As the original functional beverage, sports drinks are riding the wave of the health and wellness boom and consumer interest in good-for-you products, while new ingredients and product variants are further driving this buoyant category. Annette Farr reports.

Sports drinks are arguably the ultimate functional beverages, and as one might expect given rising consumer interest in good-for-you products, the market is growing strongly, driven not only by health concerns but also by packaging innovation, flavour extensions and in particular new high-tech ingredient concepts.

The world's leading sports drink brand Gatorade, now part of PepsiCo but developed some 40 years ago by researchers at the University of Florida for their football team the Florida Gators, now has seven variants. The UK's best-selling brand, Lucozade Sport, has four.

The typical ingredients of sodium citrate (acidity regulator), sweetening agents, glucose or dextrose and minerals have been joined by a new wave of functional ingredients. Many are easily digestible protein sources such as amino acids and peptides.

The recently formed Scientific Advisory Board (SAB) on sports nutrition and performance has reviewed the latest science and clinical trials and concluded that the addition of protein to a carbohydrate-containing beverage provides benefits superior to traditional carbohydrate-based beverages. It also improves muscle tissue repair and reduces muscle fibre damage.

"The development of novel ingredients for sports beverages - and their contribution to the athlete's health and performance in the past few years - has been astonishing," says Dr Jose Antonio, SAB chairman. "We can now plot a path towards the ultimate sports drink. Simple carbohydrate-based sports beverages are no longer the athlete's best option. Following our review, the SAB recommends that manufacturers focus on the addition of specific ingredients such as high performance peptides, antioxidants and other nutritional ingredients."

One such ingredient is PeptoPro, a natural source of protein from DSM Food Specialties. This has been used in a new protein-based sports recovery drink called Club Energise Sport Recovery 20 from the Irish drinks group Cantrell & Cochrane.

"The Irish sports drink market is valued at EUR50m and growing at a rate of 25%," said Lynne Malone, senior brand manager. "The addition of Club Energise Sport Recovery 20, using PeptoPro, means that we can now offer athletes an innovative product that helps them recover faster and achieve their best."

Amino acids are the building blocks of protein. Used as an ingredient in sports drinks, they can build muscle, increase stamina and aid recovery from fatigue. They are particularly popular in sports drinks in Japan, a country where the category is well established and which leads in sports drinks technology.  With average consumption of 12.5 litres in 2005, Japan is second to the US (15.6 litres) in terms of intake per person.

Meanwhile, PowerBar, a world leader in sports nutrition, has reformulated its Performance Sports Drink to increase the rate of energy delivery to athletes' working muscles after new research showed that a special carbohydrate mixture maximises energy delivery speed.

In this scientific study, when athletes consumed a 2:1 mixture of glucose and fructose during intense, prolonged exercise, researchers discovered that the maximum oxidation rate of ingested carbohydrates was 35% to 40% higher than when athletes consumed the same amount of calories from glucose alone.

Getting the sweetness right is a challenge. Tate & Lyle has just launched Sports Drink Rebalance 015, which, the company says, will produce a better tasting and effective isotonic drink. Besides fructose, which is used to enhance sweetness and boost fruity notes, Splenda sucralose is also part of the blend. "Since sucralose is 600 times sweeter than sugar, and consequently takes up less particle space than many other sweeteners, it enables manufacturers to add more minerals to the product," a Tate & Lyle spokesperson said.

The global sports drink market, which last year grew by 10% to 9.7bn litres, is divided into three sub-categories. Isotonic drinks are the most common type. These quickly replace fluids and electrolytes that are lost through sweating. They also contain about 6% carbohydrate to help maintain energy levels. 

Hypertonic drinks have more particles than blood, normally supplementing carbohydrate intake after exercise to top up muscle glycogen stores. Meanwhile, hypotonic drinks, such as this summer's new Slazenger Hypotonic sports drink, maximise the rate of water uptake but generally provide only low levels of calories and carbohydrates.

While sports drinks are often linked with the energy sector, there are marked differences as Leading Brands Inc. of Vancouver pointed out when it recently launched Trek Natural Sports Drinks and Nitro Energy Drinks.

"Trek is an all-natural sports drink that is sweetened with pure cane sugar and not high fructose corn syrup (as seen in other products)," Leading Brands said. "It is 'osmotically balanced' to allow the body to quickly absorb and assimilate the liquid energy and formulated to naturally hydrate athletes fast. Nitro Energy, on the other hand, packs the full punch of an energy drink and at the same time hydrates your body."