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Fueling-up with Flavor: How Science and Technology  	are Improving the Taste of Sports Nutrition Beverages
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Fueling-up with Flavor: How Science and Technology are Improving the Taste of Sports Nutrition Beverages

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Performance beverages are more popular than ever before and the category is brimming with innovation, offering healthy, great-tasting functional beverages – all thanks to flavor modulation technology. Learn how flavor development is shaping the industry and turning sports drinks from a necessity to a choice.  

Sports nutrition beverages are everywhere these days. According to Mintel research, the sports and performance drink category is up 18 percent from 2015-2020 and the total category sales are estimated to reach $13.5 billion by 2025. From pre-workout protein shakes and recovery beverages to meal replacements, functional waters and energy drinks – there are countless options available to consumers looking for a quick, refreshing way to boost performance. But as the category grows, so do consumers’ expectations about flavor and overall taste experience.

In the past, sports nutrition beverages lacked variety and were not especially enjoyable to drink. Consumers were typically given a choice between chocolate and vanilla powdered drinks, and the flavor barely disguised the bitterness of the proteins. Sports nutrition beverages that were satisfying to drink were often laden with sugar and other additives to make these products palatable. In many cases, the ingredients added to make these early sports nutrition beverages taste great undermined the nutritional benefit of the drink itself.   

In recent years, advancements in food science and flavor development have drastically changed the landscape of sports nutrition beverages​, transforming these products from something you need​ to drink into something you want​ to drink. Flavor technology has opened the door to healthier sports and performance nutrition products with clean labels that boast less sugar and more plant-based protein ingredients, while also expanding the variety of functional benefits like immunity support, digestive health, brain boosting and vitamin supplements – all while tasting great.

Classic performance beverage flavors like chocolate​, vanilla​, coffee​, fruit​ and others are not inherently unpleasant or bitter. But once vitamins and minerals are added to create sports nutrition beverages that offer functional nutrition benefits, they can sometimes weigh heavily on the beverage’s flavor, creating a unique challenge for flavorists.

California-based T. Hasegawa USA​ is leading the industry in sports nutrition beverage flavors.  As the U.S. subsidiary of global top 10 flavor & fragrance company T. Hasegawa Co. Ltd. in Japan, T. Hasegawa USA is developing sophisticated ways to balance the flavor in sports nutrition and performance beverages through science and technology.

“The key to balancing flavor in performance beverages is masking,” said T. Hasegawa director, sweet technology Ibrahima Faye. “We are using a range of technologies that mask unwanted flavor notes, while amplifying desirable flavors and improving the overall taste experience. This is changing the way sports nutrition beverages are developed and greatly expanding flavor possibilities in this category.”

The sports nutrition beverage category is moving beyond weight and muscle gain products, into other functional, better-for-you attributes such as increased immunity, improved digestion and boosted brain health. A new category of growth for beverage development is nootropics – which offer functional benefits for brain health such as relieving stress, improving creativity, memory, motivation and more. These functional benefits are made possible through the addition of natural ingredients and supplements such as ashwagandha mushrooms, creatine, ginseng and Ginkgo biloba – all of which impact the flavor of the beverage. Cutting-edge modulation technology is used to balance the flavor in these functional beverages and make a final product that is enjoyable to drink.

Recently, T. Hasegawa introduced Boostract™​ to the North American market. This innovative flavor modulating technology was initially designed to add or enhance kokumi (or “mouthfeel”) in food and beverage products but has also proved effective at masking unwanted flavor notes in sports nutrition products.

“Most sports nutrition beverages are protein-based, so the need for enhancing richness and kokumi is already important for these products,” explained T. Hasegawa director of applications, Jeanene Martinez. “But the protein formula can often leave an aftertaste, so Boostract solves both these issues. Even for powdered whey protein beverage products, Boostract can deliver a better mouthfeel and mask the protein flavor notes.”

The sports nutrition beverage category is also being revolutionized by the rise in plant-based protein, as vegetarianism and veganism become increasingly mainstream. According to Mintel research, between 2016 and 2020, plant-based product launches in the performance nutrition category grew by nearly 25 percent globally, showing significant consumer interest in protein sources that are healthier to consumers and have a low environmental impact. This shift toward plant-based proteins also mirrors a consumer trend toward gut health, with an increased focus on prebiotics, probiotics and other enzymes that aide in digestion. As more beverage products are developed to meet the demand for better digestive health or include plant-based proteins, there is an increased focus on modulation to balance the flavor and improve the overall experience.

After years of sports performance drinks relying heavily on sugar and other sweeteners, consumers are seeking clean label products that are less overtly sweet than previous options, but still deliver a refreshing, indulgent taste experience. This trend is leading flavorists toward unique applications of fruit flavors like citrus, wildberry, and other fruits to deliver a great taste without relying on sugar.

“Boostract is very effective in flavor modulation for sports nutrition beverages because it can boost the sweet characteristics of fruit notes,” added Martinez “It can make citrus taste fresher or highlight a delicate raspberry or tropical fruit note in a beverage.  This can improve sweetness without adding sugar, and naturally mask unwanted flavor notes that are a typical side effect of added vitamins and minerals in these products while providing a crisp flavor.” 

Flavor isn’t just an important aspect of making sports nutrition beverages palatable for consumers – it’s also good for business. Flavor is fast becoming a key differentiator for nutritional beverage products, as protein moves from the niche sports arena to an increasingly competitive mass market and in response, beverage brands are getting creative.

According to Mintel research, classic flavors such as chocolate, vanilla and fruits still dominate in sports nutrition product launches, but the market is widening each year to include more indulgent dessert-inspired options and other fun craveable flavors. Brands are turning to an ever-broader range of exciting flavors that tap into consumers’ desire for comfort foods, nostalgic flavors and even newsworthy flavor collaborations with familiar favorites from major CPG and fast-food brands.

Sports nutrition beverages have long been a key part of health and wellness for many consumers, providing a valuable boost of energy, improved performance and post-workout recovery, but the category is rapidly changing and becoming mainstream. As consumers expect an elevated taste experience from these products, the industry relies more heavily on flavor development to offer a vast array of products that deliver on the performance benefits of these products, while also making an enjoyable product that tastes great.

Food and beverage brands who are looking to take their product to the next level of flavor can explore the possibilities of sports nutrition beverage flavors by contacting T. Hasegawa USA at​ or by calling (866) 965-0502. 

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