A clean winner

Whether it’s chia seeds in Sainsbury’s, vegan pizzas in Pizza Express or paleo-friendly options sprouting on the high street, the shift towards better food is on the march.

Ingredients and concepts until only recently dismissed as outlandish and reserved for weirdos who wear tie-dye, are now being embraced in the mainstream. The high street may still be packed with junk food, but the foothold among healthy alternatives is growing fast. And the shift is making itself felt in the sports world too, particularly in mass-participation events where challenger ‘clean-eating’ brands are vying for attention.

The drive behind all of this is another term that just five years ago would have marked you out as living in a teepee and taking a laissez-faire attitude towards personal hygiene: mindfulness. Broadly, mindfulness means being more conscious of how your actions affect the world around you. Place that focus on food and suddenly our bodies are thrown into sharp focus as the emphasis switches from price and quantity, to quality and cleanliness.

If any umbrella term can sum up this sentiment, it’s ‘clean eating’. Clean for the body because it makes you feel good, clean for the environment as production doesn’t wipe out half a rainforest, and clean for the community due to being ethically sourced from dedicated producers.

Brands are noticing. Advertising spend on healthy food increased from under £1million in 2012 to almost £7.7million in 2015. To date, £9million has been spent in 2016, up 16 per cent year on year, figures from Nielsen Ad Dynamix show.

The concept of “superfoods” is nothing new, however they are very much en vogue. For example, the presence of kale in new product development increased five-fold between 2013 and 2015 and more than doubled year-on-year, according to a Mintel report from February this year, with the use of whole grains and seeds also exploding.

In the world of sports performance the growth of clean eating is exponential. Swelling ranks of runners, cyclists, triathletes, obstacle course racers, crossfit devotees, martial artists and boot camp lovers are realising that the cleaner they eat, the better they perform, the quicker they recover and the happier they feel. Athletes are reading labels and realising that the huge majority of sports nutrition – the very products supposed to underpin their endeavours – contains the same processed junk ingredients they run a mile from in their daily diet.

Increasingly mass participation events – traditionally the preserve of the biggest sports nutrition companies – are being sponsored by smaller, cleaner and significantly more mindful competitors.

This year’s Castle Triathlon Series, the biggest in the UK, was sponsored by beetroot juice company Beet Active. The popular Man versus Horse trail race in Wales had sugar-free peanut butter company Whole Earth on board, and the Dublin triathlon was partnered with coconut water producer Vita Coco.

The changes are promising, but let’s get real – the sponsorship cheques need several more zeroes added before these companies can challenge behemoths such as Coca Cola or McDonald’s to be associated with the Olympic rings.

As an advocate of clean eating, do I find this depressing? Actually, no. My confidence remains in the groundswell of changing opinion in kitchens and restaurants nationwide and, importantly, with vibrant and innovative food retailers. A rising tide raises all ships, and now that mindful, clean brands are on the first rung of the sponsorship ladder, I look forward to the world’s largest junk food producers being toppled from their ill-deserved perch.

Indulge me with a leap forward to the 2028 Olympics. The women’s 100 metres champion is stood atop the podium stooping to receive gold. The medal is proudly presented by the title sponsor – a bloke who 12 years ago was selling homegrown organic wheatgrass juice out of a food truck in your local market, but whose business has moved faster, higher and stronger to wield a clean-eating empire so big it can merrily fuel the planet’s greatest sporting event. Through sheer endeavour, both athlete and marketer are realising an unlikely dream, but then isn’t dreaming what the Olympic Games is all about?

Warren Pole is co-founder of natural sports nutrition company 33Shake.