KANSAS CITY — With the sports nutrition category pushing further into the mainstream, formulators are putting a greater focus on flavor choices to deliver a competitive edge.

Sports nutrition products traditionally have been sold largely on efficacy, with taste often a secondary consideration. While health aspects and cost remain the top purchase drivers for consumers, 41% of sports nutrition shoppers consider flavor to be an important factor, according to a report from Innova Market Insights. The company found millennials are the most likely to include sports nutrition products in a typical grocery basket and are the most adventurous consumer group when it comes to flavor.

Coffee flavors are being used to enhance energizing profiles, according to the report.

Berkeley, Calif.-based Gu Energy Labs, a maker of sports nutrition energy gels, offers an espresso love flavor. The product features 40 mg of caffeine plus essential electrolytes and branched amino acids to help decrease muscle damage.

Caramel macchiato and coffee flavors are featured in Oikos Pro high-protein dairy products from Danone North America,  Broomfield, Colo. Packaged in both snackable cup and drinkable bottle formats, the products were designed to support strong muscles and bones. The company in January launched Silk ULTRA, a plant-based beverage geared toward athletes who are incorporating more plant protein into their diets and training regimens.

“When considering flavor options, the Silk team chose espresso as one of its single-serve format flavors,” a spokesperson for Danone said. “Silk ULTRA Espresso offers the benefits of high-protein for muscle maintenance and caffeine for energy, offering 100 mg of caffeine per serving. In addition to the caffeine benefit, Silk chose espresso as a key flavor given consumer preference for coffee as a top flavor in single-serve high-protein products.”

Fruit and citrus flavors also are being used to enhance energy and hydration profiles, according to the report.

PepsiCo Inc., Purchase, NY, uses the natural energy inherent in sugars found in fruit juice as the basis of its Gatorade Juiced line. Available in mixed berry, apple raspberry and citrus berry punch varieties, the product features the same level of electrolytes as regular Gatorade.

Chicago-based Goodsport harnesses electrolytes, vitamins and carbs from milk to create its flagship sports nutrition beverage, which comes in lemon lime, fruit punch, berry and citrus varieties.

“Flavor is absolutely critical, as athletes and active people must find the taste appealing and enjoyable in order to consume the product at a level that will support their hydration needs,” said Michelle McBride, chief executive officer of GoodSport. “We launched with four flavors that research has shown people find most appealing when they are hot and sweaty and in need of hydration — and which we were able to produce with all-natural ingredients to achieve the desired thirst-quenching and delicious taste.”

Hybridization is another trend, with protein-rich products becoming more widely available under familiar coffee and dairy brands. In addition to the Oikos Pro and Silk Ultra lines that are geared toward athletes, Danone North America offers ready-to-drink protein-infused coffee under its SToK brand.

Companies also are opting for licensing deals for the use of their flavors and brands by existing sports nutrition specialists. Bodybulding.com, Boise, Idaho, last year introduced Hostess Twinkies and Hostess Chocolate CupCakes flavored protein powders under its Remix Nutrition brand.

Dallas-based Dymatize Enterprises teamed up with Post Holdings for its Cocoa Pebbles and Fruity Pebbles flavored ISO100 protein powder. The collaboration gives consumers “the chance to enjoy the unmistakable, classic flavor of Pebbles cereal that they have come to know and love in a different form,” said Leah Broeders, head of partnerships and licensing at Post Consumer Brands.

The COVID-19 pandemic is shaping flavor choices around immunity. Immunity claims in sports nutrition launches increased from 7% to 12% in 2020, supported by flavors like green tea, honey, ginger, citrus fruits and berries, according to the report.

Meanwhile, the trend toward comfort foods during the pandemic is driving nostalgic and indulgent flavors. PepsiCo is revamping its Evolve brand of active nutrition products with new double chocolate- and vanilla bean-flavored plant-based nutrition shakes and protein powders. The company also is tapping into the berry flavor trend with a berry medley variety and the coffee flavor trend with a café mocha variety.