Where do sports drinks stand in a growing functional beverage market?

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags functional beverage Sports drinks

The increased demand for functional food and drink is anticipated to boost sports drinks sales – and yet, at the same time, growing functional claims across neighboring categories is likely to stiffen competition. How should sports drinks navigate this market?

Brands need to think about whether they want to hone in and excel in physical performance in sports; or create their products to appeal to a wider wellness audience with broader functional attributes.   

An 'original functional nutrition category'

Following two years of strong growth, 2022 is a ‘year of recalibration’ for the sports and performance drinks category, according to Mintel.

In 2021 the category saw a post-lockdown surge as consumers returned to exercise habits and renewed their focus on achieving health goals. From 2022-26 growth is expected to continue: but more modestly, according to Mintel's 2022 US sports and performance drink report.

The category can benefit from increased interest in functional food and drink – gaining a certain credibility from having been one of the ‘original functional nutrition categories’.

And yet the biggest challenge to the sports drinks growth is that its audience base remains relatively narrow: consumers who don’t identify as being athletic on some level simply don’t consider such drinks as relevant. Today’s sports drinks consumers turn to the category to replenish electrolytes (51%), quench thirst (50%), and boost energy (42%).

But the growth in functional drinks is set to shake up this dynamic. 

“While the increased demand for functional nutrition seems as if it would benefit the sports and performance drink category, the growth in functional claims across food and drink categories not only increases competition, it blurs category lines,”​ noted Mimi Bonnett, senior director, food and drink at Mintel.

“Brands can respond in two directions: by doubling down on fitness, claiming specific and unmatched expertise in physical performance and/or by expanding positioning beyond fitness to latch on to those interested in general wellness lifestyles.”

Levelling out the playing field

Either way, justifying functional claims will be key to stand out in the market among increasingly savvy consumers.

“As consumers increasing look to food and drink to deliver on more than satiety, brands across categories are making functional claims. Standing out in a sea of claims will require proving efficacy.”

And this new focus on efficacy could potentially start to reshape the market. To date, the market has been dominated by big brands, which have been able to rely on brand value to date. But with consumers now less interested in big names than efficacy and justification of claims, the playing field is levelled out to give both big brands and new entrepreneurial entrants and equal chance to gain favor of consumers.

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