The shifting face of nutrition

Nutrition is an area often overlooked in our industry. While it’s true that no bike shop is going to significantly inflate its profit margins by selling gels, the fact remains that hydration and energy boosters can define the quality of a ride. We’ve witnessed an interesting shift in the concept and consumption of nutrition by the general public. In years gone by, a select minority of brands held an overwhelming stake in the market, and the vast majority of consumers were committed athletes, resigned to the poor taste of various products. 

Those days are long gone, and the sheer number of up-and-coming brands demonstrate how the demand for nutrition-packed bars, drinks, gels and blocks has evolved almost unrecognisably. Gone are the days where nutrition offered two options: there are now thousands available in a plethora of tastes and textures.

Few brands have impacted the UK market like Nuun. Having entered the cycling market over 13 years ago, it’s safe Nuun has been a pioneer in remoulding nutrition to meet consumers’ evolving demands.

Pronounced ‘noon’, the brand was founded by a British triathlete who was looking for a convenient way to bring sports hydration with him while on long rides. Frustrated by the lack of diversity in the available options, which were exclusively in ready-to-drink bottles, He resolved to design his own alternative. “Around that time there was some breakthrough research in sports hydration coming out of Stanford University from Stacy Sims that debunked the high-calorie, high sugar sports drink model and demonstrated the need to separate hydration from fueling,” says president and CEO Kevin Rutherford. “Nuun was the first brand to develop a low-carb sports drink, and if you look at the brands that are the most relevant in the current market, they are built on this premise.”

Effervescent tablets have always been popular in the UK and European supplement markets, so the potential to create a technically successful product was already within the realms of possibility. R&D manager Vishal Patel knew he could pack all of the hydrating electrolytes needed for endurance athletes in a small dissolving tablet that could be carried in bulk in a tube. “Portability was the original reason for Nuun to be delivered in a tablet form. And, as Nuun served more athletes across the globe, we became a solution for reducing the use of single-use disposable bottles,” explains Rutherford. “Preserving the planet is a priority at Nuun, and since we started we have saved over 72 million throw-away bottles. Don’t expect to see Nuun bottled at your local cycling shop anytime soon!”

Of course, the brand has had to develop and improve as tastes have changed. In the food industry, there’s been a significant shift in preference from highly-processed products to more natural ingredients. This demand for healthier, less artificial supplements is also being demanded by consumers of sports nutrition products. Nuun was reformulated two years ago to take this into account. Consistent with this philosophy, all of the current ingredients are plant-based, vegan and gluten-free. “Utilising both the latest in exercise physiology research, as well as natural foods sourcing, creates products that perform really well while providing clean sources of nutrients as close to nature as possible,” says Patel.

“One of our primary innovation principles with the new formula for Active and Boost was for every ingredient to serve a functional and physiological purpose, with the ultimate goal of creating a more efficient, hydrating product,” Patel adds. “The addition of non-GMO dextrose is a perfect example of this, allowing us to increase the fluid and nutrient delivery of the products.”

Nuun’s optimal electrolyte blend has been the foundation of the line’s performance benefits, which includes sodium, potassium and magnesium. “Electrolytes synergistically work together, aiding in fluid retention, internal water and electrolyte balance, and muscle function,” continues Patel. “A proper mix of electrolytes hydrates much better than water alone, moving fluid to work muscles. This is most critical for athletes, especially for longer duration activities like cycling.”

Ingredients like stevia, beet juice powder, avocado oil and green tea might be more commonly found in your favourite natural foods products, but these plant-based ingredients have also been added to the Nuun formula. “We went back to the drawing board, challenging ourselves with achieving product purity in tablet manufacturing,” says Patel. “Take avocado oil for example, which is used as a lubricant in the manufacturing process, and to keep the tablets from sticking together in the tube. This was the first time a non-synthetic ingredient has been used in the industry for this purpose and is a direct result of prioritising our nutrition philosophy.”

Talking with Patel specifically about sports nutrition for cyclists, he emphasises the importance of riders recognising a division between using their bottle for hydration and keeping solid food for fuel consumption, which he says make a dramatic change in the optimisation of each. “Hydration starts to become compromised when there are over 19g of carbs per 500ml of fluid consumed,” explains Patel. “At these levels, water actually has to be pulled into the small intestines to dilute the concentration before your body has the ability begin absorption. This is a counter to what the body needs during exercise, causing dehydration by moving water away from muscles.” Nuun Active has 4g of carbs per 16oz.

Patel adds: “A scenario that I am often talking to endurance athletes about, and especially cyclists, is how your hydration needs to change drastically in hot conditions, while your fueling needs are not weather-dependent. On a warm day out on the bike, you need to increase your fluid intake as your sweat rate increases – regulating the body’s ability to cool itself. Your hourly calorific needs are unchanged; it’s most effective to separate your fueling from hydration so both can be properly managed.”

When it comes to fueling, Patel insists there’s no such thing as a ‘one size fits all’ solution. He says it takes experimentation and practice to determine what foods work best with the user’s body during training and competition. “My recommendation is to use as much real food as possible during training, as many of the sports nutrition products on the market are highly-processed and include large amounts of added sugar,” he says. “There are scenarios in racing where you will need carb sources that are convenient and more quickly absorbed, so look for those that include fewer ingredients and nothing artificial.”

There’s little doubt that requirements and demand for nutrition will continue to evolve, and if Nuun’s past confirms anything, it’s that it’s willing to change and grow with its audience. “We believe activity is the solution to a lot of the challenges in our society,” concludes Rutherford. “We strive to be a change agent, encouraging those out on the roads and trails and continually working to foster others to become part of this community.”

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