Trends in Asia's sports nutrition sector: Lines blurring between sport and general wellness

By Tingmin Koe

- Last updated on GMT

Plant-based protein products are growing in popularity in the sports nutrition realm.  ©Getty Images
Plant-based protein products are growing in popularity in the sports nutrition realm. ©Getty Images

Related tags Sports nutrition plant-based Low carb

From the rise of plant-based protein products to consumers taking nutritional products actively, the line between sports and wellness products has blurred.

At the recent HI China 2018 show, Liu Chang, global market analyst from Innova Market Insights, shared insights on sports nutrition during a presentation titled Active Nutrition: Sports meets healthy lifestyles​.

More manufacturers are making sports nutrition-related claims, such as their products being high in protein, when launching new food and beverage products. This is the main reason why "the boundary between sports nutrition and normal food and beverages areblurring"​, she explained.

She pointed out that the percentage of new active nutrition product launches had grown by 24% from 2013 to 2017. Some examples included fruit snacks high in protein content, Nestlé cereal products, sports nutrition bars made with vegan protein, and smoothies and juices fortified with protein.

"When we look at new food and beverage launches, they have positioned themselves as products that provide energy alertness, sports recovery, and high protein content," ​Liu said.

Plant-based proteins

There has been a shift towards plant-based proteins​ across different food product categories, and the same goes for sports nutrition. Liu said plant-based protein products were
"fast on the rise"​, although dairy-based protein products "remain prevalent"​.

Globally, the percentage of new launches of plant-only protein products grew from 9.4% in 2013 to 15.8% in 2017. The percentage of new launches of dairy-only protein product launches stayed stable at around 70%.

Seaweed is a popular source of plant-based protein. Liu said seaweed applications in sports nutrition for functional and health benefits have increased, alongside those of spirulina.

Regional differences

From low sugar content to natural ingredients, the reasons for consuming sports nutrition products differ across Asia. Liu said Chinese consumers consider low sugar content the most attractive factor when buying sports nutrition products.

On the other hand, Koreans think indulgence claims such as product flavour and texture are the most important, which is closer to general Asian trends.

"For Asian consumers, flavour and taste are still the most important thing when they are buying food products, including sports nutrition products."


Besides protein content, product novelty is another reason for consuming sports nutrition products.

When asked, "Why have you increased your consumption of sports nutrition (products)?" ​survey participants cited "more variety and novelty"​ as one of the main reasons, Liu said.

The trend is especially prominent in Japan and Germany, where over 40% and 25% of participants respectively cited more variety and novelty as reasons for consuming sports nutrition products.

For manufacturers, differentiation in sports nutrition products can be achieved through innovation in flavour, functionality, and packaging, she said.

"Although the number of consumers who demand products with special flavours is small, manufacturers continue to launch these products to target niche groups."

"Low"​ claims

To cater to consumers' health demands, manufacturers are launching more products with "low"​ claims, including low-fat, low-carbohydrate, and low-calorie.

In the case of "low-fat"​ sports nutrition products, the proportion of new launches grew from 3.9% to 12.4% between 2013 and 2017, Liu said.

In addition, there are also more "better for you"​ claims in sports nutrition products, with the percentage of new product launches growing from 52% in 2012 to 93% 2017.

Liu highlighted that "organic product"​ is the fastest growing claim across sports nutrition products, including whey protein powder and sports drinks, registering a CAGR growth of 41.4% from 2013 to 2017.

E-commerce and sports nutrition

As with other products, e-commerce is the main sales channel in China. It accounted for 70% to 80% of sports nutrition product sales in China, according to Oliver Lu, general manager at Nutrition Depot China, who was speaking at the International Sports Nutrition Industry Insights Seminar organised by US-China HPA.

He described China as a "unique market"​ that it dwarfs its Asian neighbours in terms of advancements in e-commerce. In contrast, brick-and-mortar stores are still the main sales channel in Thailand, Vietnam and Australia, with less online sales.

He attributed the success of e-commerce in China to higher efficiency in logistics operations and a wider range of e-payment methods.

"I once asked my Vietnam counterpart why e-commerce sales are performing so badly over there. He said there is no e-payment system, and they all give cash once goods have arrived."

However, not all overseas brands have the capability to achieve the cross-border e-commerce success seen in China.

"To do so, the brand must have a certain level of recognition, as the Chinese spend based on the reputation and quality of a product," ​he explained.

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