More consumers are buying sports drinks and nutrition bars, but a recent report by Packaged Facts highlights several market shifts that may impact the category. A consumer shift away from sugar and increased demand for products perceived as clean label are “ushering in a new era of sports nutrition,” according to the report “Functional foods: Key trends by product categories and benefits.”

Consumer interest is growing in more natural food and beverage products generally and those made without pesticides, artificial colors, flavors and other additives. That interest extends to sports drinks and points to a gap in the market that several small start-ups and, increasingly, not-so-small acquirers and new entrants are attempting to fill, according to Packaged Facts. The market research firm added the activity will continue as long as there is market share up for grabs, which reformulation and repositioning by current market leaders, to both address and avoid growing criticism, suggests.

Many new products in the category highlight the use of natural and organic ingredients, including natural sweeteners. Examples of natural caloric sweeteners are cane sugar and agave while zero-calorie ones are stevia, monk fruit and erythritol. An increased focus on added sugars also is resulting in more use of other zero-calorie sweeteners to help keep caloric content down, notably sucralose and acesulfame potassium.

Label mentions of a vegan positioning, Fair Trade and sustainability also are beginning to emerge as benefits associated with sports drinks. The Packaged Facts report said the focus on sugar will be a dominant theme in the year ahead with continued attention to the other differentiators as the market evolves.

The future of energy and recovery foods designed for athletes and others who are physically active appears destined to be dominated by savory flavors and ingredients, including meat, according to the report. Many athletes have long requested energy products that are less sweet than standard nutrition bars and drinks, and now that national attention has turned to reducing added sugar in the diet, a new wave of savory products, including bars, gels and meat jerky, are being introduced.

Driven primarily by small businesses and regional companies, the United States is experiencing a wave of new nutrition bar and related product introductions based on savory flavors and ingredients. Sweet potatoes, seeds, meat and fruits are frequently used ingredients. Most notable is the creation of these products with natural and organic, non-G.M.O., gluten-free whole foods including grass-fed, humanely treated animals while addressing sustainability concerns along with taste, performance and nutrition, said David Sprinkle, research director for Packaged Facts.

Nutrition bars in flavors such as roasted jalapeño, honey smoked BBQ and pizza marinara increasingly are becoming commonplace as are those based on meat and other non-sweet proteins that rival jerky, in the footprint of a nutrition bar. More professional athletes are backing meat snack brands. Behind the growing trend is greater awareness among casual sports participants of the importance of consuming protein following exercise to help rebuild muscle.