CHICAGO – An evolution took place during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic in the sports nutrition sector. While there remains a niche for formulations that help athletes with fueling, hydration and recovery, the category now includes foods with functional ingredients that improve overall well-being while assisting with weight management, mental health and healthy aging. This active nutrition sector presents an opportunity for bakers to offer convenience products that are easy for consumers to incorporate into their daily routines, but they must be enjoyable.

“Healthy indulgence is a strong position as consumers are always looking for a way to enjoy the treats they love with more nutritional benefits,” said Sophie Lauer, key account manager, NZMP, Ingredients by Fonterra.

Aaron Martin, director of nutrition innovation, Agropur, noted that sports nutrition and active nutrition can include a variety of baked goods to help meet the nutrient needs for active individuals.

“Baked goods are an excellent way to deliver tasty, fun, on-the-go nutrition,” he said.

Any type of bar, muffin, cookie or cracker may function as a delivery vehicle of performance nutrition. While protein — traditionally dairy protein — is typically the key nutrient in these products, there are many other performance ingredients that may be incorporated. Most will have an impact on taste and texture, so careful selection is paramount.

“The biggest consumer turnoff is the lack of taste and flavor in sports nutrition products,” said Joanie Zhang, technical services manager, Asia, Agropur. “The sports nutrition consumer has evolved from ‘I will consume anything if it helps my body’ to ‘I will consume it if it tastes good and has clean, natural ingredients and is good for my body and my environment.’ If product formulators are not paying attention to these changing needs of consumers, they will not be able to design successful products.”

Starting with protein

Those who exercise regularly, especially athletes, have specific nutritional needs. This is because performance and recovery may be influenced by the nutritional composition of the daily diet.

“Consuming adequate amounts of protein is critical for supporting health and performance,” said Eric Ciappio, strategic development manager, nutrition science, Balchem.

People must consume enough protein to maximize its impact, Mr. Martin said.

“It’s important to achieve a high enough protein target for sports recovery, either multiple servings of lower amounts of protein (10 grams) or a single serving of a higher level of protein (20 to 30 grams),” he added.

Numerous studies show that high-quality protein, most notably from whey, better stimulate muscle protein synthesis at rest and following resistance exercise. This is because whey is quickly digested and helps immediate protein synthesis by stimulating muscle growth and recovery. Casein protein provides similar effects in terms of muscle growth but is more slowly digested, providing longer-lasting protein synthesis.

According to Donald Layman, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, data indicates all humans need about the same amount of dietary protein every day for basic lean muscle repair and remodeling. To reap other benefits one must consider the quality and quantity of the protein at every meal, in particular, breakfast.

Research suggests that every meal should include 30 grams of high-quality protein, including protein that is high in the branched-chain amino acid (BCAA) leucine. This is the amount needed for the body to function at its best. Of all the ingredients available to food and beverage manufacturers, whey protein isolate contains the most leucine: 11%. Milk protein concentrate comes in second at 9.5%, followed by egg at 8.8%.

“Whey proteins are always one of the top ingredients to consider when talking about sports nutrition, for the purpose of muscle building and post-exercise recovery,” Ms. Zhang said. “It is high-quality complete protein, rich in BCAAs that are extremely important for sports nutrition. In addition, consumers are recognizing that proteins from milk and whey have superior digestibility and amino acid composition, compared to alternative proteins. They are consuming proteins from milk not only for their nutrition but also to improve the body’s immune functions.”

These ingredients also offer a complementary, versatile flavor for bakery applications.

“There are specialty heat-stable whey proteins that allow for more protein to be added without drying and chewiness coming through,” Ms. Lauer added.

One complete dairy protein is NZMP Milk Phospholipids 70. Clinical studies show phospholipids improve stress management and resilience in adults.

“Our high phospholipid whey protein concentrate has the protein behavior of regular whey protein, including some heat-set characteristics that are similar to egg protein, which is often helpful if replacing egg in a formulation,” Ms. Lauer said.

Protein remains a huge draw in the sports nutrition space as consumers associate the nutrient with many positives, including muscle-building, weight management, satiety and recovery speed, said McKenna Mills, senior technical services specialist, bakery, Cargill. While soy and whey proteins remain widely popular in formulations, alternative plant-based proteins are gaining ground.

“Pea protein, in particular, is well-suited for sports nutrition applications,” Ms. Mills continued. “It offers very good protein content and is high in leucine. While pea protein contains all the essential amino acids, it is not a complete protein because two of the amino acids, methionine and cysteine, are present in relatively low amounts. To compensate, formulators can blend pea protein with a complementary protein source to make complete protein claims. Another option is to add extra pea protein to hit the target protein claim.”

Proteins may impact texture, volume, shelf life and more. Careful selection is important to manage water absorption issues.

“Using protein blends is often the key, countering high-absorbing (binding) proteins with low-absorption (plasticizing) proteins,” Ms. Mills said.

Other essential nutrients

“As protein is the building, recovery and structural nutrient, carbohydrates are the energy solution,” Mr. Martin said. “Anyone with high activity needs adequate levels of carbohydrates to sustain activity. Our brain alone uses 20% of our daily calorie consumption in the form of carbohydrates. Carbs are also the energy form of choice for active muscles.”

Not all carbohydrates are created equal. Isomaltulose, for example, is a low-glycemic carbohydrate sourced from sugar beet that provides full carbohydrate energy in a more balanced way. It works well in baked goods.

“It supports energy and mood due to its slow release of glucose, which avoids the typical sugar spike and crash,” said Kyle Krause, regional product manager, functional fibers and carbohydrates, North America, Beneo. “Isomaltulose can be easily used instead of sugar, gram for gram, in many snacks like baked goods and other grain-based products. It provides a slow release of energy, leading to a more balanced energy supply for the body without giving up the technical or sensory effects of sugar in the baked good.”

Isomaltulose has been shown to provide other benefits, such as increased fat burning and support of weight management. It has also been observed that the carbohydrate energy provided by isomaltulose can support memory and enhance mental well-being.

“It provides a natural sweetness approximately half that of sucrose, along with similar texture benefits as sucrose,” Mr. Krause said. “With a very low hygroscopicity, isomaltulose also helps to prolong shelf life, particularly for sweet goods’ glazes/icings, and thus also for the sweet goods themselves.”

Protein and carbohydrates may loom large for those interested in rebuilding muscle and having sustained, stable energy, but other nutrients are important too.

“Iron is an essential mineral that supports healthy red blood cells and physical performance,” Mr. Ciappio said.

Studies show that athletes experience greater iron loss on a daily basis compared to the general population, and the Institute of Medicine states that those who exercise regularly require 70% more of it.

“Iron deficiency, particularly among women, is one of the most common nutritional deficiencies in the country, impacting nearly one in 10 American women aged 20 to 49 years,” Mr. Ciappio said. “This is why ensuring adequate intakes of iron is critical for athletes, particularly female athletes.”

Maintaining bone health is important to prevent injuries in physically active people. Fortification with tricalcium phosphates provides calcium and phosphorus, nutrients that promote tissue and bone health.

“Tricalcium phosphate fortification can be part of a larger blend of mineral ingredients or by itself,” said Amr Shaheed, technical service manager, food applications, Innophos Inc.

Making nutrients available

It isn’t just about fortifying products with all of these nutrients. Formulators must also make them readily available to the body to absorb.

“One overlooked aspect of nutrition is that of bioavailability, which can be impacted not only by the specific nutrient form, but also the presence of compounds in foods that may limit absorption,” Mr. Ciappio said. “So called anti-nutrients, such as phytates and oxalates, are commonly found in plant-based foods that are often popular among athletes.”

Phytates, for example, may impact iron absorption. According to a study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, just 10 mg of phytate decreased iron absorption by 60% in human trials.

“There are several options for minerals that are manufactured to be more bioavailable than traditional products, either via patented production methods or by adjusting the carrier,” said Jenn Adams, business development manager, International Food Products Corp. “Medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) oils also have their place in baked goods and snacks for the sports nutrition market. Made popular through the keto diet market, MCT oil offers many potential health benefits.”

According to scientific studies, MCT oils promote weight loss and reduction of the body’s fat mass. And as a fat, it has a role in energy, satiety and joint, organ and brain health.

“MCT-based products have become quite popular in the performance category,” said Shannon Washington, marketing manager at Balchem. “We offer lipid-based powder systems that utilize MCT oil. Dry powder-based lipid systems allow for a greater percentage to be incorporated into the formula versus only using liquid oils. We also offer lipid-based powder systems with added protein, like chickpea protein and pea protein.”

As health becomes more central and consumers become more mobile, demand for these types of products is only expected to grow.

“Sports and healthy eating go hand in hand,” Mr. Krause said. “A key element for active consumers is to find foods that provide them with energy in a balanced way. We will continue to see the rise of ‘sportification’ of many on-the-go foods like baked goods and snacks, providing functional benefits beyond the original item.”

Such “sportification” appeals to busy consumers who are active all day and need proven nutrition to maintain performance. These foods fuel their days, both physically and mentally.

“The future of sports nutrition in baked goods centers around understanding the true need of active and sports nutrition consumers,” Mr. Martin concluded. “This means more complete nutrition and calories. Protein is the cornerstone, but carbs, fats, fiber and vitamins and minerals are all important and will play a larger role. Expect to see more bars, muffins and other products that offer higher clean calorie content to fuel performance versus the low-carb, low-calorie approach that may not always provide enough building blocks for active consumers.”