CHICAGO — Born in the lab and proven in the field. That is the narrative behind the world’s first official sports drink. The story goes that a University of Florida assistant football coach was concerned players were losing weight and experiencing extreme fatigue after a day’s practice. He worked with a team of medical researchers who discovered that the players’ lethargy was a result of fluid and electrolyte loss, along with insufficient carbohydrate replenishment after exercise.

One of the scientists — Robert Cade — formulated a precisely balanced carbohydrate and electrolyte beverage to assist the Gator players with recovery after sweating and exercise. They called the remedy Gatorade.

It has been more than 50 years since the debut of the sports beverage business, and much has changed. While hydration and energy replenishment continue to be important, protein has become a pivotal component of many sports beverages. Many are now designed to rehydrate, replenish and refuel.

This recharge design provides broadened appeal. No longer are athletes the only ones drinking the beverages. Active consumers aspiring to feel, look and perform at their best find these drinks attractive.

“The concept of active nutrition continues to develop as interest spreads beyond the traditional core base of bodybuilders, endurance athletes and high-level sportsmen,” said Lu Ann Williams, director of innovation, Innova Market Insights, Arnhem, The Netherlands. “Today, the sports nutrition beverage market is a mainstream category, and more consumers are seeking everyday health and fitness as a lifestyle choice.”

Innova Market Insights data showed that almost half of all U.S. sports nutrition launches in 2018 used claims related to “high” protein or “added” protein content.

Vade Nutrition protein powder pods“This was led by traditional sports powders, which accounted for more than 60% of all new product activity,” Ms. Williams said. “When it comes to market penetration figures, ready-to-drink protein sports drinks lead the category.”

While ready-to-drink beverages are convenient and portable, there remains a growing market for instant powders. In fact, the latter is proving to be a healthy space for innovation, as the long ambient shelf life of mix-or-shake-as-you-need sports beverage systems allows for high dosing of protein and the protection of incompatible nutrients through encapsulation. Marketers also are now offering powders in convenient, portable packaging.

That is what Vade Nutrition, Lansing, Mich., is focusing on. Joe and Megan Johnson, former college athlete spouses, founded the company in 2016. They developed patent-pending Vade Nutrition Dissolvable Protein Scoops. These protein powder “pods” solved a dilemma they faced often, which was remembering to scoop protein powder out of a canister into a container for later on-the-go use after working out.

“Getting to those early morning marathons and biking competitions has never been easier,” Ms. Johnson said. “The steps are simply toss (into liquid), shake and enjoy.”

The pods comes in chocolate and vanilla flavors, with one pod providing 20 grams of protein, including 4.4 grams of branched-chain amino acids, which are associated with promoting muscle health. They contain no fat or sugar. Sucralose, xylitol and sorbitol provide sweetness, while gums assist with mouthfeel.

“Each pod contains 90 calories and only 1 gram of carbohydrates,” Ms. Johnson said. “They are gluten- and lactose-free.”

BiPro protein product portfolio

Agropur Inc., Appleton, Wis., a wholly owned subsidiary of Quebec-based Agropur Cooperative, has given BiPro — a sports nutrition protein brand first introduced in 2004 — a new name and a new look. The Original BiPro is now BiPro Elite. The 100% whey protein isolate powder is made through an ion exchange process, taking care to remove impurities without denaturing the protein.

“BiPro Elite has no fillers, is rBST-free, offers a clean label, and is NSF Certified for Sport, making it the choice of world-class athletes around the globe,” said Corrie Drellack, director of marketing. “Providing 20 grams of pure, unadulterated protein per serving, BiPro Elite contains only naturally sourced flavors and sweeteners and is available in unflavored, french vanilla and chocolate.”

With the makeover also comes a new product concept: BiPro Bold, a mix providing 23 grams of protein per serving. The cold-filtered protein system is 70% whey protein isolate and 30% milk protein isolate, a blend designed to deliver both quick- and slow-digesting proteins. Coconut oil powder is a source of medium-chain triglycerides, which are recognized for breaking down fat in the body, while added chicory root fiber functions as a prebiotic for digestive health.

“Consumers are paying attention to what their body needs, and BiPro is there to provide convenient fuel options for individuals and families,” Ms. Drellack said. “Not only can BiPro Bold be enjoyed as a traditional shake or smoothie, but we encourage customers to get creative by incorporating protein into morning coffee, snacks and everyday foods.”

Arla sparkling protein waterArla Foods Ingredients, Viby, Denmark, is injecting some fizz into the sports nutrition category with an advanced 100% whey protein hydrolysate solution developed specifically to formulate ready-to-drink sparkling protein waters. It is fat- and sugar-free with a low bitterness profile. 

Sales of sports protein drinks increased by an average of 9.5% a year between 2013 and 2017 and are forecast to grow by 8.4% annually between 2018 and 2022, according to Euromonitor, London.

“Market conditions are ideal for launching sparkling protein waters targeted at sports nutrition users, a group of consumers who are always on the lookout for products that deliver high levels of whey protein in a convenient format,” said Joe Katterfield, health and performance nutrition development manager at Arla Food Ingredients. “However, for technical reasons — primarily related to issues around taste and bitterness — there are currently no sparkling protein waters on the market made exclusively with whey. This ingredient is a game-changer.”

What about sports nutrition beverages for vegans?

“Looking at protein; it’s been interesting to see some shift from traditional whey and dairy protein sources to plant-based sources,” Ms. Williams said. “This reflects rising interest in plant-based diets and flexitarian eating, and it’s evident across the food and beverage market as a whole, not just in sports nutrition.”

New Chapter, Brattleboro, Vt., is introducing vegan protein powder made with a blend of protein-rich mung beans and brown rice, along with whole-food seeds, including chia, flax and pumpkin, in order to deliver a complete amino acid profile. The company intentionally excludes pea and soy protein, to avoid the bloating often associated with peas and to not introduce the soy allergen into the powder mix.

Tohi Ventures aronia berry sports drinksOther plant components beyond protein provide benefits in sports nutrition beverages. Tohi Ventures, Kansas City, has introduced a line of aronia berry-based sports beverages.

Aronia berries are native to North America and were used historically for both their nutritional value and for medicinal purposes. Today they are being embraced for their high antioxidant capacity.

“We are advocates of a nutrition-first approach to wellness,” said Shari Coulter Ford, co-founder and chief executive officer. “We are pioneering innovation around our core ingredient, with the goal of optimizing the nutritional value and potential health benefits of aronia berries in our products.”

Tohi beverages are attracting the attention of collegiate and professional sports teams, including Iowa State University’s football team.

“I’ve reviewed the clinical and academic research citing the health benefits of aronia berries, especially relative to sports performance,” said Erin Hinderaker, sports dietitian at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa. “The ready-to-drink beverage is perfect for our fueling stations. Getting the athletes to drink a healthy beverage is also easier when it tastes great. We also appreciate that Tohi buys from Iowa-based aronia growers so we’re supporting the local farmers.”

Tohi beverages are 30% single strength aronia berry juice and 70% water. Tohi comes in four flavors — blackberry raspberry, dragon fruit, ginger lime and original — and contains no added sugars with a hint of monk fruit for sweetness.