CHICAGO — The sports nutrition market is no longer a niche sector. Rather, these specialty products are designed for appealing to a mass-market health-conscious lifestyle. Today’s shoppers seek out varied food formats — including baked goods — to get the nutrients they need to perform at their best.

“Like other food groups, baked goods are trending toward more nutritious formulations that provide multiple benefits, such as energy management, gut health, less fat, less sugar, fewer calories, added fiber, gluten-free and more,” said Jon Peters, president of Beneo. “Taking some sugar out while keeping the label clean is particularly challenging in baked goods. However, as in all categories where there is a consumer desire, new baked goods that qualify for the sports nutrition category will continue to be developed.”

Creating indulgent baked snacks that deliver proven health benefits will be key for bakers in this growing and evolving market.

Bigger, faster, stronger

Bakers are wise to be proactive players in the U.S. sports nutrition market, which was valued at $28.4 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $45.3 billion by 2022, according to Zion Market Research.

Sports nutrition is all about improving athletic performance. The target audience includes everyone from professional athletes to those looking for an energy boost. Products include foods, beverages and supplements specially formulated with macro and micronutrients that assist with overall health, performance and muscle development.

“When formulating for sports nutrition, the carbohydrate-to-protein ratio is important for someone who is looking to gain muscle mass,” said Jeff Reget, account manager of private label nutrition for Agropur Ingredients. “The protein will assist with the rebuilding of the muscles while the carbs will provide the refuel energy needed for the protein to build up the muscles.”

That target ratio is about 3-to-1, carbohydrates to protein. Baked goods have the carbs. With most products, it’s all about adding protein. The baked goods category includes a wide variety of finished products, so when producers want to add a sports angle, there are many opportunities such as refuel cookies and energizing muffins.

Sports nutrition protein balls“On the sweet side, brownies, cookies and cakes are a great place to start since they offer a familiar platform to add functional ingredients,” said Alison Raban, certified food scientist for BI Nutraceuticals. “And on the savory side, crackers, flatbreads and baked chips are other platforms consumers enjoy that can be formulated to include sports nutrition ingredients.”

Some of the newest products in baked goods have been centered on smaller bites or balls, giving consumers more control over how much they eat at a given time, Ms. Raban said. Smaller portions offer a convenient form of snack that consumers ma  enjoy at home, on a hike or on their way to the gym.

Additionally, the darker flavors from Maillard browning or the addition of chocolate and caramel help mask many off tastes associated with sports nutrition ingredients.

“The higher total solids content and firm body of many baked products makes them ideal vehicles to incorporate value-added nutrients with minimal impact on the overall sensory profile of the product,” said Jayesh Chaudhari, senior director of R.&D. solutions for Prinova USA. “In addition, a higher load of carbohydrates with fiber, good fat and protein may offer the advantage of covering off-notes from vitamins and the metallic taste from some minerals.”

Fueling innovation

When it comes to athletic fuel, protein content attracts many shoppers to a product because it is associated with increasing strength, building muscle, enhancing recovery, slowing age-related muscle loss, reducing appetite and more. Launches of sports-related products with a protein claim increased by 25.4% in 2016, according to Innova Market Insights. This trend shows no sign of abating.

Dairy proteins, which contain all the essential and nonessential amino acids, have long been the leader in helping brands introduce products that resonate with the fitness audience. Many sports nutrition products will include both types of dairy proteins: casein and whey. The combination of fast-digesting whey proteins with slow-acting casein proteins is essential for athletic recovery. Together, they provide a constant flow of amino acids and the essential nutrients needed to replenish a body and maximize post-workout recovery while building and repairing lean muscles.

Enjoy Life protein bites and Protes protein chipsIn general, dairy proteins in baked applications provide functional properties other than just fortification. This includes browning, water binding, increased viscosity, fat reduction and carbohydrate reduction. Dairy proteins may also replace eggs. There are many options to choose from.

Agropur offers a low-fat whey protein isolate that is free of sugar as well as carbohydrates. This product is frequently used as an egg replacer, partial flour replacer and partial fat replacer in baked goods.

“Whey protein hydrolysates make sense for sports nutrition as they are easier for the body to absorb over isolates or concentrates,” said Marissa Stubbs, account manager of bakery products for Agropur. “The long protein chains are broken down into smaller chains, allowing for easier absorption by the body.”

Milk Specialties Global offers a heat-stable whey protein concentrate that incorporates protein into baked goods, even sweet treats such as cookies and cakes.

“It can turn an ordinary cake formula into a protein-packed indulgence,” said Suvash Kafley, senior director of process and product innovation at Milk Specialties. “Not only does it add protein, but it also may create a more appealing label by helping to reduce fat in the formula. The proteins help maintain strong air cells that will not collapse throughout baking. This results in a cake with similar height and crumb structure as a full-fat formula.”

Baked goods make sense for sports nutrition because they deliver proteins different than beverage or bar formats that are popular among athletes and active lifestyles, said Michael Hiron, vice-president of sales at Milk Specialties.

Plant-based proteins, most notably from peas, rice and soy, are also gaining traction in sports nutrition, especially when used in blends to deliver a more complete amino acid profile. In baked goods that might be otherwise vegan, plant-based proteins help keep the vegan claim.

“Some of our most popular plant-based proteins are pumpkin seed protein and lentil protein as well as whole food ingredients like chia seeds and quinoa,” Ms. Raban said. “Formulators can easily incorporate these steam-sterilized powders into many different types of baked goods to deliver on consumers’ drive to add more plant-based protein to their diet.”

Lenny & Larry's Complete Cookie birthday cakeFor products looking to make gluten- or egg-free claims, quinoa may replace wheat flour, and chia seeds may substitute for eggs in baked goods, Ms. Raban explained.

Lenny & Larry’s markets individually wrapped baked goods loaded with protein and fiber. The company’s vegan Complete Cookie relies on vital wheat gluten, pea protein and rice protein to deliver 16 grams of protein per cookie. All three baked goods contain 5 grams of fiber.

More examples include Brooklyn-based Protes Protein Snacks, which offers vegan pea protein-based baked chips. Enjoy Life Foods markets poppable Protein Bites, which are also vegan, drawing their protein from rice and pumpkin seeds.

Balancing the scale

There is an entire spectrum of nutrients associated with sports nutrition, so it's impossible to pack them all into a single product and still deliver on taste. Identifying the product’s performance goal may help with nutrient selection. Managing blood sugar is one goal that may make workouts more effective and sustainable.

“Alternative sweeteners are redefining the common approach of the sports nutrition industry,” Mr. Peters said. “They shift the focus from carbohydrate and protein utilization toward improved blood sugar management and fat burning.”

Beneo offers isomaltulose, a low-glycemic sweetener made from beet sugar that occurs naturally in honey. It is fully digestible, and it provides full carbohydrate energy in a balanced and sustained way, eliminating the undesired “boost and crash effect” generally associated with other sugars.

“Isomaltulose provides natural energy in a balanced way with less blood glucose fluctuation and steadier insulin release, resulting in an improved metabolism,” Mr. Peters said. “This helps the body burn more fat for energy, which makes it an ideal carbohydrate in sports nutrition.”

Even natural caffeine makes sense as a source of energy. Studies show an average improvement in performance of about 12% with more benefits noticed during endurance exercise than with shorter exercise. This non-calorie stimulant, however, may exert a diuretic effect. Too much is never a good idea.

Sports nutrition protein muffins“Consumers often turn to caffeine before a workout to give an extra boost during workouts,” Ms. Raban said. “Many formulators prefer to use botanical ingredients that are natural sources of caffeine. This includes guarana, yerba mate, guayusa, kola nut and green tea.”

Beets are also a trending ingredient due to their naturally occurring nitrates that are converted to nitric oxide in the body. These nitrates have been associated with better workouts and recovery, Ms. Raban said.

Fiber is another nutrient that is often part of high-protein performance foods. Some provide additional benefits including sweetness, creaminess (fat mimetic), color and even texture.

“Many consumers don’t realize that high levels of protein can affect digestion,” Ms. Raban said. “Including fiber can help with some of the uncomfortable effects when consuming large amounts of protein.”

Inclusions are an easy way to add protein and other nutrients along with flavor, color and texture. Most baked goods benefit from their addition, as they add eye appeal that attracts the shopper.

“Inclusions can carry protein of any source, whey or plant-based, to add flavor in any baked good,” said Aaron Dare, global director for encapsulates and inclusions at Balchem. “Our inclusion line includes flavorful, high-fat options as energy sources that make sense for bars designed for keto and paleo diets, where you need energy without increased sugars.”

Balchem’s encapsulation technology protects heat-sensitive sports nutrition ingredients, enabling their use in baked applications.

“We offer a stable vitamin C for sports bars,” Mr. Dare said. “We offer multiple taste-masking capabilities that can help improve the flavor of vitamin B-complex and energy ingredients such as caffeine and guarana.”

More than muscle

Encapsulating minerals such as magnesium, iron, zinc and copper may assist in formulation, and they offer beneficial healthy attributes.

“These minerals are necessary for muscle building and repair,” Mr. Dare said.

Prinova offers functional market forms of vitamins and minerals, including customized blends for the fortification of baked goods.

Sports nutrition pumpkin seed bars“Some forms are more soluble and bioavailable than others and offer different taste profiles and stability,” Mr. Chaudhari said. “We design precise formulations choosing the most compatible market forms based on the finished product characteristics, processing conditions and regulatory requirements.”

While often focused on muscle health, athletes tend to forget the importance of managing their immune system. Sports nutrition products may be formulated to assist.

“The demands of working out can often predispose athletes to getting sick, which can throw off training,” said Michael Kemp, nutrition manager of North America at Kerry.

Kerry’s beta 1,3/1,6 glucan is extracted from the cell wall of a proprietary strain of baker’s yeast, and more than a dozen clinical studies demonstrate its ability to help strengthen the immune system. Several of these studies have shown the ingredient to help increase vigor and mental clarity while reducing fatigue, tension, confusion and upper respiratory tract infection after intense events, such as a marathon. The ingredient is stable to common baking temperatures and is largely neutral to taste in baked goods.

The best sports nutrition products are ones that are convenient or easily snackable. Many athletes are eating meals in non-traditional locations such as during a workout, at the gym or on the go to and from the gym.

“Making a sandwich between squat sets is not going to happen,” Mr. Kemp said. “Being able to integrate a food into the schedule of an athlete is of really high importance today.”