Special edition: Sports nutrition

Focus and decision-making: The next big thing in sports nutrition?

By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/apelletr
© iStock/apelletr
The importance of mental strength in addition to physical strength is gaining increasing appreciation in sports nutrition, and key players are building the science around cognitive health in response to demand for ingredients to boost focus and decision making.

“Athletes are becoming more aware that the ultimate barrier keeping them from achieving and maintaining peak performance is both physical AND mental health,”​ explained Andrew Wheeler, Director of Marketing at FutureCeuticals, which recently launched the Neurofactor-branded ingredient, which crosses over between sports nutrition and brain health.

“In 2016 ​Outside Magazine published an article that discusses recent exercise research showing association between fatigue and mental conditions, rather than physical effects such as glycogen depletion.  The article suggests, “some researchers now contend that fatigue is mainly a mental”,”​ he added.

The ingredients that may play in this space are varied, with Joseph Moritz, PhD, Scientific Marketing Manager at BASF Nutrition & Health, North America pointing out that the cognitive health benefits of omega-3s may include improvement in reaction time, concentration, and decision-making.

The list of these so-called Nootropics includes a wide range of ingredients, including PurEnergy (ChromaDex), Cognizin (Kyowa Hakko), Teacrine (Compound Solutions), Phosphatidylserine, Ashwagandha, Bacopa, and many more.

One particular ingredient that is making waves in the sector is Nitrosigine from Nutrition 21. The ingredient is positioned firmly in the sports nutrition realm, and recent data from two double-blind placebo-controlled crossover studies​ indicated that the inositol-stabilized arginine silicate ingredient may boost cognitive performance in tests requiring mental flexibility, processing speed and executive functioning (Nutrients​, 2016, 8​(11), 736).

“We were surprised by how dramatic the results were,”​ Joe Weiss, CEO of Nutrition 21, told us. “Products that can positively impact speed of decision making are of interest to a lot of sports types, but they’re also interesting to people sitting at a desk. Nitrosigine has that impact – it makes you sharper in the day-to-day activities.”

Nitric oxide

Nitrosigine works by boosting the production of nitric oxide (NO), a potent vasodilator that promote blood flow.

“NO producing ingredients as a category is high growth​,” said Weiss. “I’m not sure consumers know what NO production in the body really means, but it has so many benefits, especially to the sports nutrition consumers.”

The company boasts 19 studies on Nitrosigine, and is experiencing impressive growth. “It’s the hottest ingredient in the pre-workout space and it has so many positive attributes,”​ said Weiss. “The growth is really strong. It’s a non-stimulant energy product and they are hard to come by in this space. It improves blood flow and circulation; it lasts up to six hours and starts working in as little as 15 minutes.”

Interest in NO-boosting ingredients is being driven by athletes seeking natural, clean, safe alternatives backed by clinical research, said Wheeler.

“A major consumer concern has been the use of chemical nitrites (and its precursor, nitrates) in food, which can form nitrosamines in the body, a known carcinogen. Nitrates that exist naturally in antioxidant-rich foods are known to inhibit nitrite conversion into nitrosamine,” ​he said. “Research has also demonstrated that nitrate consumption provides many beneficial effects especially when it comes to aiding athletes in muscle performance, endurance and recovery.”

FutureCeuticals’ Spectra ingredient is a natural blend of fruit, vegetable, and herbs, explained Wheeler, which has been shown to endogenously increase NO by 64%. “It’s important to note that this is endogenous stimulation of NO, not ingestion of NO. Spectra helps the athlete’s body do what it already does, only better,”​ he said.

The market

Taking the high road

The sports nutrition market has suffered in the past due to spiking of products with steroids or the use of unapproved stimulants. Against such a backdrop, how do responsible companies respond? “We take the high road and demonstrate that our ingredient is safe and effective and clinically substantiated,”​ said Nutrition 21’s Weiss.  

In addition to the broadening of the category to encompass cognitive health ingredients, the sports nutrition category is broadening to attract more recreational athletes and weekend warriors. “The sports nutrition market will probably always have a portion of the segment that’s a bit edgier, but the mainstreaming is very real,”​ said Nutrition 21’s Weiss. “You’re seeing a broadening in distribution channels, with even Amazon, and food, drug and club selling sports nutrition products. That does affect the formulation and messaging.”

“The sports nutrition category is evolving into an active nutrition market,” ​noted Missy Lowery, Senior Manager, Marketing at Capsugel. “Mainstream consumers are flooding into the pool and powering the boom of the segment.  These consumers are everyday people now looking to sports nutrition products to help them live a healthier lifestyle, live longer and better, and age gracefully--especially the Boomer population.  The active nutrition consumer is gravitating toward products that boost energy and generally make them feel better.”

As the mainstreaming of the sector brings in more consumers segments, other mainstream trends start to impact on sports nutrition, like transparency and clean label. But FutureCeuticals doesn’t see clean label as a trend anymore, but a “generational market shift for millennials and boomers alike. Whether a performance athlete, weekend warrior, or a mom/dad/grandfather on the go they are all seeking natural, safe and targeted ingredients that appeal to a healthier lifestyle,”​ said Wheeler.

Delivery

generic capsules
© iStock

The shift towards an active nutrition market is also affecting delivery, with consumers paying more attention to delivery formats that offer greater bioavailability of ingredients for faster, more effective results, added Lowery, and this could be in the form of liquid drinks or liquid fills delivered in capsules.  

As seen in other categories, convenience and portability are paramount with sports nutrition consumers, explained Abhijit Natu, Global Marketing Manager, BASF Nutrition & Health, North America. “We know that about 50% of the population has difficulty swallowing pills, so novel formats for formulations are driving the market. BASF works with customers to create formulations in such formats as gummies, pectin-based chews, and meal replacement bars or beverages.”

Despite the pill-swallowing issues, capsules remain very convenient and easier to use than other formats. “Because of these basic advantages, it stands to reason that capsule products can continue to increase in supplement market share,” ​said Capsugel’s Lowery. “Capsule delivery forms can affect regular usage of a supplement as well as efficacy and outcomes of supplements.  And capsules require fewer excipients—better fitting the vegetarian and clean label megatrend that is growing in sports nutrition.”​ 

The bulk of the sales in sports nutrition are coming from sports powders, drinks, and delivery of a wider range of dietary ingredients like CoQ10, astaxanthin, HMB, probiotics, digestive enzymes, caffeine, L-carnitine, L-arginine, amino acids, and creatine can all be delivered in capsule form, she added. However, the choice of capsule is dictated by the ingredients to be used.

For example, Capsugel’s low-moisture Vcaps Plus capsules are suitable for amino acids and energy products, while the DRcaps capsules are for acid sensitive ingredients such as creatine, enzymes (amylase), amino acids (SAMe, l-glutathione, l-carnosine, etc.), and probiotics. Licaps capsules – be they gelatin, vegetarian, or fish polymers – are ideal for delivery of unstable liquids, while DuoCaps (capsule-in-a-capsule technology) can be used for combination products or extended release. 

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