When one thinks of a sports nutrition beverage, and particularly what sets a specific option apart from another, it is traditionally the functional ingredients being compared. Amounts of protein, carbs, sugar, caffeine—whatever minerals and nutrients the body needs to perform.
But a recent study published in Frontiers in Nutrition indicated one other factor could come into play when determining how effective a sports nutrition beverage is for consumers: the color (2021;:217).
Ask just about any consumer, and chances are he or she has a favorite color or flavor for their sports nutrition beverage of choice. This preference typically comes down to taste, but could the color itself be subconsciously affecting the performance?
For this study, 10 individuals (six men, four women) considered healthy and habitually active completed two experimental trials in a randomized, single-blind, crossover design. Each trial consisted of a 30-minute treadmill run at a self-selected speed considered hard/heavy. During each of the two 30-minute trials, participants rinsed their mouths with either a pink or clear non-caloric drink; aside from the color, the drinks were identical in terms of flavor and composition.
Despite the two drinks being tested having identical qualities aside from color, the difference in performance was evident. Both speed and distance covered were improved in the group given the pink beverage compared to the clear drink. Total distance for the pink beverage group improved by about 5%, with speed improving a similar amount. In addition, runners consuming the pink beverage reported higher levels of pleasure and satisfaction after their run than the clear beverage group.
“An interesting and novel finding from the current study seems to combine the art of gastronomy with performance nutrition, as adding a pink colorant to a non-nutritive, artificially sweetened solution not only enhanced the perception of sweetness (as quantified in the pilot study and confirmed in the post-trial interviews), but also enhanced feelings of pleasure, self-selected running speed and distance covered during a 30-minute run,” the researchers concluded. “It is clear that future research is required to explore this potential relationship in further detail.”
Food & Beverage Insider insights
While the functional inclusions in any beverage, and especially a sports nutrition beverage, can and should be the main draw for consumers, this study makes clear why they are not the only draw. The color and flavor of a beverage can not only determine whether consumers make an initial purchase and enjoy it enough to come back for another, but clearly can affect each consumers’ perception of the product’s effectiveness.
In naturally positioned products especially, color and flavor can be one of, if not the, determining factor for purchase. As formulators and brands aim to deliver on consumer demand for natural, rather than artificial, colors and flavors in their products, achieving the correct hues—and ensuring those colors stay vibrant throughout shelf life—is of the utmost importance.
Consumer perception is key; even if the color of a beverage has no physiological effect on performance, the psychological effect must be considered. If consumers believe a product to be more or less effective based on its color, whether that color is having a “true” effect becomes moot. With myriad options available and more coming to market seemingly every day, it is up to brands to set themselves apart—bright, brilliant colors with the correct consumer associations is the perfect place to start.