Muscle supplement industry going mainstream

Carmen and Eddie
Image caption Carmen Knights and Eddie Abbew say the bodybuilding industry has seen big changes

Monster Gym in Cheshunt may not have quite the same glamorous ring to it as Muscle Beach in Los Angeles.

But in recent years there has been a growing worldwide interest in bodybuilding and the muscle supplement industry that has reached even this Hertfordshire town and its American-inspired warehouse-style gym.

The fitness centre is in its fifth year of trading and boasts an impressive number of members that would make any gym chain stand up and take note.

Everything is big here, from Steve the owners' truck parked outside to the equipment and the food and drink portions that are served.

Lifestyle choice

Amidst the policemen, rugby players and others keen to build muscle here, there are the pros for whom this is their life.

UK Bodybuilding Champion, IFBB Professional, and registered nurse Eddie "The Savage" Abbew and his training partner Figure Pro Carmen Knights have seen all areas of their industry develop over the years.

At 21 stones, Mr Abbew, 46, has been weight training for the last 30 years and competing since 1991.

Image caption Supplements Carmen takes have a retail value of about £150 per month.

He has wanted to become a body builder since he was 15 years old.

And like any serious bodybuilder will tell you, his goal was to qualify for the holy grail of this world, the Mr Olympia competition, which he achieved in 2007.

"Bodybuilding is not necessarily about middle aged men getting on the stage in their pants with oil on their bodies," he says.

"It is a lifestyle, and even the people who are not intending on competing are attracted to the lifestyle because they eat the same things at the same time every day.

"It may be boring to some people, but it keeps me healthy and my diet is spot on."

Talent spotted

Mr Abbew's training partner, Carmen Knights, is 37 and has only been bodybuilding for the last seven years.

Ms Knights never had any intentions of getting into the industry, but Mr Abbew approached her two weeks before a British Championship qualifier show.

He saw her shape and felt he could transform her. She gave it a go and as a result she qualified for the British championships finals.

A year later she qualified for the British Championship final again, where she placed third. She won the finals the following year and with that, her pro card.

Powerful sponsorship

This time of the year the bodybuilders are off-season, and Ms Knights is currently working full-time as a personal trainer.

She is still keeping in shape, though, as she has been snapped up to take part in some ad campaigns for a few luxury brands, including Oakley sunglasses.

Image caption The global sports nutrition industry was worth about £3bn in 2009, analysts say.

Ms Knights and Mr Abbew are also both sponsored by the muscle supplement industry, which provides them with all the supplements that they need.

Carmen estimates it would cost her about £150 - £200 a month if she was to purchase the supplements herself.

Valuable industry

The muscle supplement industry is worth an impressive amount and the UK has quite a significant slice of this pie.

Euromonitor says the global sports nutrition industry was worth some £2.2bn in 2004 rising to almost £3bn in 2009.

By comparison, the UK the industry was worth £70.2m in 2004, rising to £91m by 2009.

About 6% of these sales in the UK come from grocery retailers. The largest share of the sales, some 29%, is accounted for by health food shops, with a further 26% by pharmacies.

Non-store retailing also has an important role to play, accounting for 24% of sales, with 6% of sales being via the internet.

Growing market

Maxinutrition, a British company formerly known as Maximuscle that was founded in 1995, is the best selling brand in the UK, according to Euromonitor.

"Maxinutrition has seen revenue growth across all channels from £8.6m in 2003 to £65m in 2010, with an ambition to surpass the £100m mark by 2013," a spokesperson says.

Their products are now available in a number of mainstream outlets such as Tesco, Asda and Boots, and they have shaped their products according to this tread.

"Our range of products is predominantly powder based but this has evolved in the last couple of years with product development in our convenience range with bars, capsules, gels and ready-to-drink products," the spokesperson says.

"I'm not sure about the take-away food counter, but if you look at the US where the category is more established then I would expect to see bays of sports nutrition in the major retailers in the next three to five years and ultimately you could see protein bars and drinks in the impulse aisles."

Waitrose, another mainstream supermarket chain that stocks muscle supplements, is seeing a similar trend.

"Nutrition bars and shakes are driving the growth of the wellbeing category, with year to date sales at Waitrose increasing by 27%," according to spokeswoman Amy Hayward-Paine.

"Most of our branches will be stocking energy bars and ready-to-drink shakes next year, as opposed to packs of whey protein, in a response to the increased demand from customers for these products."

Pointless exercise?

Demand for nutrition supplements and similar products may be up, yet experts are sceptical about their actual benefits.

"People who do regular exercise have a small increased need for protein," according to Dr Helen Crawley, reader in nutrition policy at City University London.

"But it is unlikely they need supplements of protein in any form as most western diets are already high in protein and people who are active eat more food and therefore these needs are generally covered.

"Most of the specialist foods available just have added skimmed milk powder to make them higher in protein, so whether a bar or drink or powder, they are just an expensive way of taking in extra calories."

Carbohydrate is the best fuel for exercise, whereas recovery from exercise is aided by taking low protein, carbohydrate-rich drinks and foods, such as banana and squash, she explains.

But beyond being useless, the supplements could even cause harm, Dr Crawley says.

"High protein intakes can in fact be dangerous and can damage kidneys and therefore protein supplements are not recommended," she says.

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