Sports beverages go mainstream

Sports beverages go mainstream

Steve Mott, technical director proteins at ADM, looks at how soya protein isolates can help overcome the formulation issues associated with developing high-protein drinks.

The sports nutrition market has gone through a major shift over the past few years. Traditionally supported by bodybuilders and professional athletes, it is now increasingly targeting a wider group of consumers looking to maintain an active lifestyle and a healthy diet. Sales of sports nutrition products in the UK have consequently grown by 16 per cent in 2013, reaching value sales of £301 million.

Although nutrition bars and supplements still dominate the market, the functional beverage segment is growing and is expected to be worth $3,644.8 million by 2018. In particular, protein-based beverages have gained in popularity as consumers are increasingly aware of the benefits that protein can offer in regards to maintenance and growth in muscle mass. Manufacturers have been quick to tap into the sports drinks trend, but are often presented with formulation issues when developing high-protein sports beverages.

Protein power

Today’s consumers lead busy lives and are looking for drinks that deliver more than just hydration. As a result, demand is growing for beverages that can provide the nutrients required to keep up with an active lifestyle. Alongside carbohydrates and fats, protein is one of the three fundamental macro-nutrients the body needs. Made of amino acids, small units necessary for growth and tissue repair, protein helps provide the body with the energy it needs. Proteins can be found in animal sources, such as meat, fish, eggs and dairy products, but are also available in a variety of plant sources.

While the amount of protein needed depends heavily on the age and health of a person, it is generally recommended to consume at least two or three servings of protein-rich food to meet the daily needs of an adult. However, more serious athletes and bodybuilders will require more effective and targeted nutrition products to enhance lean body mass gains and post-exercise muscle recovery. Products such as ready to drink protein beverages offer a convenient and healthy solution to meet nutritional needs. According to a recent study, liquid forms of protein can achieve peak blood amino acid concentrations twice as quickly after ingestion than solid protein-rich foods, enabling consumers to maximise the rate of muscle protein synthesis.

Maximising protein’s potential

When it comes to choosing protein-enriched beverages, consumers are primarily looking for products that are easily digested and readily available to maximise the amount of protein uptake by the body. Dairy proteins, such as whey protein concentrates (WPC) and whey protein isolates (WPI), are some of the most common ingredients found in sports beverages, as they contain high levels of the three branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs) leucine, isoleucine and valine. It is suggested that BCAAs improve endurance and protein synthesis as they do not need to be metabolised by the liver first, enabling them to supply energy quickly during exercise.

Even though dairy proteins still dominate the ingredient lists of protein-enriched beverages, blending whey protein with a range of other proteins, such as soya and casein, is becoming more common amongst manufacturers. Although these other proteins have a more moderate digestion rate than whey, some research has shown that they may enable the body to sustain an elevated blood amino acid level over a longer period of time compared with protein solutions based solely on whey. This research supported an extended muscle protein synthesis period of between one and four hours during the post-exercise period for the blend used in the study versus whey protein alone.

Soya proteins in particular offer distinct benefits in protein drinks as they are not only good quality proteins, having a high protein digestibility corrected amino acid score (PDCAAS) of 0.98, but they are also an excellent source of L-glutamine and L-arginine, which are essential amino acids.

Taste matters

Although today’s consumers expect their foods to have multiple functional benefits, they still have high expectations when it comes to taste and flavour. However, the branched chain amino acid structure of protein molecules means it can often be difficult to create a smooth-tasting beverage. Each protein imparts its own specific taste and has different texture profiles. Depending on the characteristics of the taste profile and the quantity of the ingredient used, this can pose distinct formulation challenges when it comes to beverages.

Whey protein, for example, is known to impart an unpleasant astringent mouth feel with cheesy flavour notes, while soya proteins can give a slightly beany or bitter flavour, which can pose as a hurdle to mainstream acceptance of acidic beverages containing a high protein content. Consumers also often experience a chalky or grainy mouth feel when drinking high protein beverages. Achieving the right balance between nutrition, taste and mouth feel is therefore key for the product’s commercial success.

Finding the right protein source

To meet growing consumer demand for great tasting, protein-fortified beverages, new ingredients that echo the benefits of traditional proteins but are more refined to consumer tastes have started to emerge on the market. Soya protein isolates, for example, can be more nutritionally beneficial than traditional soya protein ingredients when used at the same inclusion level as they contain more protein per gram. Although similar to soya protein concentrates, for example, soya protein isolates contain reduced amounts of non-protein components. As a result, soya protein isolates contain about 90 per cent protein and are low in saturated fat.

Furthermore, the clean and bland flavour of new isolated soya protein products such as ADM’s Clarisoy 100 means that the taste of the finished product is much less impacted by the presence of soya proteins. This appeals to sports drinks manufacturers as it allows consumers access to higher amounts of protein without increasing fat intake or compromising on taste.

Clarisoy 100 has been designed to help manufacturers meet the growth in demand from health conscious consumers for nutritionally enriched, refreshing beverages. Traditional isolated soya proteins often appear opaque in acidic beverages, and stabilisation and homogenisation can be required to keep the protein in suspension due to the poor solubility of soya in low pH environments. Clarisoy 100, on the other hand, is 100 per cent soluble at pH values below 4.0 and this high solubility means that stabilisation and homogenisation are not required.
Overall, soya proteins remain a strong alternative to dairy proteins as beverage manufacturers are looking for ways to mitigate volatile ingredient prices. Plant-based proteins are also often favoured by consumers as a renewable and sustainable protein option.


The sports beverage market has seen rapid growth in recent years, as busy consumers looking for options geared towards healthy, active lifestyles have caused the industry to shed its bodybuilder image. In particular, the advantages of protein are becoming well known among health-minded consumers. When choosing a protein source, manufacturers need to consider the quality of their protein sources to ensure products provide a good balance of both essential and non-essential amino acids, are easily digestible, readily available and low in fat, with a neutral taste profile.

Blending whey protein with casein and soya protein isolates offers multiple benefits, including nutrition, flavour, functionality and value necessary to create great tasting sports product formulations. At the same time, these types of blends have been shown to prolong amino acid availability, resulting in an extended period of muscle protein synthesis after exercise.

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