Beyond protein: exploring the next frontier in active nutrition

Published: 21-Apr-2022

From dairy, plant and insect sources to waters, shots, shakes, snacks and supplements, manufacturers are adding different varieties of protein to an ever-wider range of wellness products. However, reports Sophie Zillinger Molenaar from FrieslandCampina Ingredients, protein is no longer the only player in the active nutrition sector

Growth in the protein industry shows no sign of slowing down. The recent influx of plant-based varieties appears to have galvanised the sector even further, with global sales expected to top $70 billion by 2025 — a stratospheric leap from $52 billion in 2020.1 And brands are taking note! However, although protein may be one of the most popular ingredients used in active nutrition products, it is no longer the only player in the field.

In fact, predicted trends for 2022 have noted that customers are looking for a range of different benefits from their nutritional products — including a desire for increased resilience in the wake of the pandemic and a stronger focus on holistic well-being through improved gut health.2 Therefore, nutritional ingredients beyond traditional proteins are fast becoming a topic of interest for sports and active nutrition manufacturers.

COVID-19 has had an undeniable impact on these evolving trends. As many people were forced to significantly reduce or stop the physical activities that they once took for granted, there has now been an increase in the desire to exercise and stay both physically and mentally healthy.

For example, statistics show that national lockdowns led to a 23% increase in sports equipment purchases, with almost half of global consumers increasing their level of physical exercise.3

As a result, many people now want products that can not only improve their fitness and performance, but also boost their holistic well-being and personal health.

With evolving consumer needs and desires, it’s an interesting time for the world of active nutrition as more brands consider new avenues beyond protein. Here is an in-depth look at popular protein ingredients that are available on the market and an examination of the new frontiers in active nutrition — including prebiotics — focusing on their demand, uses and applications.4

Not all protein is created equal

Protein is arguably one of the most in-demand supplement ingredients within the field of active nutrition, with everyone from Olympic athletes to casual gym-goers wanting to boost their protein intake. However, there is no “one-protein-fits-all” approach. In fact, there is a wide variety of different types and formulations … and their applications can vary.

Dairy proteins are currently the most popular form of supplement with a current revenue share of about 65% in the market.5 Popular examples of these proteins include whey and casein proteins, known for their clean taste, fast absorption and a wide range of applications — including everything from instant drinks and baked foods to powdered shakes and functional gummies.

Although traditional animal proteins have long dominated the protein market, there is no denying that the demand for plant-based alternatives is growing as more consumers choose flexitarian diets. FMCG Gurus data, for example, suggests that one quarter of consumers consider themselves to be flexitarians, suggesting a huge market opportunity for innovation with plant-based products. But protein quality and format are essential purchase drivers.

In a world that is demanding more protein than ever, brands have plenty to choose from when it comes to creating nutritious and healthy protein-enriched products for their customers … and quality is key. But protein is not the only ingredient to consider in the active nutrition industry.

The new frontier of active nutrition: prebiotics

Although protein may be one of the ingredients currently dominating the market, consumer trends have also highlighted a desire to support overall well-being with ingredients that offer a health boost. This is the holistic health trend, the pursuit of all-round well-being and the recognition that different aspects of health are interlinked and impact each other, both mentally and physically.

Beyond protein: exploring the next frontier in active nutrition

And, although we’re just beginning to understand how interconnected our bodies are, the gut is a great starting place. Consumers think so too, as two in three recognise that gut health is key to achieving overall well-being.2

This trend has increased the demand for products that nourish the entire body and offer more than one health benefit. It’s being driven not just by the global pandemic, but by increasingly knowledgeable consumers who are staying up to date with the latest scientific research.

As a result, today’s consumers want to do everything they can to support their mental and physical well-being. To help them do this, they want more than products that simply help them to improve their athletic performance and strength; they also want foods, drinks and supplements that work to contribute to a healthy gut to support their overall health goals.

This is when prebiotics come in. Prebiotics are substrates that are selectively used by host micro-organisms to confer a health benefit.4 In other words, they are the food that beneficial gut microbes need to provide multiple positive knock-on effects for active consumers.

What’s more, consumer research demonstrates that increasing awareness of the importance of fibre consumption and maintaining “good” gut bacteria is, in turn, resulting in an increased demand for prebiotic fibres.6

The gut-muscle axis

Although exercise can have a positive impact on gut microbiota, the level of exercise matters and extensive exercising can cause imbalances in the gut.7–9 Indeed, there are suggestions that 86% of athletes suffer with gastrointestinal problems associated with intense training.8

And disruption of the gut barrier can be a contributing factor to this digestive discomfort.10 Not only can these symptoms be physically annoying and painful for athletes and active consumers, but gastrointestinal problems can also impact their performance and recovery.9,10 This correlation between the gut microbiota, muscle function and athletic performance is known as the gut-muscle axis.

Optimising exercise performance is gaining significant interest from academic research groups, illustrating that the type of exercise can be a contributing factor to alterations in the gut microbiota.11 Emerging research regarding the gut-muscle axis has also suggested that muscle recovery and athletic performance are affected by processes in the gut and may be targeted by gut microbiota intervention.12

Prebiotics such as galacto-oligosaccharides (GOS) have been shown to influence the gut microbiota and support the gut barrier, contributing to beneficial effects on gut health.13–16 Regular consumption of this specific variety of prebiotic could be particularly beneficial for athletes who suffer from digestive issues.

Applications to suit a wide range of needs

Every person is different and certain formats suit different requirements. Specific prebiotic ingredients can not only offer a host of potential health benefits but can also be used in a wide range of different applications to provide lifestyle benefits.

For example, today’s increasingly busy, active consumers want nutritional solutions that are easy to consume and can work efficiently to support their health goals.

Demand for healthy on-the-go snacks is increasing again following a decline during the peak of the pandemic.

For example, trends data shows that the market for protein bars could rise to a significant $7.03 billion by 2027.17

But, for this target audience, protein bars are just one format in an arsenal of tools to help consumers meet their nutrition goals. The demand for on-the-go products offers a whole host of opportunities for brands wanting to create protein-plus products fortified with prebiotics, such as bars, gels, protein waters or compact “health shots,” all of which can be quickly taken alongside breakfast, at the gym, on the way to work or even during a competition.

Growing trends, growing opportunities

Although protein may still reign supreme in the world of active nutrition, it’s no longer the only ingredient that consumers are looking to boost their well-being. Prebiotics, with their wide range of benefits and applications, are steadily becoming more popular, providing huge potential to boost sports nutrition products with health positionings that appeal to ever more discerning consumers.

By collaborating with the right nutrition partners and by staying up to date on the new frontiers and trends of active nutrition, brands can stand out in this busy market and have a real impact on their customers’ lives.


  4. G.R. Gibson, et al., “Expert Consensus Document: The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) Consensus Statement on the Definition and Scope of Prebiotics,” Nat. Rev. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 14(8), 491–502 (2017).
  7. A. Ticinesi, et al., “Exercise and Immune System as Modulators of Intestinal Microbiome: Implications for the Gut-Muscle Axis Hypothesis,” Exerc. Immunol. Rev. 25, 84–95 (2019).
  8. M.U. Sohail, et al., “Impact of Physical Exercise on Gut Microbiome, Inflammation and the Pathobiology of Metabolic Disorders,” Rev. Diabet. Stud. 15, 35–48 (2019).
  10. N. Coleman, “Gastrointestinal Issues in Athletes,” Curr. Sports Med. Rep. 18(6), 185–187 (2019).
  11. C.M. O’Donovan, et al., “Distinct Microbiome Composition and Metabolome Exists Across Subgroups of Elite Irish Athletes,” J. Sci. Med. Sport 23(1), 63–68 (2020).
  12. J. Scheiman, et al., “Meta-Omics Analysis of Elite Athletes Identifies a Performance-Enhancing Microbe That Functions Via Lactate Metabolism,” Nature Medicine 25(7), 1104–1109 (2019).
  13. N. Johnstone, et al., “Anxiolytic Effects of a Galacto-Oligosaccharides Prebiotic in Healthy Females (18–25 Years) with Corresponding Changes in Gut Bacterial Composition,” Sci. Rep. 11(1), 8302 (2021).
  14. G.E. Walton, et al., “A Randomised Crossover Study Investigating the Effects of Galactooligosaccharides on the Faecal Microbiota in Men and Women Over 50 Years of Age,” Br. J. Nutr. 107(10), 1466–1475 (2012).
  15. J.A. Krumbeck, et al., “Probiotic Bifidobacterium Strains and Galacto-Oligosaccharides Improve Intestinal Barrier Function in Obese Adults but Show No Synergism When Used Together as Synbiotics,” Microbiome 6(1), 121 (2018).
  16. M.H. Schoemaker, et al., “Prebiotic Galacto-Oligosaccharides Impact Stool Frequency and Fecal Microbiota in Self-Reported Constipated Adults: A Randomized Clinical Trial,” Nutrients 14(2), 309 (2022).

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