Comment Piece

Has sports nutrition lost its protein bar?

By Nikki Hancocks contact

- Last updated on GMT

getty | ridofranz
getty | ridofranz

Related tags: Sports nutrition, protein bar

The dilemma seemed to develop quite suddenly. I was writing an article on trends in the sports nutrition category and I found myself unsure what new product developments I should, or could, include in the piece.

It had always been clear cut in my previous four years of food and drink journalism. But now I didn’t know if these products had been created to be sports nutrition bars which appealed to the everyday health-conscious consumer, or were they intended to be a healthy snack with the added benefits of a sports nutrition bar?

I think I decided that any bar with a protein content of more than 15 grams was safe to describe as ‘sports nutrition’ and I continued with my article, hoping the brands I was writing about would be happy with the way I was categorising their products.

That was about a year ago. It was only recently when Nutrition Integrated​ founder Nick Morgan posted on LinkedIn his article entitled ‘The Death of Sports Nutrition?’​  that I picked up the phone to discuss this issue.

He so eloquently explained the same predicament I had faced but as he sees it as the founder and director of a data insights company for the sports and active nutrition industry.

“If a brand sells a 20g protein bar but has no history or heritage to sports nutrition does that mean it should be categorised as sports nutrition?,” ​he wrote. “That risks applying a stereotype not reflective of the consumer or why they buy the bar.

“Similarly, if a traditional sports nutrition brand offers a 20g protein bar, but communicates it as healthy snacking/confectionary – is that still sports nutrition? It probably depends on who is buying it. Albeit, if the product is no longer positioned as sports nutrition, why would the product be defined based on the brand not the proposition?”

His post concluded: “It’s the principles of sports nutrition that have gone mainstream, not the category per se. That is why the definition does not work in terms of data analytics. And that is why we’ve decided to stay away from the term altogether.”​ 

On calling him, he told me it was interesting to hear I had struggled with the same difficulty in my work.

“It’s a major issue,”​ he explained. “If you start saying ‘here’s a report or an article on sports nutrition’ but you don’t know how that person defines sports nutrition, then how relevant is that report to them?

“I've been in this industry for a long time now and I think it is really hard to define sports nutrition and if you asked 100 people to define it, you'd get a whole range of different answers.

“The purpose of the LinkedIn post was to highlight that the term isn’t relevant any more in bars. 

“We’re indoctrinated to the view that a 20 gram protein bar is a sports nutrition bar but the principles of sports nutrition have gone mainstream yet the category of sports nutrition hasn’t. People aren’t buying a bar because it is sports nutrition, in fact, they are buying it because they don’t think it’s sports nutrition!”

We came to the conclusion that we actually couldn’t define what a sports nutrition bar is.

All these new brands, like Barebells and Fulfil, have shrewdly and successfully picked up the principles of the sports nutrition bar, created a range with impressive flavour and texture, and started selling it to health conscious consumers in supermarkets, garage forecourts and airports, but the products have lost all connection with the core purposes of sports nutrition.

Nick asked me: “So much of the growth in the market is attributed to the growth of snacking and ready to eat and drink. Sports nutrition is getting bigger because of these trends but if those products aren’t being consumed as sports nutrition then is Sports Nutrition growing?”

What should sports nutrition brands do with this question in mind? Should they follow the trend and give their new product innovations a more mass market appeal with an ‘active nutrition’ focus or should they stay true to their principles and make sure their out-and-out sports/gym enthusiasts are catered for with true sports nutrition focused products?

Perhaps brands like Grenade and Sci-MX have provided the only sustainable answer. Both have created sub-categories to their brands. Grenade categorises its website into ‘active’, ‘energy’ (drinks), and ‘sports’, clearly offering bars, shakes, cookies and spread for the active consumer and ‘sports’ supplements for the hardcore audience.

Similarly, alongside it’s central sports nutrition products, Sci-MX now sells a Pro2Go range​ with ‘something for everyone’, including a protein flapjack that tastes like a ‘real flapjack’, gooey bars offering indulgent flavours, raw vegan plant protein bars with flavours like ‘beetroot and chia’, protein baked crisps and even low sugar protein coffees. 

And it’s not just bars. Protein powder has gone very mainstream and I wonder what percentage of those consumers are buying because it will help them maintain and build muscle through their workouts and how many are buying it because it’s a convenient way to replace a less healthy snack or small meal. Sure enough, a number of new brands have entered the market offering powders just for the latter. Even Tesco ​has created its own brand! 

So the question becomes, to what extent is this issue true of the broader category? And if it doesn’t encompass the whole category yet, will it soon? And while Nick and I can be sure that will make report writing harder, how much harder will that make life for those in the industry?

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