In attracting new consumers, sports nutrition sphere runs risk of dilution, expert says

By Hank Schultz contact

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images
The attraction of 'healthy-lifestyle' type consumers into the sports nutrition sphere has fueled rapid growth in the category, but could also serve to dilute its message, an expert says.

Matthew Oster, head of consumer health at Euromonitor International, laid the groundwork for NutraIngredients-USA’s recent Sports Nutrition Summit with a talk titled “What it Means to be a Sports Nutrition Brand.” The event concluded on Thursday in San Diego, put on in cooperation with the International Society of Sports Nutrition.

Euromonitor, a market research firm, has boots on the ground in more than 100 counties, Oster said. In terms of where sports nutrition sales take place, they cover virtually 100% of that market.

Continued strong growth

Oster said the effort of sports nutrition companies to attract new consumers is bearing dividends. 

“We have seen a 190% rise in sales increase from 2004 to 2018,”​ Oster told the audience, which was made of academics, formulators, brand owners, regulatory and scientific personnel, and others.

“We are expecting the market to be more than $23 billion by 2023,” ​he said.

Sports nutrition seems to be one development in the market that is here to stay, Oster added. It has a more aspirational aspect to it than does weight management, a sector which has seen fads come and go with regularity.

“There is something unique about the staying of sports nutrition,” ​Oster said. “In 2018 sports nutrition products accounted for 6.2% of all consumer health care purchases. That’s up from 3.4% in 2008, and represented a 9.3% CAGR from 2008 to 2018.”

The United States continues to be the driver of sports nutrition growth, Oster said, accounting for as much as 45% of the global market. But other areas are growing robustly, too, and the European markets are finally getting into the swing.

“This is very broad based growth from a geographical perspective,”​ he said. “Continental Europe has always been reluctant to jump on the sports nutrition bandwagon, but they are catching up.”

Attracting new consumers

Oster said sports nutrition concepts are becoming much more mainstream, which is helping to attract new consumers to the category. Gone are the days when the picture of high protein intake was that of men sporting veins like vacuum cleaner hoses downing pitchers of raw eggs.

“Consumers are thinking much more broadly about protein intake than they ever have before,” ​he said. That includes associating higher protein intake with concepts of weight management, weight loss, anti-aging and general well being. 

“Consumers who in the past might have used a meal replacement product are now taking a protein product,”​ Oster said.

This has led to a marked change in the market, Oster said. It has been a good change in many ways. It has brought many new consumers into the market, and insofar as the products themselves support the health of those end users, could be seen as something of a public health win. 

Consuming a protein shake rather than a basket of fries has to be seen as a positive shift, regardless of whether that particular consumer reaches his or her weight management or sports performance goals.

What does ‘sports nutrition brand’ mean?

But it carries within it the seeds of potential trouble ahead, too, Oster said. It could serve to at best confuse and at worst alienate the existing core consumers. Brands, after all, are not just about what’s inside the bottle, but also about how consumers feel about being associated with that brand.  As the market grows into these new areas, sports nutrition brands will have to think carefully about how their brands are being perceived in the market, he said.

To borrow an analogy from the automotive realm, the buyers attracted to Mazda Miatas know exactly why that car is on the market and what needs or desires it fulfills. There is a cadre out there of dedicated Miata aficionados. What if Mazda also were to start putting the Miata badge on cars meant to appeal to soccer moms?

“You can see there is already a pretty clear bifurcation in the market from your core sports nutrition consumers moving increasingly to a broad network of active nutrition consumers. ‘Healthy living’ is how these people self identify and how they present themselves to other people,”​ Oster said.

Danger of a mass-oriented universe

Oster said this market development has complicated Euromonitor’s surveillance of the market. What do you call a sports nutrition product now?  If the market watchers, adept at spotting trends, are starting to get confused, how long will it be before the consumers are, too?

“Because sports nutrition is becoming more things to more people it is losing its core proposition,”​ Oster warned. “Even if sports nutrition blocks off the ramparts, there are still going to be other nutrition brands out there trying to engage those consumers on the periphery.  

“Sports nutrition bars have always been the closest thing in the category to a mass product. We used to have a rule about how to categorize a ‘sports nutrition’ bar. It was 20 grams of protein. That is useless now. Now you have protein bars marketed to children. And you’ll see segmentation around other groups,” ​he said.

“So are high protein products part of the snacking marketplace? Or the performance support marketplace?  It’s kind of hard to say right now. That is the benefit and the danger of being part of a mass-oriented universe,”​ Oster concluded.

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