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Whey sports drinks can mix it in mainstream, says Volac

By Ben Bouckley , 08-Nov-2010

Manufacturers of sports nutrition products such as whey-based beverages are missing out on a potentially huge mainstream market, according to UK ingredients firm Volac.

The firm has published a new report called ‘New Opportunities in the Sports Drink Category’, which surveyed interest in whey protein exercise products for recovery purposes amongst 1,001 consumers engaging in 'moderate exercise'.

Mark Neville, Volac head of lifestyle ingredients, outlined the results: “When the benefits of whey protein were briefly explained to the respondents, almost one quarter (24%) expressed an interest in a product containing whey protein to help with muscle recovery after exercise.”

'Rehydrate, refuel and recondition'

Whey protein contains branched-chain amino acids that synthesise new proteins and build body muscle; specifically high levels of BCAA leucine, which the body absorbs faster than many other proteins (Rennie et al 2006).

Recent research from Shirreffs et al (2007) also concludes that milk – from which whey protein is derived – is better for rehydration than isotonic drinks or water. This is attributed to high levels of electrolytes (sodium, potassium, chloride) lost in sweat during exercise.

Accordingly, Volac believes whey protein products hold appeal to mainstream consumers keen to ‘rehydrate, refuel and recondition’; indeed non-elite athletes aged 18-60 formed the core of respondents to its survey, conducted this July with PH Research Services.

Yet Neville says “there is some work to be done in educating consumers about the link between protein and exercise recovery” since 47% of respondents saw muscle strength and development as the key benefit of a protein-based sports nutrition product.

Only 15% cited recovery as a prime benefit, and a mere 6% of this group, who indulged in exercise principally for health and fitness or social reasons, had used a protein-based product.

Image problems

Despite 24% of those surveyed expressing interest in whey protein sports nutrition products, it says something for their image problems (too macho and niche) that 72% remained either ‘not interested’ or ‘not at all interested’.

The research tallies with industry feeling at a recent conference called ‘Food for Sport: The Winning Formula’ at Leatherhead Food Research, in which delegates told FoodManufacture.co.uk that firms needed to cultivate mainstream appeal for products, particularly by appealing to women.

Sports nutrition is a massive growth category, yet remains a small sector, only worth £250m in the UK, noted one delegate at the event: “We’ve spoken all day about sports nutrition, but perhaps ‘sports’ presents the wrong image and we should talk instead about ‘activity’ in general.”

Sport England 2008/9 statistics show that 6.93m people in the UK alone participate in moderate exercise three times a week for at least 30 minutes, and Neville says that 24% interest in whey protein amongst this group represents a potential new market of 1.66m.

Beverages led the way in terms of appeal, with 53% of Volac respondents saying that beverages were their preferred delivery method for whey protein, followed by powders (23%) and bars (18%).

Neville said: “Once consumer awareness develops about the importance of whey protein to the recovery process, then consumer demand for the ready-to-drink format is only set to increase.”

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