’ve seen these products that list their proprietary blends, and when you start doing the math—clearly they’re under-dosing a lot of the things that are in the blend.”

The NutraIngredients-USA Sports Nutrition forum is available for free on-demand. To view the forum, please click HERE​.

The forum is sponsored by the following leading suppliers: 


Synergy:​ A leading manufacturer and supplier of added-value ingredients that help make great tasting food and beverages, with a simple vision: leading the way in taste. With locations in Asia, Europe, North and South America, Synergy brings international flavor profiles and ways of thinking to a local basis.

In an age of corporate consolidation, Synergy has retained its intimate attention to detail. Its team stays close to its customers—at times even sharing the bench, kitchen, or production line—bringing consumer market trend information and connecting our technical staff directly to product developers to fully understand their needs.


Futureceuticals:​ A leader in the research, development, and manufacture of fruit, vegetable, and grain-based nutritionals, built upon deep agricultural roots, vertically integrated from field to finished product, and committed to discovery-based research in the name of human health.

Located in America’s heartland, FutureCeuticals, Inc. and its parent company, Van Drunen Farms, have been family owned and operated for more than 100 years. Although our production and development capabilities reflect the innovations of the 21st century, our original core values of integrity and trust continue to direct our operations today and into the future.


Hilmar Ingredients​ supplies whey protein and lactose made from sweet whey. The sole source of this sweet whey is our parent company’s large-scale cheese operations in California and Texas. These U.S.-based operations provide us with the freshest, highest quality whey stream from which we produce large runs of whey protein concentrate, hydrolysate and isolate, as well as edible, refined and ultra refined lactose.


Glico’s Cluster Dextrin​ (Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin) is a new type of dextrin that is produced from amylopectin via cyclization reaction of a branching enzyme (BE,1,4-α-D-glucan: 1,4-α-D-glucan 6-α-D-(1,4-α-D-glucano)-transferase,EC

Ezaki Glico has successfully achieved industrial production of Cluster Dextrin by applying its unique technology in enzymology. Glico obtained FDA Notified GRAS status for Cluster Dextrin in October 2012.

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1 comment

Babies and Bathwater

Posted by Jim Lassiter,

The focus of the article is on Sports Nutrition products. It rightfully points out that many of the consumers of these products are more interested in results than in "clean label". The sub issue - and one that deserves much attention is the matter of "clean label" specifically as it lumps the matter of bioengineering (GMOs) into the mix.
Science is science. It explores, investigates and determines solutions to sometimes complex problems. It is the application of the science that presents the challenges. To toss out ALL GMOs in the righteous cause of "clean label" is tossing the baby out with the bathwater. This is a far more complex issue than a simple categorization of good and bad. As with many consumers of sports nutrition products, there is the potential to investigate the scientific benefits attained and make determinations as to what to consume. Ignoring science in this area is near identical to ignoring the science behind climate change. Recognize issues as complex and THEN tease out the issue appropriately. Just as sports nutrition consumers tend to do in the selections they make.

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