KANSAS CITY — Product development in the sports nutrition category has featured isolates and additives precisely blended to fuel athletic performance and support muscle recovery. Emerging brands are embracing a back-to-basics approach, tapping into the natural properties of whole-food ingredients such as blackstrap molasses, pink Himalayan salt and tart cherries to deliver desired benefits.

“The category is flush with highly processed bars, gels, chews and drink mixes, which can be so tough on your gut, which then leads to performance constraints,” said Ryan Naboshek, co-founder and chief executive officer of Crafted Energy, Peoria, Ariz. “This drives athletes to look for cleaner, sustainable, tailored and functional nutrition.”

Crafted Energy markets a line of nutrition bars formulated for specific activities, including running, rock climbing and cycling. The products contain ingredients such as oats, nuts and seeds for sustained energy and agave and dried fruit for quick energy. Walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and tart cherries help reduce inflammation, and cashews and dates relieve muscle soreness. Cacao and cinnamon are added to increase blood flow. The recipes were engineered by a team of athletes, including a doctor of integrative and holistic medicine.

“It’s true athletes need sugar; that’s why these gels and drink mixes exist, to replenish glycogen stores,” Mr. Naboshek said. “The question I think people are asking now is, ‘What is the source of that sugar?’’'

Crafted Energy’s Runner Bar and Cyclist Bar were formulated for aerobic exercise, with a consistency that digests quickly. The Climber Bar has a coarser texture and was built to deliver slow and steady nutrition, Mr. Naboshek said.

“Climbing is an anaerobic sport,” he said. “It’s slower, more intermittent bursts of power, so we wanted to have something that’s going to digest slower over time so you’re getting the maximum utility out of your bar.”

Seventy-nine percent of consumers, exercisers and non-exercisers alike, are interested in food and drink that improves physical performance, energy or stamina, Mr. Naboshek said, citing GlobalData research. Nearly half of sports nutrition consumers try new or different sports or energy foods sometimes or often. For athletes, proper nutrition may provide a competitive edge, he said.

“You can train hours a day, but if you’re not fueling appropriately, if you don’t have the right nutrition dialed in, you can plateau to a certain extent, and people are looking to break that plateau by trying new products, new diets, new things that are going to help them reach that next level in their training,” he said.

Muir Energy gels

Gaining momentum

The “born-in-the-lab” positioning of Gatorade and similar longstanding brands in the category no longer resonates with today’s consumer demand for familiar foods. Recent cookbooks such as “No Meat Athlete” and “Run Fast Eat Slow” suggest a nourishing, plant-rich diet is key to achieving performance gains.

“You can accomplish everything you want as an athlete by eating real whole foods,” said Ian Muir McNally, founder and CEO of Muir Energy, San Diego. “You’ll feel better. Your body will recognize those ingredients and metabolize them more efficiently.”

An ultra-endurance hiker, Mr. McNally chomped on raw nuts, dried fruits and vegetables, and vacuum-packed salmon to sustain his energy during protracted treks through Sierra Nevada.

“I wasn’t using any synthetic additives for my fueling and found that really kept my stomach happy as I was moving along,” he said. “But what happened was my jaw got tired of chewing nuts and fruits, and my mouth would get really dry.”

Mr. McNally searched for a convenient, easy-to-consume option — a portable puree with “no synthetic additives, preservatives and stabilizers.”

“Nobody was making this, so I decided to make it myself,” he said. “I iterated in my own kitchen for half a year, and the first batches tasted horrible, and then they started tasting better. I was trying them out on trail runs, hikes, swimming, and eventually my friends caught on to what I was doing and were asking to try it.”

The company identifies the sports nutrition industry, a roughly $15.6 billion market, as “outdated, hypermasculine, unsustainable, unpalatable and unhealthy.” Many products are what Mr. McNally dubbed “high-glycemic hummingbird food.” Muir Energy aims to deliver performance products that are nourishing, inclusive and produced in an environmentally conscious way.

The brand’s gels are formulated with blackstrap molasses, raw coconut palm nectar and pink Himalayan salt. Slow-burning varieties also contain raw nut or seed butters, which metabolize slowly and fuel sustained activity. Fast-burning gels contain dehydrated fruits and vegetables, which deliver a quick shot of energy.

“I wanted to have products that were sweet or tart and other flavors that are savory,” Mr. McNally said. “We want to expand our product line, and we realize there are a lot of people out there who have adventuresome palates and don’t want to have the same flavor profile on their tongues all the time. One of our seasonal ones is sweet potato oregano, which is moving very far away from the standard ‘another peanut butter chocolate bar’ or Key lime pie thing.”

This summer, Muir Energy will add hydration mixes. The company also is on track to achieve carbon neutrality this year.

“We hope what we do and how we do it becomes inspiration for other brands,” Mr. McNally said. “We don’t want to steal market share; we want to invite people to follow us and expand the pie.”

Naked Nutrition powder

Nothing to hide

Prior to launching Naked Nutrition, Stephen Zieminski perceived most commercially available powders and supplements as highly processed and lacking transparency. A former college track athlete with a newfound love of weightlifting, Mr. Zieminski struggled to find nutrition solutions that met his standards for quality. He created a brand that strips away unnecessary sweeteners, flavors, fillers and marketing gimmicks, which he believes are widespread in the category.

Miami-based Naked Nutrition offers powders and supplements that are free from additives and artificial ingredients. Products include Naked Pea Protein, Naked Whey and Naked Collagen, all packaged in clear tubs. The core line of products contains single ingredients sustainably sourced. Naked Goat features goat whey protein sourced from pasture-raised goats on Wisconsin dairies.

“People are looking for cleaner sources of nutrition, whether it’s from the grocery store or in a protein supplement,” he said.

At the onset of the pandemic, Naked Nutrition saw a substantial sales increase among consumers concerned about muscle maintenance as gyms closed across the country, even as the coronavirus crisis delivered a setback in the cancellation of sports and fitness events, the brand’s biggest sampling and marketing opportunities.

“Once those things ramp back up we are going to have a much more aggressive sampling program to have people try the product for free and become aware of the Naked brand,” Mr. Zieminski said. “Our protein products, for example, getting those in gyms or Crossfit boxes and Crossfit competitions, and we have other products focused more around hydration, and those make sense for triathlons, cycling, swimming and running events.”

Over the past few years, the brand has added blends and flavored options sweetened with organic coconut sugar. The recently introduced Naked Greens combines six organic vegetables and grasses, plus prebiotics, probiotics and adaptogens. The company is set to launch a slate of new products this year, including a seed-based protein powder and a fiber supplement.

“Ideally we’re looking to be in people’s lives from the point they wake up to the point they go to bed,” he said. “That’s kind of the long-term vision for Naked, to have a product anyone can have at any point during the day. We have protein bars and cookies in development, as well, and we’re trying to become much more than a powder and supplement company.”