Plant-Proteins Revolutionising Sports Drink Flavours

Performance beverages are now more popular than ever before, and the category is overflowing with innovation, offering healthy and tasty nutritional drinks thanks to flavour modulation technology.

Sports nutrition beverages are everywhere. According to Mintel research, the sports and performance drink category increased by 18 percent from 2015-2020, and the total category sales are projected to reach $13.5b by 2025. There are countless options available, from pre-workout protein shakes to meal replacements and functional waters, but as the category grows, so too does the consumer's expectations for flavour and taste.

In the past, sports nutrition drinks have lacked variety and were not enjoyable. Classic flavours were vanilla or chocolate, which barely disguised the distasteful proteins. Satisfying sports nutrition drinks were also often laden with sugar and other additives to make them palatable, undermining the drink's nutritional benefit.

In recent years, food science and flavour development evolution have transformed these products into something you want to drink rather than need to drink. Flavour technology has paved the way to healthier sports and performance products with less sugar and more plant-based protein ingredients whilst expanding the variety of functional benefits – all while tasting great.

Classic performance beverage flavours like chocolate, vanilla, coffee, or berry are not inherently unpleasant, but the vitamins and minerals added that create functional nutritional benefits affect the flavour drastically, challenging flavourists.

California-based T. Hasegawa USA is leading the industry in sports nutrition beverage flavours. It is developing sophisticated ways to balance flavours in sports nutrition and performance beverages through science and technology.

Ibrahima Faye, T. Hasegawa's director, explained that they balance the flavour in performance beverages through masking. They mask unwanted flavour notes whilst amplifying desirable flavour notes and improving the taste experience. Not only is this changing the way sports nutrition beverages are developing, but it is also expanding the range of flavour possibilities.

T. Hasegawa's director of applications, Jeanene Martinez, explained that most sport nutrition beverages are protein-based, so enhancing mouthfeel is already important for these products, but the protein formula can also leave an aftertaste.

As vegetarianism and veganism are becoming more popular, so are plant-based proteins. According to Mintel research, plant-based product launches in the performance nutrition category grew by nearly 25 percent between 2016-2020. This shift shows consumers are becoming more interested in healthier protein sources that are better for gut health and also environmentally friendly. With this focus on health and plant-based proteins, the need for flavour modulation has also increased.

After years of overly sweet sports performance drinks, consumers are seeking products that are less overtly sweet but still deliver a pleasant taste experience. This trend is leading flavourists toward unique fruit flavours like citrus to provide great taste without sugar.

Flavour isn't just important for making sports nutrition beverages palatable – it's also good for business. Flavour is quickly becoming a key differentiator for nutritional beverage products as protein moves from the sports arena to a competitive mass market. So, brands are getting creative.

According to Mintel research, classic flavours like chocolate, vanilla and fruit still dominates the sports nutrition category, but the market is expanding each year to include more indulgent and fun flavours. Brands are turning to flavours that sate the consumers desire for comfort food, nostalgic flavours or even collaborations with familiar favourites.

Sports nutrition beverages have long been an integral part of health and wellness, providing a valuable boost of energy, better performance and post-workout recovery, but the category is rapidly changing and shifting into the mainstream. As consumers expect more from the flavours for these products, the industry is increasingly relying on flavour development to deliver an array of products that deliver functional benefits whilst tasting good.