Women's health and plant protein in sports nutrition spotlight

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

Getty | Jacoblund
Getty | Jacoblund

Related tags Sports nutrition Innovation Plant Protein

With plant-based protein and women's health continuing to provide ample innovation opportunity in sports nutrition, industry experts have discussed the key challenges facing new product developers.

Speaking as part of a panel within Vitafoods Europe's online conference​ taking place this, and next, week (May 1-12), Dr Susan Kleiner, founder and owner of High Performance Nutrition LLC, and Nick Morgan, director at Nutrition Integrated, gave their perspectives on the sports nutrition market today.

Dr Kleiner argued the category is built around two key pillars: growth, being all about building the body up with the right macronutrients; and anti-inflammation, which is about supporting the body to avoid and recover from stressors that tear the body down. Both of which, she argues, are underpinned by a foundation of gut health.

Morgan discussed the mass market appeal of this category and the confusion this can create for innovators, saying: “In the grand scheme of things it’s a good thing, from an industry perspective, but it challenges the brands in terms of who their audience is.”

NutraIngredients Europe will host its newly branded Active Nutrition Summit​ in Amsterdam from October 9-11.

An evolution of the brand's prominent annual Sports & Active Nutrition Summit, this year’s event will provide delegates with insights into the increasingly holistic and mass market view of sports nutrition, from some of the leading names in the industry.

Content pillars will cover all the hottest topics in the industry today, including: cognitive health, women’s health, life-stages nutrition, and personalisation. 

Trying to provide some guidance here, he posed that an elite person will always drive towards products specifically for performance, whereas the mass market consumer will be driven by convenience. 

“As you become more food and convenience orientated, that naturally moves the product towards an active consumer rather than an elite athlete. Convenience foods are also seen as a way to bring the mass market into the sports nutrition market because it creates an easier transition product.”


Discussing the ‘building up’ pillar, Dr Kleiner pointed out protein is a clear necessity with consumers requiring about 2g per kg per day, or sometimes more.

Morgan added that protein powders is the "primary pillar" in terms of revenue for many sports nutrition brands and therefore that’s where a lot of the innovation happens.

A big area of innovation within this, is plant protein. Whilst traditionally, dairy has been the driver and seen as the gold standard of protein, Morgan said the industry is now thinking about being a lot more inclusive to all consumers so there’s been a lot of research and development in this space.

As a result many of the stumbling blocks previously associated with plant protein sources – flavour and texture – have been knocked down in recent years.

He added that the ‘range architecture’ of plant protein is also so much simpler than that of whey, with fewer products to choose from and fewer sub-categories. This makes plant protein a stepping stone into the category for some shoppers.

“In a way this confusion can act as a barrier to the market. Plants are much more straight forward, making it easier for people to buy into.”

Dr Kleiner added that any athlete who needs to consume large amounts of protein throughout the day can also benefit from changing up protein sources.

“Working with strength athletes, in particular, who might supplement protein more than once during the day, were previously getting a lot of dairy protein.

“Getting a plant protein that is fairly soluble and has a good distribution of amino acids, alongside a whey protein, allows for variety in supplementation so it is an exciting time I think.”

Women’s health

Discussing the innovation opportunities in women’s health, Dr Kleiner explained that the biggest issue with this audience is energy intake and getting the fuel required for optimal performance.

“Sometimes a female athlete unwittingly doesn’t eat enough. Often they are on the top of their game, competing against other female athletes who also aren’t getting enough calories so they’re on an even playing field. They come into my office and I tell them they are 1,000 calories a day below where they need to be. And that is very common, almost every elite female athlete I have worked with has this issue.

“We can often rectify that by using carb supplements around exercise to help fuel training.”

She explained that whilst many female athletes will still be able to perform at a top level, if they are not adequately fuelled “the rest of their bodies will ultimately start to break down”.

Products packaged in a way that a female athlete enjoys consuming them is important as this audience will not generally consume something that she doesn’t enjoy consuming, advised Dr Kleiner, adding: "Often it can be hard to get in enough protein too so this is an important macro-nutrient to innovate with".

In terms of micronutrients, she noted that female athletes are regularly deficient in iron and this can be difficult to supplement without impacting the gut.

What's more, vitamins D and B6 are very important, particularly in this audience.

Discussing the importance of education around adequate body fuelling, she added that there is a societal issue in that women feel they need to maintain a smaller frame.

“The athlete that knows part of her pay check comes from the way she looks comes with the potential for restriction,” she warned.

Morgan added that if there’s ever an area where the integration of personalisation and technology can help an audience, he would choose women’s health.

He added that there are two key questions that brands are currently asking themselves: whether they should build products specifically for this audience or concentrate on educating female consumers to hep them choose the correct products from their standard range; and whether females really want to purchase from a brand specifically focused toward women.

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