Is the future of sports nutrition in ‘whole foods’?

By Shane Starling

- Last updated on GMT

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Sports people and the generally active are starting to shun ‘techy’ sports nutrition and look for whole foods that can deliver performance and health benefits, according to a new report.

While gels, bars, chews, pills, powders – the stalwarts of the sports nutrition category for decades – are not finished, there is a multi-factorial shift towards whole foods used by sportspeople is occurring, according to New Nutrition Business​ chief Julian Mellentin.

A ‘real food’-focused report highlights the reversal of a well-established trend – the mainstreaming of sports bars, gels, protein powders and the like as consumers take to them for non-sporting reasons like weight management or energy boosting.

That trend, sometimes billed as ‘the sportification of everything’ continues unabated, but Mellentin told NutraIngredients that “There's a much, much bigger group of consumers who dislike any one or combination of: a) taste b) texture c) format d) ingredients in these tech foods.”

This group is more active; more informed about nutrition; more interested in ingredient provenance; in eating green; in whole foods… in whole sports foods.

From cakes re-branded as sports foods. To puddings, flapjacks and Nutella. More broadly, it’s about a shift from the technical to the holistic.

“They want to eat in line with their wider food beliefs, whether that’s low-carb, vegan, gluten-free or low-calorie,” ​the report says.

“Their endless quest to optimise their performance and achieve their physical goals makes them the canaries in the coal mine for changes in consumers’ nutritional interests. And what they eat has an influence on their friends and colleagues. If you want to know what’s going to happen, look at what they are doing.”

The mood for food

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Further weight is added by the heft of social media sports influencers and elite sporting associations that often advise their athletes to choose whole foods ahead of (not necessarily over) food supplements.

Groups like the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association have stated "whole foods are the best fuel".

UK Athletics advises athletes should satisfy their nutritional needs from a balanced diet of whole foods and good hydration.”

Mellentin’s consultancy conducted consumer research in the US and found even pro athletes are seeking whole sports foods over bars and gels and protein powders – at least some of the time.

Price is an issue too, for pro’s and weekend warriors alike, and the fact is whole sports foods are often cheaper than their more technical counterparts.

Companies like $750m (€674m) Clif Bar, which have played pretty firmly in the sports nutrition pen, are branching out back into the mainstream, launching new products or repositioning existing lines into the whole foods aisle, in its case with a ‘natural living’ halo.

‘The original bar’

While bars are core sports nutrition foods, and often quite technical and artificial in formulation, Mellentin says he considers them cross-over foods in that they are also well established as mainstream foods, as “a 'normal' snack in the grocery store.”

Indeed this was their initial carnation. “They had a normal food identity in most countries and sports bars came later. Italian pan forte is 'the original bar'.”

“It's a short step to taking traditional and natural ingredients and making a bar format. Some consumers will embrace 'a step beyond' and take something artificial for sports, a larger group will not. Veloforte is a good example of this.”

Fragmented beliefs

While sportspeople are often very 'nutrition conscious' and savvy enough to make their own food and ingredient choices, Mellentin added that such beliefs are complex, fragmented and sometimes paradoxical.

“Beliefs are so fragmented and personalised that 'nutrition savvy' has become subjective – see vegan sports people taking only plant protein versus those using dairy. Both knowledgeable, both believe they are right. 

“There's a lot that's positive about using some sports positioning for a real food product – see Soreen, Clif, Veloforte – to flag to real food seekers that this is a product they can use. If it tastes good, is single-serve and aligns with their health beliefs they will buy it.”

Mellentin said the mega-trend of rising numbers of active consumers was a reality food companies ignored at their peril.

If your strategy does not include – as a minimum – identifying how to position your existing products in ways that appeals to increasingly activity-eager consumers, you need to go away and re-write it.”

“If your strategy looks at how existing products can be made more convenient, (using single-serve, portable and easily-disposable packaging, for example), ingredients improved or considers how to create a new ‘real food’ product that will appeal to physically active consumers, then you are heading in the right direction.”

The report​ mentions about 75 food firms and features 10 case studies: Njie, Fuel 10K, Soreen, Manuka honey, Barnana, Vieve collagen drinks, Grenade, Veloforte, Big Food and Koia.

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