Sports pills still notch solid sales growth, offer good medium for innovation, convenience & novel formulations
Supplements to enhance sports performance have always appealed to bodybuilders and elite athletes. But now, everyone from weekend warriors training for their fi rst triathlon to seasonal exercisers (think New Year’s resolution-makers) wants products that will help support their goals. “We’ve definitely changed our marketing to target a much broader audience,” says Daniel Pierce, vice president of brand strategy and product development at Gaspari Nutrition in Lakewood, New Jersey.
As the purchasing demographics have shifted, so too have the delivery systems. Protein and amino-acid powders in hulking cans promised to build equally massive muscles. Then bars, gels and ready-to-drink beverages jazzed up the niche. A glance at the product offerings from the nation’s top sports nutrition supplement manufacturers shows tablets and capsules barely fi gure into their mix. So, NBJ wondered: Are the days of pill popping for performance over?
The answer, it turns out, is complex. Let’s start with consumer preferences. Most people like having a product to complement their diets, whether it’s a bar they can grab on the run or a tasty, convenient smoothie they can make at home, rather than something that looks and feels like medicine, says Pierce. Even if that weren’t the case, some sports nutrition supplements could never make the cut in pill form.
With protein and many pre-workout formulations, the dosages required are so large that it would be unrealistic to put the ingredients in a pill. “Most consumers don’t want to take more than three or four pills at a time, and no more than one or two times a day,” says Stephen Adelé, CEO of Golden, Colorado–based iSatori. “Most pills cannot hold more than one gram.”
And sports consumers tend to stack supplements, perhaps taking a multivitamin, protein, amino acids and other products all at once, says Pierce. “The dose for my pre-workout alone is about 16 grams. Not having to take 16 pills, that’s what it’s really about.”
On the other hand, pills have some advantages over other formats, especially when it comes to delivery mechanisms, such as timed release. “It’s not so much the market that dictates which form a supplement product will take, but rather the ingredient needed,” says Adelé.
Supplements that do perform well in tablet or capsule form also do heavy lifting at the cash register. “We included efficacious doses of beta-alanine and Carnipure [a branded form of carnitine from Lonza] in our multivitamin [Anavite], and those are doing extremely well for us—we’re talking double-digit year-over-year growth,” says Pierce.
Beta-alanine, in fact, is one of the hottest sports nutrition ingredients out there. This amino acid, a precursor to carnisine, allows striated muscle to work longer before it reaches the point of exhaustion, explains Marc LeDoux, CEO at Natural Alternatives International, a San Marcos, California–based ingredients supplier and custom formulator. It does that by buffering lactic acid—a waste product of exercise that is responsible for pain and muscle fatigue.
“Beta-alanine has been very well received by elite athletes—in cycling, endurance, Ironman competitions,” he says. Not only has the ingredient been approved by the World Anti-Doping Agency, as well as the NSF Certified for Sport program, LeDoux says, but it has solid safety and effi cacy research behind it.
Branched-chain amino acids (BCAAs)—the essential amino acids leucine, isoleucine and valine—have been popular since the late 1990s to promote endurance, though studies examining this application conflict. More recently, research has suggested that BCAAs can minimize the muscle damage associated with intense exercise and promote recovery when it does occur.
BCAAs are often combined with other amino acids in so-called volumizing pills (i.e. products claiming to support maximum muscle-size gain). Most commonly, these include arginine alpha-ketoglutarate, or AAKG, prized for its ability to boost the body’s nitric oxide production. Proponents say that nitric oxide pumps up the blood volume—and nutrient levels—delivered to the tissues, and that it produces a rapid (though temporary) boost in strength, allowing athletes to lift greater amounts, resulting in longterm muscle growth. The nutrient delivery is said to also promote increased energy and muscle recovery.
According to Adelé, leucine in particular helps trigger protein synthesis, necessary for the rebuilding of muscle. “There is excellent data to support such claims, so more and more products are finding their way on the market,” he says. And investors appear as excited as consumers. Last year, Maximum Human Performance—which combines BCAAs with AAKG and other aminos, plus mega doses of vitamin A in its popular A-Bomb product—got a boost of its own from Star Avenue Capital and Stockton Road Capital.
Testosterone enhancers also dominate the pill section of sports supplements. While the formulations vary—they may include D-aspartic acid (or DAA) or herbs & botanicals like fenugreek and tribulus—they all work on the principle that testosterone is a muscle-building hormone. LeDoux, like many in the industry, is wary of these supplements: “People who have problems with their endocrine system probably have other underlying issues they need to attend to.”
Pierce says testosterone levels can fall as a result of overtraining, however, and some strength athletes may need to supplement for levels to recover. “It’s a high-risk category,” he acknowledges. “We want to make sure it’s safe. If the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) were to question us, we have the research to back it up.”
Adelé, though, is skeptical of the category. He says there’s only been one study to date on DAA, and it showed that a huge dose (3,000 mg per day) resulted in only a 33% increase in testosterone levels. “That’s hardly enough to feel a real boost in training, or see any results in the mirror,” he says. “The amount of DAA in products tested on the market is less than 35 mg, or roughly 1/100th of the effective dose.”
It’s problems like that—what Adelé calls “not only misleading but fraudulent” practices—that he thinks hurt the growth of the sports nutrition category and, in fact, the whole supplements industry. When companies “sprinkle enough of an ingredient in their product to capture sales but not enough to impart any real benefits to the consumer,” he says, “the product doesn’t live up to its claims, and the consumer likely draws the conclusion that all dietary supplements don’t work. It paints a bad picture of the rest of the industry, which invests in the development of ingredients backed by legitimate science, and uses the dosages effective to validate label and marketing claims.” (This is a practice commonly known as “pixie dusting” in the dietary supplement and functional foods industries.)
Adelé says another negative influence on the growth of the industry is the proliferation of “garage scientists.” Whenever the FDA bans an ingredient, he says, people working out of their garages manipulate the chemical structure so it doesn’t appear on the FDA’s list.
Adelé believes the consumer base for sports nutrition pills could grow in the absence of these problems. “The vast majority of sports supplement purchasers are people 16 to 25,” he says. Those older than 25 are an under-served market, but they are scared away by overhyped claims, the risk of adulteration and the lack of safety and efficacy data, he says. “This market represents growth for the industry, and needs to be brought in via education, not through slick marketing campaigns.”
LeDoux, too, thinks older consumers could represent huge market potential going forward. He predicts joint-health supplements like glucosamine and omega-3s, and pain relief supplements like DL phenylalanine and white willow bark (Salix alba) will enable the over-50 crowd to continue their exercise regimen.
Pierce and Adelé think vitamin D3 and citrulline malate, respectively, will be ingredients to watch in the near future. Indeed, preliminary research seems to indicate that athletes with higher D3 levels exhibit superior performance. Citrulline malate, a salt of the amino acid citrulline, raises arginine and nitric oxide levels even more than just taking arginine, Adelé says.
Then there’s hope in a bottle: Researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute recently discovered irisin, a protein that triggers some of the same benefits as exercise—namely, weight loss and improved glucose tolerance—in obese mice. What it doesn’t do, though, is build muscle. And there’s no telling yet when—or whether—it will be developed into a supplement or a drug.
But new ingredients that do make it to the supplement aisles are likely to be in pills. “I’m putting a lot more R&D dollars into things that are not amino acids and not protein powders,” says Pierce. “Those categories are saturated. When we’re really focusing on true innovation, it’s typically within a pill form. A lot of innovation tends to be in botanical extracts, peptides—these are things you wouldn’t put in a powder because they require such a small dose.” They also don’t dissolve well in gels and powders, and those formulations don’t offer the same stability as pills, adds Pierce.
Michael Casid, CEO at Dymatize, echoes this point: “With certain active ingredients, it’s more palatable to have them in a capsule form than try and mix them into a powder.” Furthermore, most botanicals don’t taste very good, according to Pierce. “If I’m producing a powder or a gel, I have to add fl avorants, artificial sweeteners, colorants—and all of a sudden, my 100 mg dose has turned into 5 grams.” Of course, this makes it that much harder to reach GMP standards. For these reasons, sports nutrition pills are far from a dying breed. Says Pierce: “Our projected sales of pills versus powders are a lot more, year over year. Pills are even directing our strategy.”