Unlike most food and beverage sectors, sports nutrition is traditionally sold largely on efficacy rather than taste, with flavor often a secondary consideration. As the category pushes further into the mainstream and product offerings diversify beyond basic protein powders, however, flavor choices are becoming more important in delivering competitive edge.
More modern flavors move forward
According to a report from Innova Market Insights, 41% of sports nutrition shoppers still consider flavor to be an important factor when choosing food and drink, although it falls into third place behind health aspects and cost.
Millennials are not only the most adventurous consumer group when it comes to flavor, but also the most likely to include sports nutrition products in a typical grocery basket. This has strongly driven the move to new and modern flavors in preference to more traditional tastes.
As sports nutrition has moved increasingly into the mainstream, flavor blends are gaining ground, with greater attention to more complex and complementary tastes. Certain flavors can enhance energizing profiles, for example, with coffee the single most energizing flavor in consumer consciousness. Citrus and tropical fruit also have positive energy connotations, while in broader terms, spiciness/sharpness was seen as particularly energizing, ahead of sweet flavors.
At the same time, traditional brown and vanilla flavors are facing rising competition from fruit, nut and novelty tastes. Fruit and nuts offer a healthy image, but can also add indulgence, as well as fulfilling the rising demand for more natural, vegan and plant-based products. Meanwhile NPD is also taking inspiration from other food and drinks markets.
Brand crossovers bring new directions
Hybridization is already a top trend and the influence on flavor use in sports nutrition is rising as the category moves further into the mainstream and we start to see brand crossovers. Trust and familiarity gained in using flavors from other recognized brands makes it likely that further brand extension and co-branding will be used. There are already signs that mainstream firms are ready to explore opportunities in this area, not only taking direct steps into sports nutrition themselves, but also opting for licensing deals for the use of their flavors and brands by existing sports nutrition specialists.
The Covid-19 effect
The Covid-19 pandemic is also impacting the direction of flavor choices in sports nutrition, with interest in immune health particularly relevant. In 2020, immune health claims boosted their penetration in sports nutrition launches from 7% to almost 12%, driving the use of immune healthy flavors and ingredients. Citrus fruits will continue to lead, with high consumer recognition of their vitamin content and immune benefits, while antioxidant-rich berries and green tea and antibacterial honey and ginger are also likely to perform well.
Meanwhile, higher levels of comfort eating since the pandemic is driving nostalgia and increased indulgence in flavor choices. This will push more familiar flavors from sweet treats categories into the sports nutrition area, as has already been seen in North America with candy, cake and dessert variants. Chocolate remains an important go-to flavor while, at the same time, hazelnut flavors have benefited from chocolate-hazelnut combinations inspired by chocolate spreads and confectionery.