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Peak-Performance, Full-Flavor: How the Complex Science of Flavor Development is Reshaping the Diet and Sports Nutrition Industry

As the ball drops at midnight in Times Square each year, millions of Americans ring in the new year by setting personal health goals – but these resolutions are short-lived for most people. According to Statista​ over 87% of U.S. residents fail to keep up their New Year’s resolutions through the calendar year.  

Driven by these statistics, consumers seek creative new food and beverage solutions that help them maintain their health and wellness-related resolutions, such as weight loss, hydration, increased strength, improved mental performance and more. Each year, brands rise to this challenge and introduce a bevy of compelling new products specifically developed to meet consumer demands in the diet and sports nutrition categories. According to Mintel research, the sports beverage category is up more than 18% in recent years and sales are expected to reach more than $13.5 billion by 2025. When you expand that figure to include food products the overall sports nutrition market was valued at nearly $20 billion in 2020 and is projected to witness a CAGR of 12.22% through 2026, according to Mordor Intelligence. 

But the key to success for a broad range of health and sports nutrition products​ like smoothies, protein bars, shakes, energy drinks and functional foods is not the nutritional value, functional ingredients or caloric content – it’s the flavor.

The food and beverage industry relies on a range of technical innovations in flavor development that are reshaping the way consumers experience sports nutrition products​ – making healthy eating habits more enjoyable and ultimately easier to sustain. Flavor technology has opened the door for healthier products with clean labels that boast less sugar and more plant-based protein ingredients, along with expanding the variety of functional benefits like immunity support, digestive health, brain boosting and vitamin supplements, all while tasting great.

The Problem with Protein

The sports nutrition category is almost synonymous with protein. A key ingredient in pre- and  post-workout shakes, sports snack bars, supplements and a vast array of other performance products, protein is important for muscle gain, recovery and more, but added protein comes at the cost of increased bitterness often leading to strong off-notes that can produce a very unpleasant taste. The same effect is true for other additives, such as vitamins, minerals and functional ingredients. Historically, food and beverage companies have countered the bitterness of protein with excessive amounts of sugar or alternative sweeteners, but new advancements in masking technology are helping to produce nutrition products that are effective, healthy and delicious.  

According to T. Hasegawa USA​,​ the California-based subsidiary of one of the world’s top 10 flavor and fragrance companies, development of new health-related products is thriving and the company continues to evolve flavor masking technology to produce great-tasting energy bars in addition to sports nutrition beverages and more.

“Sports nutrition moves faster than any other category due to the competition in the space and it’s ripe with innovation,” said Holden Rouse, senior beverage technologist at T. Hasegawa USA. “This leads to new ingredient exploration and unique ways that we can utilize masking technology in each product. Challenges arise from the lingering bitterness of protein or usage of caffeine to obtain energy along with the usage of other stimulants. Our in-depth studies identify which molecules work best for each masking application, opening many possibilities for new flavors. We have developed a vast library of masking technology that will work to cover these off-notes in sports nutrition products.”

Brains over Brawn

For many Americans, wellness starts with mental health – a trend that has grown since the COVID-19 pandemic began and further spotlighted in the 2021 Summer Olympics when U.S. gymnast Simone Biles along with Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka cited mental health as a primary reason for withdrawing from competition. Clearly, consumers are interested in the importance of maintaining the health and well-being of their mind in addition to their physical fitness. Food and beverage brands are increasingly creating new products that deliver on consumers’ desire for mental health, such as improved sleep or reduced stress and anxiety. Many other new products aim to deliver on boosted mental alertness and focus, which is particularly popular within the growing e-Sports community. In fact, according to Mintel research, eSports now has a larger following than American football, with 443 million global viewers and more than 25,000 professional eSports athletes. With heavy reliance on mental concentration and focus, eSports athletes are increasingly turning to performance food and beverage products that maximize brain health for a competitive advantage. These products often rely on functional natural ingredients such as adaptogens, roots and flower-extracts that often produce sharp bitter flavors and unwanted off-notes.

“Regardless of the intended performance benefit, our approach includes a customized solution to overcome unwanted off-notes and bring the desired flavor to the forefront,” explained T. Hasegawa’s VP of research & development, Jim Yang. “In any food or beverage product, especially plant-based products, there are dozens of individual off-note compounds competing with your characterizing flavors, and our task is to identify which flavors need to be highlighted and which flavors need to be eliminated through masking technology.”

Healthy….and Indulgent?

Since great-tasting sports nutrition products are more likely to keep consumers engaged while reaching their health goals, the industry is responding with flavor innovation designed to tap into consumer demand for nostalgia and fun – especially in the energy bar and baked goods category. Development of these indulgent, craveable flavors is driven by reaction technology​, which aims to provide a true-to-life taste experience by replicating the thermal process used to create culinary dishes – fried, heated, baked, roasted etc.

“Consumers are eager to find new high-protein snack foods or meal replacement bars that deliver a sense of excitement and fun,” said T. Hasegawa director of sweet technology, Ibrahima Faye. “Using reaction flavor technology, we’re able to reproduce the taste of cake batter or fried dough that you’d find in a donut and apply these flavors into traditional energy bars or high-protein spinoff products such as cookies, cake balls, brownies and other baked goods.”

The sports nutrition category will always rely on staple favorites such as chocolate, vanilla, coffee, or familiar fruit flavors such as raspberry, strawberries and fruit punch – but the latest trend is mixing those flavors to create a range of compelling fun flavors that keep consumers interested and blend familiarity with adventure. According to T. Hasegawa, blending multiple flavors that consumers already love is a growing area of development for new sports nutrition products.

“The beauty of these flavors is the simplicity,” explained T. Hasegawa director of applications Jeanene Martinez. “Our customers have found that flavors like exotic fruits aren’t as effective in the sports nutrition category for tapping into nostalgia and familiarity. This results in fun flavors like ‘blue raspberry popsicle’ or banana split protein shakes, or energy bars based on classic desserts like apple pie, pumpkin pie, or a range of popular candy bars. Even category mainstays like vanilla are made exciting by combining with peanut butter to produce a new formula based on existing favorite flavors.”

In addition to producing a great-tasting snack bar that is high in protein or other key ingredients, food brands are tasked with product development that delivers on an ever-increasing array of consumer diet requirements, such as gluten-free, high-fiber, vegan, clean label or reduced sugar. This has provided an opportunity for the flavor industry to innovate and continue developing great-tasting solutions that fit any number of dietary trends.

Portable Performance

For sports nutrition, it’s no surprise that the most successful products are also convenient grab-and-go options that fit into busy lifestyles. From energy bars to protein shakes, a key area of innovation in sports nutrition is driven by the need for RTE and RTD products that deliver a great taste in a convenient package and maintain that flavor in a shelf-stable product.

“While the sports nutrition category was once dominated by whey protein powders, convenience and portability are now hot sellers for many of our customers,” explained Martinez “We are seeing a lot of boundary-pushing products that blur the line between RTD energy drinks and traditional sports protein beverages. These beverages rely heavily on flavor technology like masking and sweetness enhancing to produce a consistently satisfying flavor.” 

North Americans are eager to improve their health and well-being – and they’re better equipped than ever before to keep their personal health resolutions each year. Thanks to advancements in flavor development technology, brands are redefining better-for-you foods and making eating healthier a more enjoyable, sustainable endeavor.

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

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