A response to the health and wellness trend is often cited as a reason food and beverage manufacturers are interested in the sports nutrition category, but there is another reason — consumers participating in the category tend to have higher educations, more income and, more importantly, more disposable income. In a market that has been dominated by the value trend for the past few years, consumers of sports nutrition products stand out as a lucrative target market.

The main demographic that sports nutrition used to cater to comprised bodybuilders and extreme athletes, according to the market research firm Euromonitor International. But growing consumer awareness and education made sports nutrition accessible to the mainstream consumer and sales of sports nutrition products are growing as products are diverging to meet the needs of these athletes.

Every two years the trade association Running USA, which represents businesses participating in the running industry, conducts a survey of the group’s core customer. Published this past April, the 2013 survey, which incorporated responses from more than 30,000 runners, showed that today’s core runners are highly educated, with 76% having earned a college degree, and affluent, with 73% reporting a household income of more than $75,000.

Not surprisingly, the Running USA survey also showed runners to be frequent consumers of Gatorade, Clif Bars and energy gel products, but they have an indulgent side and cited McDonald’s, In-N-Out Burger and the Cheesecake Factory as among their favorite restaurants and Ben & Jerry’s as their favorite ice cream brand.

Gatorade leads the way

With its Gatorade brand, PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., is a leader in the sports nutrition category. Indra Nooyi, chairman and chief executive officer of the company, said on April 18 in a conference call with financial analysts to discuss the company’s first-quarter results that she feels “very good” about the sports nutrition category.

“In Gatorade, we are playing a sports nutrition game between Gatorade juice, Gatorade hydration and Gatorade recover,” Ms. Nooyi said. “As a system, that business is doing well. We are staying very true to our premium sports nutrition positioning. We continue to play the game that way. We are beginning to gain share in sports nutrition, even though we had low price competition come in with really aggressive pricing.

“We held our ground and we are beginning to gain share. So, we feel very good about our sports nutrition strategy.”

PepsiCo first began refocusing its efforts on the Gatorade brand in 2010, when the company adopted a more holistic approach to sports hydration and nutrition. The result was the G Series, developed by the Gatorade Sports Science Institute with two focuses in mind: getting the body ready for exercise and helping the body recover afterward. Each portion of the series is designed to help athletes compete before, during and after athletic events.

The G Series includes Prime, a pre-performance drink in a pouch; Perform, a sports drink containing electrolytes to promote hydration; and Recover, a post-performance beverage.

Many of the G Series products have been successful. Others, such as G Fit, which was pulled from shelves late last year, have not.

Protein, amino acid and …?

In its report “Sports nutrition in the U.S.,” that was released in late April, Euromonitor said on-the-go sports nutrition product formats such as ready-to-drink beverages, bars and powders showed substantial growth in 2012. The market research firm added that ready-to-drink beverages are expanding into more retail channels and achieved $502 million in sales during 2012.

It may be argued that the trend toward consumers adding protein to their diet began in the sports nutrition category as athletes turned to protein to add muscle mass and aid in recovery following a workout. Euromonitor said that as protein is being marketed as a recovery product, it has been positioned by some marketers as a meal replacement option.

“This resulted in a growing number of women to adopt protein as it has wiped away the notion that protein simply builds muscle mass leading to bulkier frames,” Euromonitor said. “Additionally, as older generations are also using gyms more frequently, they are slowly learning more about the positive benefits (of protein), which has been incorporated into their gym regimes.”

Developing protein fortified products for women was the rationale for CytoSport, Inc., Benicia, Calif., the processor of Muscle Milk, to introduce Evolve earlier this year. Evolve is a protein shake aimed at women who are interested in sports nutrition products.

“Women today find themselves balancing combinations of careers, social and family life,” said Nikki Brown, chief marketing officer for CytoSport. “As a working mother of three, I can identify. Evolve is a delicious, low-calorie, protein-enhanced complement to an active, healthy lifestyle.”

The shake is sweetened with stevia, cane sugar and monk fruit, and features Tonalin CLA, an ingredient supplied by BASF that improves body composition. The CLA (conjugated linoleic acid) is a polyunsaturated, conjugated fatty acid that is a natural part of the diet that is found primarily in meat and dairy products.

Protein will remain a fixture in the sports nutrition market, said Shanna Smidt, business development manager for sports nutrition from the ingredient business of Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, Wis.

“In my mind it is overwhelming to see the transition protein has made in the market, and it’s not just sports nutrition anymore,” she said. “People want to get more protein in their diet and we are starting to see more mainstream products such as Naked Juice and Special K beverages feature protein. On top of that is the growth of Greek yogurt.”

Beyond protein, Ms. Smidt sees amino acids as an emerging ingredient in the sports nutrition category.

“It can be delivered faster than intact protein,” she said. “We are primarily seeing it in powders, but it is also starting to show up in some beverages.”

CytoSport sells Monster Amino powder, which is a concentrated formula the company said may increase muscle growth. Musclepharm, Denver, markets Amino 1, which the company describes as the “athlete’s cocktail” that provides hydration and aids in recovery.

“Amino acid is a market that is growing,” said Brent Peterson, research manager for Glanbia Nutritionals. “All of the major brands are coming out with amino acid products, because of the link between muscle building and recovery.”

Both Ms. Smidt and Mr. Peterson see the recovery portion of the sports nutrition market gaining more attention.

“Everybody still talks about recovery, because it is a big issue,” Ms. Smidt said. “I think it may grow more as these high intensity interval training workouts become more popular. People are pushing themselves really hard and that will mean proper nutrition for recovery will become more important.”

Delivery of ingredients to the body is an area of sports nutrition that is emerging, according to Mr. Peterson.

“In the sports nutrition area we have had a lot of interest in branded nutrition that improve the delivery of ingredients,” he said. “The question everyone is trying to answer is ‘how can we deliver ingredients so they are more bio-available?’”

Glanbia markets Pepform Leucine Peptides that contain high levels of leucine-rich peptides isolated from whey proteins to deliver the amino acid L-Leucine in a soluble and bio-available form.

“It is more soluble and better utilized by the body than free-form amino acid,” Mr. Peterson said.

Euromonitor predicts the demand for sports nutrition products is going to continue growing, because of public awareness around the relationship between diet, exercise and illness prevention.

“Exercise is seen as a part of supporting healthy living and as more consumers are looking toward self-medication that same mentality carries over into individual management over sports nutrition,” the market research firm said.