Active, health-conscious consumers demand nutrition with ingredients they can pronounce.

By Jahla Seppanen

Hitting a PR, summiting peaks, making gains – no matter the athlete’s goal or gear, their nutrition has to stand up to the challenge.

But nutrition is a category always rife with obstacles, summersaulting trends and plenty of competition, experts tell SGB. And in the trailing 52-weeks, sales of energy bars and gels are down more than 20 percent in units and dollars, through March 26, according to SSI Data*. The trend is slightly better within the protein bar and drink sub-category with declines only around five percent.

We spoke with some of the biggest companies in the space for a forecast of the coming year. From the hodgepodge of gels, bars, waffles, pills, powders and meal plans, here’s a look at the evolution of nutrition for the active lifestyle customer and which trends will rule the market across all forms.

Every single brand we spoke with verified the Real Food (also known as, non-GMO, organic-based, clean-label, whole-ingredient) trend is blanketing the category, not only in current top-performing products but in new ones we’ll see next year. For an industry built around the image of scientifically designed fuel made in the lab, there has been a great turnover in back-to-basics. “It’s about ingredients you can pronounce and getting away from engineered nutrition. Consumers want products made from someone wearing an apron instead of a lab coat,” said Jeff Dean, vice president of operations at Nuun. “So much of traditional sports nutrition was built on the lab coat image — even company names reflect that — but that is not where the industry is going.”

Engineered ingredients are being replaced with ancient seeds and grains (like millet), beans, and real milk, said officials with brands such as Luvo and GoMacro. Senior Director of Product Marketing at Herbalife, John Heiss agreed “the back to basics approach to nutrition is moving beyond a trend to a consumer movement, and people are expecting to see simplier, cleaner, whole-food driven products.”

“People are definitely gravitating toward clean labels,” BiPro Communications Manager Jack Satzinger said. He added that this choice is taking place at the consumer level, instead of brands dictating the trend.

But as we’ll find with all big nutrition trends, the Real Food movement comes with its share of challenges. The biggest push back here comes from sugar reduction. It’s a good thing that real food options mean less processed sugar in our everyday nutrition (from regular meals to pre- and post-performance supplements), but consumers struggle to adapt their taste buds.

“Consumers are constantly asking for less sugar without compromising the taste and integrity of the product,” said GoMacro Food Scientist Kate Diamond. “Sugar occurs naturally in almost every food we eat, so this is a very difficult challenge.”

Photo courtesy GoMacro

Photo courtesy GoMacro

A continuation of the Real Food Trend, the nutrition category, is being inflated by mom-and-pop brands that employ a small staff and do the cooking at home. “The mega trend leading the natural foods business is consumers gravitating toward mission or value-based brands. Price and quality aren’t the only attributes they are looking for anymore,” said Dean from Nuun. “For the first time, this trend is carrying over from the natural foods business to mass retail and the sports nutrition category.”

“Consumers’ distrust of major food manufacturers is growing, and they are now looking to smaller mom-and-pop companies to provide them with a product they can support not only from a nutritional standpoint, but also based on principles,“ said Diamond with GoMacro. Due to their homey upbringing and humble beginnings, buyers form a personal connection to these small, value-based companies. For the same reasons apparel brands bring their production domestic, mom-and-pop brands are able to explain exactly which ingredients go into their product, exactly how it’s made, build a personal relationship with retailers and have an easier time monitoring all stages of the process. With the rise of sketchy ingredients making their way into mass-produced nutrition products, consumers trust the little guys 100-percent. After all, what’s the use in training all year just to be told by an athletic board that you somehow ingested an illegal substance? (Disqualification!)

The challenge with this trend? Shelf space. “The shelf space in retail is very limited, and it’s a challenge because nutrition is packed with people,” said Jenny Vierling, who founded Tailwind Nutrition with her husband after inventing a personalized sports drink to fuel him through ultra marathons. Even the team at Skratch attested shelf space would continue to be a battleground. “Too many brands are making very similar products,” said Jay Peery, VP of sales at Skratch Labs. “We see this in the bar category, which is over-saturated with a lot of really mediocre products.”

Competition will only become fiercer. “Most retailers I have spoken with expressed the Nutrition category is flat at best,” added Peery. “Competition will ramp in the specialty space over the coming summer seasons.”

Mom-and-pop brands can compete with the crowd by building a loyal customer following. “I have heard that several (specialty) retailers are honing their nutrition offerings by thinning the ranks,” added Vierling. “When customers approaching stores say what they have to carry, those products will stay.

Photo courtesy GoMacro

Photo courtesy GoMacro

While brands look for ways to distinguish their products and express to consumers how “organic,” “clean,” and “non-GMO” they are, the heavy hitters in the market are going straight to the government for certification. The power of the seal is strong this year, as a label can assure buyers that the product contains no contaminants. NSF Certification is one test, which checks supplements for banned substances, giving athletes and the average consumer peace of mind knowing what they are ingesting is safe. NSF has become a buzzword in the category and will continue to ring through 2017. The need for more certification came to boil because nutritional supplements are still not regulated in the same way as prescription drugs. In fact, you can’t use a word like “healthy” to describe a product if it doesn’t meet very specific attributed outlines more than two decades ago, said Luvo VP of Nutrition, Samantha Cassetty. “Government regulations haven’t kept up with the science and with consumer demand,” she continued.

“Certifications really go far in building trust with the consumer,” said Dean with Nuun. Other than NSF certification, nutrition brands are looking to be certified by Informed-Choice’s Trusted By Sport verification — a quality assurance program for sports nutrition products and suppliers showing their products have been tested for banned substances by the world class sports anti-doping lab, LGC.

“Third party validations from companies like NSF, who verify manufacturing facilities and product quality, are becoming more important in the consumers’ eyes,” said Heiss with Herbalife. The goal of all these certifications: have the real good products stand out from the real bad ones. As we all know, simply by walking through a grocery store, Nutrition has a funny way of exaggerating claims to sway purchasing.

Marketing is smart but consumers are finally gaining an advantage, probably thanks to the all-knowing Internet and our habit of rabbit-hole browsing. Just about every trend we see emerging in nutrition is being lassoed by the consumer and their expanding knowledge of what will fuel their body best.

“Consumers are taking a more active role,” said Peery at Skratch. “They are challenging the paradigm of the last couple of decades, which made people dependent on dry, overly sweet, heavily processed products whose primary benefit was convenience.”

Even when it comes to following athlete endorsement of nutrition products, there is less smoke and mirrors. “Product endorsements from athletes have always been key in our market, but there’s been a shift,” said Satzinger with BiPro. “In the past, any superstar athlete could endorse a product, even if they may not use it and instantly make it one of the most attractive options. Now consumers are savvier. They don’t just want to see an athlete’s face on a jar, they want to hear a breakdown from the athlete on why they pick that product, how they use it and what sets it apart from the competition.”

In a world of information, we’re only getting smarter. Consumer education is challenging both retail and manufacturing in the nutrition landscape, which we expect will help the category rebound to be healthy and active in the long-term… just like us.

Photo courtesy Skratch Labs

Photo courtesy Skratch Labs

*SSI Data, powered by SportsOneSource, collects and analyzes point-of-sale data from more than 20,000 retail doors across nine channels of distribution. To learn more call 303.997.7302.

Lead photo courtesy Skratch Labs