CHICAGO — From pre-teen athletes to aspiring 10,000-steps-a-day baby boomers, all types of exercise enthusiasts are seeking beverages to reap the most benefits from their efforts. Nutrition and hydration claims on sports nutrition beverages influence purchase decisions, while sensory appeal keeps them coming back for more.

A growing toolbox of sports nutrition ingredients is fueling innovation of beverages with varied flavors, consistencies and functional claims. Products may be designed for consumption before, during and after workouts, with hydration a shared attribute among applications. Pre-workout beverages tend to deliver a quick energy boost, while during-workout drinks offer lasting energy. Post-workout beverages provide recovery, replenishment and are reenergizing.

“They focus on muscle recovery and growth, along with replenishing essential nutrients lost during exercise,” said Anand Rao, vice president of ingredients innovation, Agropur Ingredients, La Crosse, Wis. “The energy is in the form of nutrient-dense calories that return the body to a sense of well-being.”

Paul Vraciu, general manager, Ascent Protein, Denver, which markets a range of pre- and post-workout beverages all containing dairy protein ingredients, said, “These beverages must be functional and provide consumers with an efficient, clean way to hydrate and recover.”

Ascent Protein’s pre-workout drink mix includes 150 mg of caffeine from concentrated coffee fruit extract for quick energy. Its newest product is ready-to-drink (RTD) Ascent Recovery Water, which contains 20 grams of fast-digesting native whey protein and 2.5 grams of naturally occurring leucine to trigger muscle protein synthesis. It contains 100 calories, no artificial ingredients and electrolytes for hydration.

“Recovery Water is a true, water-based beverage,” Mr. Vraciu said. “The primary ingredient is whey protein, the gold standard for post-workout muscle repair and recovery.”

Mr. Rao said, “The focus is on improved digestibility and absorption of protein from these beverages, while eliminating heavy mouthfeel of the beverages.”

Acid-stabilized whey protein isolate from Agropur is designed for formulating sports drinks that are clear and provide up to 20 grams of protein per serving. Hydrolyzed whey proteins with minimal bitterness are designed for beverages for post-exercise fast absorption, Mr. Rao said.

Arla Foods Ingredients, Basking Ridge, NJ, offers a range of whey protein ingredients, including hydrolysates, which are recognized for their ability to accelerate muscle recovery after exercise. This is the result of the ingredient’s specific amino acid composition and fast absorption rate.

“The bitter peptides contained in whey protein hydrolysates can limit their commercial appeal,” said Anne Louise Friis, business development manager – health and performance nutrition. “To address that, we offer a product that offers all the quality of regular whey protein hydrolysate but is 50% less bitter than comparable products with a similar degree of hydrolysis.”

Mr. Vraciu’s reference to whey proteins as the gold standard for post-workout beverages is a reference to research showing whey proteins may provide an anabolic advantage over other proteins during recovery. This benefit reflects its high levels of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine, which have been shown to stimulate the building of protein in muscle and possibly reduce muscle breakdown. Whey protein’s advantage is largely attributed to its high level of leucine, one of the nine essential amino acids. It is a fundamental amino acid for initiating muscle protein synthesis.

Merit Functional Foods, Winnipeg, Man., offers a lineup of plant proteins, which provide an alternative source of BCAAs, making them a good candidate for sports nutrition beverages, said Ryan Bracken, co-chief executive officer.

Merit’s proprietary extraction and purification process creates a highly soluble, flavor-neutral and odor-neutral pea protein and canola protein system that may boost protein levels without affecting sensory attributes.

“Our individual pea and canola ingredients provide high digestibility and complementary amino acid profiles, which is why together they open opportunities to boost the nutritional value of food and beverage applications even more than the ingredients on their own,” Mr. Bracken said. “With our technology, we are able to push protein to the 90% level and thus are in-line with a whey protein isolate. Because they have a neutral flavor, plant-based sports beverage manufacturers may reach their ideal protein level while reducing flavor modifiers used to improve palatability.”

Initial attempts at producing canola proteins using standard protein manufacturing processes resulted in products with a dark color and bitter taste.

“Merit’s process technology has allowed this product to become an ingredient in the developer’s toolkit,” Mr. Bracken said. “Canola has a slightly neutral taste, delivers premium solubility across the pH range and complements the amino acid profile of the protein blend in beverages.”

Max Maxwell, manager — market intelligence, Glanbia Nutritionals, Chicago, said, “Fortifying a beverage with protein remains the most desired addition to make it a sports nutrition beverage. Providing additional nutritional ingredients that meet the needs of sports nutrition consumers is gaining traction.”

Creatine monohydrate is one such ingredient. It is associated with increasing muscle strength and endurance.

“Creatine monohydrate has been a sports nutrition staple for years in ready-to-mix powders, but not in RTD beverages because of its instability in solution and inability to withstand high-heat processing conditions,” said Durrell Washington, senior product marketing manager at Glanbia.

Glanbia offers a soluble and stable creatine monohydrate specially designed for improved beverage performance. It is made with an encapsulation technology to improve dispersion and enhance stability.

Other functional ingredients are finding their way into sports nutrition beverages. Enhanced Recovery, for example, is a combination of stabilized omega-3 fatty acids in a matrix consisting of whey, collagen and sunflower seed proteins; black cumin oil, carnitine, vitamin D and high-antioxidant fruit juices.

“I wanted to create a nutritious product to help stimulate muscle repair and recovery after hard training,” said Janne Sande Mathisen, a food and nutrition scientist who studied and developed the beverage. “Knowing that omega-3 fatty acids were a crucial ingredient, after many years of testing, I found a way to incorporate and stabilize a lot of omega-3s in a great-tasting recovery beverage.”

Harry Drnec, CEO of the Houston-based parent company, Feliscity Nutrition, Inc., said, “Today’s elite athletes are keenly aware of the benefits of omega-3 fatty acids. They are widely recognized for their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties and have been shown to reduce muscle damage, soreness, stiffness and augment strength gains from resistance training."

The company is marketing Enhanced Recovery as providing a more complete recovery process.

“It supports the critical final step in the muscle recovery process: muscle repair and remodeling,” said Phil Marineau, chairman.

Ms. Mathisen said the Enhanced Recovery formulation was designed to empower athletes to improve their performance by increasing their ability to train harder, recover more quickly, adapt better and prevent injuries.

“The main differentiator is the high amount of unoxidized and stabilized marine omega-3 fatty acids,” she said. “The fish oil is kept stable in the juice drink, which is high in complex carbohydrates for energy and rich in polyphenols and other beneficial biocomponents. The drink delivers 20 grams of protein, primarily from whey proteins, and it contains 2 grams of the BCAA leucine.

“Carnitine is a compound that helps get fats delivered to the muscle’s mitochondria, the site of energy production. There have been a series of studies showing that carnitine may help in allowing the body to burn more fat during exercise and thus boost the body’s fat burning capacity and may help in other ways as well, like preventing protein breakdown.”

Emerging sports nutrition ingredients

Other functional ingredients are being pursued for use in specialized premium products. Eric Meppem, co-founder and commercial director, Pharmako Biotechnologies, Australia, said sports nutrition developers are starting to include nootropics into products. These are ingredients that may improve cognitive function, particularly executive functions, memory or motivation. Anti-inflammatories also are being included in more premium products.

One example is bioavailable curcumin, which has an anti-inflammatory effect and may assist with improved recovery. Another is palmitoylethanolamide, a fatty acid amide that supports joint health and a healthy inflammation response.

“Quercetin also lends itself to sports nutrition,” Mr. Meppem said. “It is a phytonutrient with antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Studies support claims of exercise recovery and enhanced performance, with recent studies investigating quercetin’s ability to enhance endurance capacity.

“Conjugated linoleic fatty acid supplementation is well recognized in sports nutrition, aiming to reduce body fat and possibly improve performance,” he said. “Other supposed benefits include improved lipid profile and anti-inflammatory effects that can reduce oxidative stress. Collectively, these mechanisms improve body composition and energetic metabolism.”

Some of the ingredients also may be included in pre-workout beverages. The formulations typically emphasize quick energy to give the consumer a boost to get up and go.

Cleveland-based Nooma, which is known for its namesake sports drink designed for intake during or after a workout, is now introducing an organic pre-workout beverage that should be consumed 10 to 20 minutes before a workout or any activity. The drinks are formulated with organic fruit juice concentrates and flavors and are slightly sweetened with stevia leaf extract.

“We carefully selected all of the ingredients in our organic pre-workout (beverage) to help you feel your best heading into every workout,” said Jarred Smith, founder. “There’s 120 mg of caffeine from organic green tea to provide a clean, no-jitter energy and a powerful blend of four adaptogens — ashwagandha, cordyceps, ginseng and maca — that help you focus and perform at your best.”

The sports drink is all about maintaining hydration during physical activity. It is about one-fourth coconut water, which contributes electrolytes without much sugar, and enhanced with Himalayan pink salt for additional electrolytes.

While caffeine often is used for a quick energy boost in the form of brain stimulation, nothing beats the natural energy of glucose to keep the body and brain functioning in a healthy manner, said Kyle Krause, product manager – functional fiber and carbohydrates, Beneo, Parsippany, NJ.

“Carbohydrates are extremely important in delivering energy in the form of calories to the body,” Mr. Krause said.

The company markets isomaltulose, a carbohydrate ingredient derived from sugar beet and found naturally in honey. It is a digestible disaccharide composed of glucose and fructose that offers an alternative to high-glycemic carbohydrates in sports beverages.

“It provides all the nutritional and physiological advantages of a fully digestible carbohydrate, however it does so in a low-glycemic way,” Mr. Krause said. “As a slow-release carbohydrate, it provides natural energy in a balanced way with less effect on blood sugar levels and insulin, thus eliminating the sugar spike and crash. It acts by increasing the fat-burning rate, or the proportion of overall energy production that comes from fat oxidation.”

Natural energy from the inherent sugars found in fruit juice is the basis of new Gatorade Juiced from PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, NY. The juiced-based sports drink contains the same level of electrolytes as regular Gatorade and is free of artificial colors, sweeteners and flavors.