Finding the sweet spot for low sugar sports drinks

25 Oct 2018

Demand for natural, low sugar sports drinks is increasing, raising opportunities for manufacturers to explore alternative ingredients and sweeteners that appeal to health-conscious consumers.

Finding the sweet spot for low sugar sports drinks

Across beverage categories, consumers are looking to cut sugar, leading to surging sales for bottled water and diet soft drinks in the past couple of years. Many of the best-selling sports drinks, however, are still loaded with sugar. While some sugar is needed for the transport of sodium and glucose to replace fluids and electrolytes after a hard workout, too much adds unnecessary calories and can affect digestion.

Coconut water contains about 2.5 grams of natural sugars per 100 mL, compared to the 6-8 grams of added sugars typical in many sports drinks. The beverage shook up the sports category a few years ago, as consumers realised they could have all the electrolytes and hydration of a traditional sports drink without the sugar (and calories). Since then, the sector has significantly revitalised its image. In 2016, 35% of new sports drinks carried a ‘natural’ or ‘low sugar’ claim, up six percentage points compared to a year earlier, according to market research organisation Mintel.

In a 2017 survey from DSM, 55% of global consumers said they always checked product labels for sugar content, while half of the 8,000 people surveyed said they would pay more for products that used “only natural sweeteners”. And according to a recent white paper from Kerry, consumers show a significant preference for sweeteners they perceive as natural, including honey, maple syrup, agave syrup and stevia. However, many of these are costly options for manufacturers, who need to strike a balance between reducing sugar and maintaining their cost competitiveness.

Sweetener companies have been quick to step up. Plant-based sweetener and flavour specialist Layn, for example, has promoted its monk fruit and stevia sweeteners specifically for use in sports drinks. It says the plant-derived sweeteners can work synergistically in sports beverages, allowing a deep sugar reduction with a more sugar-like taste profile. As in other applications, the two sweeteners can be combined in proportions that enhance the best of each sweetening compound. Avoiding bitterness can be a particular challenge for sports beverages, and Layn says a combination of stevia and monk fruit can help reduce bitter notes.

Meanwhile, Mintel notes that water is still chosen more often than sports drinks for rehydration after exercise, and about as often as sports drinks by those looking to improve their sports performance. The market researcher suggests the sector could do more to reach everyday exercisers by blurring the category boundaries it shares with water, botanical ingredients and fruit juice, and playing up a ‘better for you’ marketing angle.

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