Are probiotics on the brink of a sports nutrition breakthrough?

28 Feb 2019

Probiotics have only recently become sought-after ingredients for sports nutrition products – especially with the rise of plant proteins – and many experts believe they have potential to boost athletic performance.

Gut health has emerged as an important health target with implications that go far beyond digestion. Poor gut health has been linked to obesity, depression, intestinal diseases and even some cancers. And more recently, researchers at Teagasc Food Research Centre in Ireland found a link between microbial diversity in the gut and improved athletic performance.

Are probiotics on the brink of a sports nutrition breakthrough?

While there are many ingredients associated with improved gut health, probiotics are among the most popular and enjoy high consumer awareness. When it comes to sports nutrition, online consumers are twice as likely to review sports nutrition products if they contain probiotics, according to a report from market research organisation Lumina. It found that probiotics were most closely associated with improving the digestibility of plant protein powders – and tended to receive more positive reviews from consumers than plant protein powders that used enzymes to improve digestibility.

For professional athletes in particular, digestion is an important issue, but there is an overlap with amateur sportspeople, especially as older consumers have started to take their health and exercise more seriously. This older demographic is one that also pays close attention to digestive health, potentially creating multiple opportunities for sports nutrition products that highlight ingredients for digestive health as a secondary benefit.

The International Probiotics Association Europe suggests that European companies are missing out on a major market opportunity because they are not allowed to use the word ‘probiotic’ on products. It notes that while the EU was the biggest market for probiotic yoghurt and supplements in 2009, it now ranks third behind China and the United States. However, global probiotic sales – including in Europe – continue to grow rapidly.

Although some EU sports nutrition companies have struggled with the lack of an EFSA-approved health claim for specific probiotic strains, the Teagasc team has suggested another possibility: seeking an EFSA claim related to ingredients that increase gut microbial diversity. Considering that increased microbial diversity repeatedly has been linked to lower disease risk, this could be an easier win for sports nutrition firms.

Meanwhile, many suppliers already are positioning certain probiotic strains to appeal to the sports nutrition sector. Dupont Nutrition & Health, for example, lists probiotics among its range of ingredients related to sports nutrition and weight management, while probiotics company Ganeden said that more than half of the probiotic products it launched with its partners in 2017 were protein-based.

Innova Market Insights has also noted a rapid increase in digestive health claims for sports nutrition products. “Easy to digest” claims are on the rise, often in reference to protein, but it says ingredients like fibre, botanicals and probiotics are also being used to support this positioning.