From the editor's desk

Persistent nutrition gaps at sports teams provides opportunity

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Champion ultra distance runner Joseph Gray makes a point to a fellow attendee during the Sports Nutrition Summit 2020. NutraIngredients USA/Justin Howe
Champion ultra distance runner Joseph Gray makes a point to a fellow attendee during the Sports Nutrition Summit 2020. NutraIngredients USA/Justin Howe

Related tags Dietary supplement

Many pro sports leagues still have a long way to go when it comes to supporting players with proper nutrition and supplementation, which could be a big opportunity for sports nutrition companies.

At NutraIngredients-USA’s Sports Nutrition Summit 2020, which concluded on Wednesday in San Diego, attendees got a glimpse at what nutrition and supplementation looks like at top end pro teams. One naturally could assume that high end athletes, assets in which teams have a lot invested, would as a matter of course get the very best in nutritional support. 

Gemstone players eating garbage food

Not so much, nutritionist Lloyd Parker told the audience. Parker is the head of sports nutrition for Everton Football Club in the Barclay’s Premier League, generally considered one of the top two or three leagues of world soccer.

Parker was the first full time nutritionist in the club’s history.  He’s been on the job for about five years.  Parker said the conditions he found when he took the job were appalling.

“We had £50 million athletes, players who were making £150,000 a week, and we were feeding them tinned soups,”​ Parker said.

The team’s ‘training table,’ if it could be called that, was stocked with pre-poached, packaged eggs, bagged snacks, and moldy or rotten fruit.  When the team was on the road, along came big plastic totes full of candy bars, Parker said.

Whole food approached teamed with supplementation

Over the years Parker said he has transformed the club’s food offerings.  He managed to persuade the team’s board to invest in new facilities, which he said now resemble a sophisticated restaurant.  Pre packaged items have been banished, and athletes are now treated to high quality food that’s freshly made.  Gone are the stale pre-made sandwiches and bags of processed snacks that used to be the norm, he said.

Parker said he also keeps a weather eye toward variety, color and texture, and mixes them up according to the day to day nutritional needs of the players, depending on what their recent workload has been.  Meals following hard matches might feature more foods rich in polyphenols to help control inflammation, for example.  And Parker said he varies where foods are placed, putting his highest priorities for the players front and center.

Parker said the club is also very open to targeted supplementation.  One of the slides he showed was a list of dozens of the ingredients the club is using or is interested in incorporating into its recommendations to players.

One of the ingredients the club uses is CherryActive, a tart cherry product made by UK sports nutrition company Active Edge.  Entrepreneur John Carey reportedly turned a search for relief from his gout condition into a business​ that now converts millions of cherries and other berries into products used by pro footballers and Olympic athletes.

Opportunity to fill in knowledge gap 

Parker said Everton is now at the forefront of targeted whole food nutrition and supplementation.  Yet he said still today the players at many Premier League clubs are still served french fries (he’d call them ‘chips’) or similar sub optimal foods after matches.

The situation is similar in the NFL.  Reportedly only slightly more than half (about 20 of 32 teams) have a full time nutritionist on staff.  In the NBA a lot of nutrition planning and advice is reportedly still done on a consulting basi​s.

While there is still some suspicion on the part of pro sports team of the quality and reliability of sports nutrition products. But I think with the advent of wide scale third party certification, this concern is being put to rest.

Where sports nutrition companies could really profit, it seems to me, is to help fill in that knowledge gap.  There are still many dietitians in the US who take a food first approach to the point of excluding recommendations on supplementation altogether.  Active Edge in the UK seems to have been successful in filling in that breach, and similar companies in the US could as well. A win here could be translated into a broad victory in the marketplace.  If it’s good enough for LeBron James​, many consumers will believe it’s good enough for them, too.

Sports Nutrition Summit 2021

To keep abreast of developments for the next installment of the Sports Nutrition Summit, sign up for updates here​.

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