Trends & Features

As the trend for good health and fitness builds, so does the market in protein supplements

By Louise Ramsay

Fitness is in fashion. Whether it’s footgolf, dodgeball or Zuu, a new exercise regime or sports activity seems to hit the headlines every week. As for the amount of marathons, triathlons and fun runs, it’s virtually impossible to leave the house without tripping over one most weekends.

Likewise, there’s almost a daily news story about the health benefits of different foods on our long-term health – be it walnuts, blueberries, fats or carbohydrates.

These trends have been fuelled by a growing awareness about how lack of exercise and poor diet make us more likely to become obese and suffer a myriad of health problems, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer.

Tapping perfectly into this more health-conscious population is the sports nutrition market, which offering products designed to boost both intake of essential nutrients and enhance performance, is positively booming.

Indeed, the UK sports supplement and nutrition market is now worth more than £300 million and is expected to rise to £471 million by 2018, according to industry data from Euromonitor International.

Which is good news for sports nutrition brands. Colchester-based Bulk Powders is one shining example. Launched by University of Essex graduates Elliot Dawes and Adam Rossiter in 2005, it specialises in nutrition and bodybuilding supplements.

Set up in their summer holiday with a £3,000 loan from each of their parents, the expectation is that the company’s revenue will double this year to £20 million, up from £9.6m in 2014, as the consumer desire for protein products continues to grow.

While Bulk Powders sells its product exclusively online and does not have a presence in any high street stores or major supermarkets, it’s able to provide a great insight into markets for independent retailers to target.

“Our products are popular across a wide range of customers,” Dawes says. “There are still the hardcore bodybuilders and strength athletes, but we now see much broader usage amongst the mainstream health consumers. Our key market remains 18-35-year-old males, but we like to be inclusive in our marketing. You will never see extreme male body shapes – nor outrageous claims. Approximately a quarter of our sales now come from women and that’s rising.”

Dawes says in the US consuming protein shakes are now mainstream and the perception that they will make you huge is starting to change, which is particularly important when marketing to women. Indeed, people are starting to see protein supplements as an important part of their everyday diet.

In the UK, this trend is underlined by the amount of other nutrition start-ups that have launched recently, such as the Good Whey Co and high protein ice-cream brand Wheyhey. There are also high protein sandwiches and ready meals now on sale in Marks & Spencer.

Alex Thompson is a nutritionist at Holland & Barrett, which sells the Precision Engineered sports nutrition range. He believes the boom in protein supplements is in part due to guidance from the European Food Safety Authority that now allows claims that ‘protein supports the growth and maintenance of muscle mass’, which means brands are able to market their products more aggressively.

He also agrees with Dawes that people are starting to recognise the other benefits protein can bring.

“The classic perception was that protein supplements were only for bodybuilders,” Thompson says. “But research and re-education of the public, largely through the media, is starting to shift public opinion. For instance, protein is now seen as important for weight loss, because it helps people to feel full and also to keep blood sugar levels stable. This helps with portion control and reduces the risk of blood sugar level slumps, which often lead to unhealthy food choices.

“While athletes aren’t only concerned with weight loss, clearly they have health needs beyond those that only relate to exercise, so the more functional benefits of different proteins can be useful for these individuals too.

“For instance, protein has a host of other benefits, such as an ability to lower blood pressure, support immunity, help with stress management and support bone density. As people who are often not particularly physically active or are just recreational athletes often exercise to achieve goals like these, supplements offer an opportunity to further support their athletic endeavours.”

Thompson, however, warns that protein supplements should be used sensibly: “Anyone with pre-existing kidney disease and those taking certain medicines should avoid excessive protein intakes. Very high intakes of protein in healthy people can also be detrimental to overall performance and goal attainment by displacing carbohydrate from the diet. The key is sensible and appropriate use of protein at levels suitable to meet the demands of the individual.

“This can, of course, still be a confusing area for many people, which is why it’s important for retailers to know what they’re talking about. It’s also important to remember protein supplements are just that – supplements to be used alongside a balanced diet, rather than serving as replacements.”

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