Although sports and protein drink companies primarily market to athletes and active consumers, the category’s consumer base is shifting. In fact, the number of high-volume sports drink users, or consumers who drink eight or more sports drinks a month, has been declining in recent years, offset by more casual sports drink users joining the consumer ranks, according to Rockville, Md.-based Packaged Facts’ February 2015 report “Functional Foods: Key Trends by Product Categories and Benefits.”

Now, approximately 34 percent of all surveyed consumers and nearly half of surveyed consumers aged 18-24 drink sports drinks when they are not working out, according to Beth Bloom, food and drink analyst at Mintel. “Such usage indicates the value of product positioning that moves beyond a sports focus and highlights attributes such as hydration and flavor,”  she wrote  in the Chicago-based market research firm’s January 2015 “Nutritional and Performance Drinks” report.

Protein drinks, which commonly have been associated with muscle-recovery and bone-health benefits for athletes, now are being valued for their satiety benefits as non-athlete consumers opt for them as snacks or meal replacements, says Chris Schmidt, consumer health analyst at Chicago-based Euromonitor International. Consumers also are using these beverages and supplements to support other special diets, like vegetarian, vegan and even medical diets recommended after bariatric surgery, he notes.

In addition, protein drinks can target elderly consumers who can use the products to ward off conditions such as sarcopenia that can result in muscle loss and weakness, says Natalie Tremellen, market analyst at Innova Market Insights, the Netherlands.

As a result of these expanded consumption occasions and expanded consumer base, approximately 61 percent of U.S. adults consume sports drinks, supporting overall segment sales, Mintel’s Bloom wrote in the report. In line with this, the shelf-stable non-aseptic sports drink category grew nearly
4.6 percent in dollar sales for the 52 weeks ending Feb. 22 in U.S. supermarkets, drug stores, mass merchandisers, gas and convenience stores, military commissaries, and select club and dollar retail chains, according to Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. (IRI). Gatorade, a brand of Purchase, N.Y.-based PepsiCo Inc., continues to lead the segment with its products claiming seven of the Top 10 spots on IRI’s shelf-stable non-aseptic sports drink list for the period. Its Gatorade Perform line topped the Top 10 list with nearly $3.2 billion in sales in the timeframe.  Atlanta-based The Coca-Cola Co.’s Powerade brand claimed the remaining three spots on the Top 10 list.

Similarly, Euromonitor reports that the ready-to-drink (RTD) protein drinks market grew by nearly 24 percent in 2014 dollar sales compared with 2013 in its measured off-premise channels.

To continue to appeal to athletes and casual consumers alike, brand owners can look to tap into other trends within the beverage industry, such as clean labels and natural and organic products.

Packaged Facts points out that Gatorade has cleaned up its label in the past few years as consumers demanded it, switching from high-fructose corn syrup to sugar and removing brominated vegetable oil from its formulations. It notes that other products in the category call out their use of natural and zero-calorie sweeteners and their lack of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), artificial colors and flavors, gluten and preservatives. For example, Seattle-based Golazo Inc. calls out its sports hydration drinks’ natural attributes on its bottles and its Non-GMO Project Verified status on its website. Mentions of other claims, including vegan, Fair Trade and sustainability, also are gaining steam, Packaged Facts reports.

Consumers also are interested in organic claims on these types of beverages, Euromonitor’s Schmidt points out. In line with this, last summer, Benicia, Calif.-based CytoSport Inc. released Muscle Milk Organic RTD protein shakes in Target stores nationwide and on Target’s website. The protein drinks, which are available in Chocolate and Vanilla varieties, feature 15 grams of U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic protein and are sweetened with organic cane sugar and organic stevia.

“We constantly strive to remain on the forefront of product innovation, and we recognize the demand in the marketplace for organic product options,” said CytoSport Chief Marketing Officer Nikki Brown in a statement. “The Muscle Milk brand has always appealed to a wide range of consumers:  men, women, active lifestylists, fitness enthusiasts, weekend warriors and professional athletes, and the organic line meets the workout recovery and snack needs for protein users across the entire spectrum. Muscle Milk Organic will also serve as a fantastic protein option to educate new users on the importance of protein in one’s daily nutrition routine.” 

In addition, the protein drinks market, in general, benefits from protein being one of the most benign of the macronutrients, Euromonitor’s Schmidt says. Nutrition experts haven’t pushed a low-protein diet yet, and it’s not likely to become a recommendation in the near future, he points out. In line with this, the idea of protein as a performance ingredient and a factor for healthy weight and body makeup is catching on, he notes. “Female consumption in particular is benefiting from a general shift in female exercise/body image mindsets that is promoting strength and fitness over simply slim waistlines.” 

 To continue to connect sports and protein drinks specifically with athletic consumers, brands can obtain NSF Certified for Sport status, which ensures that the product does not contain any of the more than 180 banned substances that are screened for in the certification process, according to the Packaged Facts report. The certification verifies that all product ingredients are listed on the label, that the product does not contain unsafe levels of contaminants, and that the product is manufactured at a facility audited by Ann Arbor, Mich.-based NSF International for quality and safety, it reports. However, the market research firm cautions that brand owners should consider whether this certification is of interest to its core consumers before seeking out certification.  

New teammates

As sports and protein drinks bleed over into other consumer groups, other beverage segments are taking the sports occasion field.

“Coconut water, in particular, provides consumers with a very ‘natural’ product alternative, which in some cases has superior hydration qualities to rival traditional sports drinks,” Euromonitor’s Schmidt says.

Interest in coconut water as a hydrating beverage, as well as for its naturally occurring electrolytes and lack of added sugars and colors, has led some beverage companies to make coconut-water based sports and protein drinks, Packaged Facts notes. Last summer, New York-based Vita Coco released its Vita Coco Sport beverages in Target stores as part of the Minneapolis-based retailer’s “Made to Matter – Handpicked by Target” collection of natural, organic and sustainable brands. The natural sports drinks feature coconut water, sea salt and sugar to help replenish lost nutrients after exercise, the company says.

In the RTD protein drinks segment, MusclePharm Corp., Newark, Ohio, launched CocoProtein, which features a blend of coconut water and protein. The cross-over beverage, which is available in Chocolate and Piña Colada varieties, provides vitamins, minerals and 20 grams of protein to build lean muscle, increase endurance, fuel recovery and keep the consumer hydrated, the company says. In addition, the gluten-, lactose- and dairy-free beverages contain more potassium than a banana, it says.

Chocolate milk also is making a play in the post-workout occasion market. This year, the Washington, D.C.-based Milk Processor Education Program (MilkPep) expanded its Built With Chocolate Milk campaign by partnering with Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love. Love is starring in a major TV, print and digital campaign to tell his story of consuming chocolate milk as a recovery beverage after basketball games as a kid and continuing that tradition after his professional training and games.

According to MilkPep, when incorporated into a regular recovery routine, the protein in chocolate milk can help athletes rebuild and reshape. “In fact, drinking chocolate milk after a tough workout could give athletes a performance edge,” the company said in a statement. “According to a recent study, runners ran 23 percent longer in the next run and saw a 38 percent increase in signs of muscle building when they drank fat-free chocolate milk after their run, compared to a carb-only sports drink.”