What’s driving the booming sports nutrition sector?

Young consumers aged between 16-24 and high earners are driving the exponential growth of the UK sports nutrition market.

Latest figures from market resaerch provider Euromonitor International show that the UK sports nutrition market reached £799m in 2017 – up 13% on 2016 and more than double the £350m recorded in 2012.

But what is causing the rise? BLM investigates.

The demand for sports nutrition products in the UK continues to soar, and as the market becomes ever-more mainstream, there seems little prospect of it slowing any time soon.

No longer is the market just about protein, there are a range of sports nutrition products which have hit the market place with success, such as Grenade who were launched in 2010 on a budget of just £27, before selling to Lion Capital last year for £72m; and Muscle Moose, who have a range of drinks, crisps and pancakes aiming to capitalise on an ever-growing market.

“I think that (broadly speaking) this growth is a good thing from a consumer perspective,”  David Rogerson, sports nutrionalist at the University of Sheffield,  explains: “This growth has led to interesting new products and innovations; greater choice for the consumer, competitive pricing and better access and availability.

“Sports nutrition was once very much the realm of athletes and bodybuilders, but it has now become mainstream and normalised for the average individual, not just an elite few.  We can see this in how products have developed, from those originally designed and marketed to do such things as increase muscle mass, boost performance and lose bodyfat (as many are still today) to lifestyle products that are designed to reflect and achieve dietary choices (food products, nutritional supplements, etc).

“A few years ago, products could only really be purchased from specialist shops, online retailers or in gyms; now we can even find them in supermarkets, newsagents, and more.”

This view is echoed by Marie Stafford, European Director at J Walter Thompson, she added: “Sports nutrition is no longer just the preserve of serious athletes or the bodybuilders at the gym.

“Increasingly, it’s shifting away from its performance origins towards the mainstream. It’s much more of a lifestyle category than it used to be, and consequently has wider appeal, not just with the growing numbers of everyday fitness enthusiasts but also with those just looking for healthier options to integrate into their diet.

“So, the market has grown its consumer base and consumption occasions too. Niche brands are now being challenged by protein-first offerings from big players like Mars, Muller and Kellogg’s to name a few.”

Social media impact

The rise of social media has clearly influenced the industry. With an increase in social media influencers and the always prominent impact celebrities have on day-to-day lives, especially for millennials, means that there is a conscious effort to look good and stay in shape.

One only needs to look at the impact of YouTube and Instagram, which has dedicated channels influencing large followings using, discussing and endorsing sports nutrition products.

Visual culture, especially among millennials is increasingly dominant, with more and more ‘gym selfies’ becoming more prominent – one gym in New Zealand has even opened a dedicated selfie room because so many people were documenting their workouts.

Speaking on the role that social media has had on the sports nutrition market, David explains: “I think that the rise in the market is multifactorial, but I suspect that there are a few key drivers at play.

“The rise of social media has clearly influenced the industry, and we can now go onto YouTube and or Instagram and find channels and influencers with large followings using, discussing and endorsing products.

“Quite often these same people become brand ambassadors, offer discount codes, etc. Social media has become a useful marketing tool for the industry.”

Exercise increases need for sports nutrition products

Coming hand in hand with the rise of sports nutrition is the growing emphasis on staying healthy and in shape, it’s no doubt that the rise of participation sports alongside health clubs and gyms have a part to play in accommodating the sports nutrition trend.

“Almost 10 million people are members of a fitness club according to industry figures,” Explains Marie. “There’s also been boosts for endurance sports like cycling and triathlons in recent years. And participation in high intensity workouts like CrossFit has grown rapidly too. There are also some long-term trends in play here: the focus on health and wellness, improved consumer understanding of personal health and nutrition, quantification and tracking of health performance and goals.

“These are all pushing consumers to reflect more deeply on their nutrition choices and seek those out that support wellbeing throughout the day. This is one factor driving the category closer to the mainstream everyday user and opening up new casual occasions for brands.”

David believes that there could be sociocultural aspects at play too.

He adds: “Data publicised recently indicates that fewer young people choose to undertake in risky behaviours such as drinking and smoking, and we know ethical consumerism has become an increasingly prevalent thing in recent years.

“Couple this with high-profile sports people and celebrities that espouse the health benefits of fitness, gym culture (as well as the aesthetic of looking a certain way) and wellbeing (who might also be sponsored by such companies) then it’s easy to see how Sports Nutrition has grown and become part of a narrative around health and wellbeing.”

Trends impacting the market

The vast numbers of products which have been launched in the sports nutrition market has exploded over the past few years, no longer are items just specifically for body builders or gym fanatics, the rise of products aimed at complimenting the overall diet has increased dramatically.

Husband and wife Alan (CEO) and Juliet Barratt (CMO), founded sports nutrition start-up, Grenade.  Speaking about the changes they’ve seen in the sports nutrition market, they explained: “The sector has changed a lot since we first launched.

“Long gone are the days of white medical looking tubs of protein. The sports nutrition industry has seen rapid growth over the last decade, and British consumers now spend £66m on active nutrition products every year.

“Popular confectionary brands are now creating protein-based versions of their chocolate bars to jump on the coattails of successful start-ups like ours, and the competition has undoubtedly become fiercer.

“We need to stay on our toes, which we do by keeping the brand fresh with new recipes and a more diverse product range that always sets the standard for the copycats.”

Claire Harper managing director of Harper Innovations, which owns the Muscle Moose brand, added: “Protein foods are no longer as niche as they once were.

“Protein is a key part of a healthy diet. It’s an exciting time for us as a business because we specialise in protein food and produce only the very highest quality products and have been doing for years.

“People are thinking about what they eat and when and protein fortified foods are playing a bigger part in those considerations than any time previously.

“There is a reason why you see billboard campaigns advertising the protein element of breakfast cereals that have been around for decades that have never mentioned it before – they know the demand is already there and they are playing catch up to the customer’s demands.”

Product proliferation

The array of products now available hasn’t gone unnoticed by industry experts, as Stafford explains specialised and targeted solutions are playing more of a key role in the market place.

Marie commented: “Everything from hydration, to recovery, to tackling cramps and so on is being targeted. At the same time, due to the wider pool of people buying into the sports nutrition category, there’s simultaneously more ‘everyday’ options popping up around breakfast and snacking occasions.

“The shift to vegan diets is gathering pace across the world with growing numbers adopting animal-free lifestyles for humane, dietary or even sustainability reasons. These consumers, many of them millennials, are understandably, demanding vegan alternatives in the sports nutrition and high-protein foods market too.”

A look to the future

With the sports nutrition industry showing no signs of slowing down, Marie believes there could be a rise in products aimed at women which will see the sports nutrition market grow even further.

She said: “I think we’ll see more products targeted at women. Men’s and women’s bodies function differently in many respects, so there are opportunities for ranges designed specifically for female athletes. Of course, ultimately, we’re on a path to greater personalisation and even individualised nutrition, based on personal health data, blood type or genetics. Elite athletes are already benefiting from these hyper-personalised nutrition regimes.

“The whole science around the personal microbiome is also fascinating. Your microbiome is your own unique community of bacteria which is thought to play an important role in health and wellbeing. I think we’ll see products which aim to optimise the microbiome for better athletic performance.”

On his thoughts about whether the market will continue to increase, Rogerson adds: “I think the sports nutrition sector will follow health trends and I suspect that we are likely to see increased interest in ethical and sustainably-sourced products.

“This reflects the growth of plant-based proteins in recent years, and I wonder whether we will see the further development of sustainably-sourced proteins that are not dairy based.  Similarly, I suspect that we will see further development of lifestyle products, whole-food products and products that are perceived to be more natural.  I wonder too whether we will see the further development of products that are derived from foods.”