Gone are the days that “sports drink” was synonymous with isotonic or when a post-workout refreshment was a cold brew. For some, these definitions remain, but for a growing number of consumers, sports drinks are all about providing energy, improving performance and building lean muscle.

“As a result of the rapid evolution — if not revolution — of the sports drink market, both consumers and perhaps even marketers may appropriately wonder ‘what makes a sports drink a sports drink,’” said David Sprinkle, research director at market research firm Packaged Facts, Rockville, Md., which recently published the comprehensive report entitled “The sports nutritionals market in the U.S.: Sports drinks and nutrition bars.” “Sports drinks now are geared more broadly toward the nutritional needs of athletes and physically active consumers before, during and after demanding exercise, and they are formulated with ingredients that range far and wide beyond the salts and sugars found in the traditional versions of sports drinks.”

The U.S. sports drinks market is returning to form after some setbacks from the recession — and this return has caused an evolution in product formulation. Powered by 77 million users, the market increasingly is segmented by the user, with intensity of exercise, time of consumption, gender and age influencing the formulation.

“There is more individualization and fragmentation in sports beverages,” said Caroline Brons, senior marketing manager, DSM Nutritional Products, Parsippany, N.J.

Packaged Facts estimates that U.S. retail sales of sports drinks will reach $7.4 billion by the end of the year, reflecting 6% growth from 2012. An important trend affecting the market is that between 2007 and 2012 the population of high-volume sports drinks users (those consuming eight or more drinks in the last 30 days according to Simmons National Consumer Study data) fell from 14 million to 13 million, and the number of sports drinks consumed by the segment dropped 5.4%. On the other hand, a significant increase in usage occurred among casual users. The number of consumers who report drinking one or two sports drinks in the last 30 days increased 7.1% between 2007 and 2012.

“Such demographic developments create both challenges and opportunities for sports nutritional marketers,” Mr. Sprinkle said. “Continuous innovation and spirited competition will spark growth.”

Packaged Facts expects that between 2012 and 2017, dollar sales of sports drinks will grow to $9.3 billion from $6.9 billion. This represents cumulative growth of 34.1%.

Currently, PepsiCo, Inc., Purchase, N.Y., with 74% share of dollar sales of the sports drink market, and The Coca-Cola Co., Atlanta, with 24% share, control the category. Other marketers are responsible for the additional miniscule 2% share of dollar sales. But it is these companies that are getting creative with formulations and developing products that appeal to specific consumer needs.

“To maintain uninterrupted growth in this segment, it will be important to engage new consumers and invest in innovation,” said Elsie Jamin-Maguire, business manager-beverages, BASF Nutrition & Health, Florham Park, N.J. “By providing more features, brands can expand on consumption occasions.”

For example, The University of Wisconsin-Madison Athletic Department decided to collaborate with the Center for Dairy Research and a Wisconsin whey processor and cherry processor to develop its own signature sports drink for the university’s student-athletes. Red Whey is a 100% tart cherry juice and whey protein clear beverage designed to relieve muscle inflammation and build muscle tissue after a hard workout.

“An interesting new beverage format is that of the liquid water enhancers,” Ms. Brons said. “Some of these liquid concentrate products are now being positioned for sports, offering the consumer an opportunity to add electrolytes — with their flavor of choice — to water.”

Ontario, Canada-based NutriBev Corp. soon will be rolling out an omega-3 fatty acid-enhanced sports water, which also will be loaded with potassium and B vitamins. The beverage is designed to hydrate and nourish sports-playing tweens and teenagers.

Fruit processor R.W. Knudsen Family, Chico, Calif., is going after the all-natural consumer, most likely the Little League mom who does not want her slugger consuming artificial colors and flavors. Recharge is based on fruit juice and contains no added sugars or artificial colors or flavors. The company’s web site states: “You go the extra mile. You push your body to the limit. And you know that fluorescent green is a color, not a fruit. Shouldn’t you enjoy an all-natural sports drink?”

Hydration first, energy second

In addition to hydration, the second main function of sports beverages is to provide energy. But unlike true energy drinks that rely on caffeine and other stimulants, the energy delivered via sports beverages usually comes from carbohydrates.

“When we exercise, we rely on our body’s storage form of glucose, called glycogen, for energy,” said Eric Ciappio, manager of scientific affairs at DSM. “However, glycogen stores are depleted quickly and once they are gone, performance can suffer. Sports drinks provide glucose to help give you energy as you work, helping you to maintain peak performance.”

Betsy Jones, research food scientist, Cargill, Minneapolis, added, “When it comes to sports drinks, consumers want great taste, hydration and energy in one convenient product. They want the kind of fuel that will stick with them throughout athletic events or exercise. Sucromalt can help formulators create sports drinks to answer that demand.”

Sucromalt is a fully digestible carbohydrate that delivers the full energy, in terms of calories, of sugar, but is more slowly digested and has a lower glycemic index.

“Its functional properties are similar to other sweetener syrups, yet provides steadier energy delivery,” Ms. Jones said. “Sucromalt is comprised of approximately 50% simple sugars compared to the 100% simple sugar content found in other common nutritive sweeteners, such as sugar, crystalline fructose and high-fructose corn syrup. The other half is complex carbohydrates, which have less impact on blood glucose compared to simple sugars because they are digested and absorbed at a slower rate.”

Morris Plains, N.J.-based Beneo Inc., offers isolmaltulose, an ingredient that also provides a sustained source of energy.

“Isomaltulose is derived from sugar beets,” said Joseph O’Neill, president and general manager. “It is a fully digested carbohydrate, but it is digested more slowly than other sweeteners. Being low-glycemic, it releases energy the balanced way without sudden peaks and drops of the blood glucose level.”

Isomaltulose also has been shown to promote the body’s own fat oxidation. This means that it increases the ratio of energy derived from fat relative to the total amount of required energy while active, leaving carbohydrate stores available for longer.

Muscle building

Probably the greatest evolution in sports drinks has been the inclusion of protein. Formulators must consider the quality of protein, in particular, the presence of the branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine, as well as overall amino acid absorption.

“Emerging research shows that whey proteins can provide an anabolic advantage over other proteins in promoting muscle protein synthesis,” said Bryan Helwig, director-nutrition research, Dairy Research Institute, Rosemont, Ill. “Whey protein’s advantage in building and maintaining muscle appears to be largely attributed to the high level of leucine in whey proteins. Of the nine essential amino acids, leucine is the key amino acid, or protein component, that initiates muscle protein synthesis.”

Shanna Smidt, business development manager-sports nutrition, Glanbia Nutritionals, Fitchburg, Wis., agreed that the benefits of increasing protein intake for sports performance are well known, especially for boosting muscle synthesis.

“We offer pre-acidified whey protein ingredients that allow manufacturers to fortify sports beverages with whey protein without the unpleasant astringent notes that are most common in high protein, low pH beverages,” she said.

The company also boasts a range of ingredients that contain high amounts of fast-absorbing BCAAs.

“Using advanced fractionation and separation technologies, we bind BCAAs to BCAA peptides isolated from fresh sweet whey to produce an ingredient with a 50% BCAA content in a 2:1:1 ratio of leucine, isoleucine and valine,” Ms. Smidt said. “This technology improves delivery of amino acids to muscle tissue, increasing utilization.”

Proteins used in sports beverages designed to support muscle regeneration need to be easily digestible and highly bioavailable to ensure efficient uptake, concurred Mai Nygaard, global product manager, Rousselot, Mukwonago, Wis. “Recent studies suggest the best approach is to blend different protein hydrolysates in order to achieve optimal timing of amino acid delivery to the tissues and support muscle anabolism.

“Collagen peptides are a high-purity protein source that naturally contains a high concentration of glycine, alanine, glutamic acid and arginine,” Ms. Nygaard said. “These amino acids are closely involved in the body’s energy supply and metabolism, and can therefore help boost athletic performance.

“The uniquely high levels of glycine and arginine found in collagen peptides can also encourage the synthesis of creatine, as well as stimulate the release of growth hormones from the pituitary gland, which may support performance gains. Further, an extensive body of scientific evidence has demonstrated collagen peptides’ ability to promote healthy and flexible joints and ligaments, as well as reduce pain.”

DSM offers a patented peptide formulation that has application in sports beverages.

“This protein hydrolysate has been proven to enhance exercise endurance, performance and recovery,” Ms. Brons said. “The ingredient contains all 20 amino acids in the same natural balance as in casein, but with virtually no lactose or fat. This ingredient delivers amino acids in the form of di- and tri-peptides, molecules so small they do not need further digestion in the body so they can be absorbed faster and delivered directly to the muscles.”

Mr. Ciappio added, “This efficient amino acid delivery is of specific importance during intense physical activity muscle breakdown, or catabolism, can occur, especially during prolonged exercise. Delivering these amino acids quickly protects the muscles during exercise and kick-starts the recovery process after exercise.”

Power partners

Sports drinks also are addressing other areas, such as joint health, visual acuity and antioxidant support, said Mr. Ciappio, all often with a clean, preferably natural label profile.

“We carry a broad portfolio of what we refer to as ‘power partners,’” Ms. Brons said. “This includes antioxidants such as vitamins C and E, beta-carotene and coenzyme Q10. These antioxidants protect cells against oxidative damage from exercise.”

Good vision is essential in numerous sports, but many athletes are unaware that nutrition has an impact on this critical skill, explained Ms. Brons.

“Lutein and zeaxanthin have been shown in human studies to enhance contrast acuity, reduce glare disability and protect against damaging effects of short-wave light,” she said.

Mr. Ciappio added, “B-Vitamins participate in energy production and amino acid metabolism, while omega-3s are known to have beneficial effects on heart health, and proper heart function is critical for the athlete. Also, the anti-inflammatory actions of omega-3s are relevant to exercise.”

Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) also is finding a place in sports drinks.

“CLA has been shown to reduce body fat, while building and maintaining lean muscle,” Ms. Jamin-Maguire said.

Eric Fan Chiang, global business director-active nutrition, DuPont Nutrition & Health, Madison, Wis., said that high-purity anhydrous betaine may improve physical performance, especially strength, power and muscle endurance.

“Derived from the molasses of sugar beets, betaine, also known as trimethylglycine, is inherent to many healthful foods, such as whole grains, spinach and beets,” he said. “DuPont’s natural betaine has been the subject of a range of studies indicating health and performance benefits.”

With so many power partners, as well as basic sports beverage building blocks, the category will continue to experience growth through formulation segmentation.