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The Evolution of Energy Gels

Author:Britt Maughan R.D.
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evolution of energy gels

Energy gels first hit the scene in the late 80's. Through the years they have evolved and now provide more than just carbohydrates. They have become a staple for many athletes no matter what the sport, and with added ingredients such as electrolytes, amino acids, and fats, they offer more for the athlete than ever before. Gels are used primarily to provide quick and convenient energy during exercise to increase overall performance and help delay fatigue. Gels now come in a variety of forms including the honey-like gels we are used to, as well as real food purees and nut butters. Learn more about gels in this article, and don't forget to checkout our comparison chart below to find the best gel for you! 

Gel Comparison Chart
*Trail Butter comes in a single serve and a pouch. The pouch is 4.5oz and provides 4 servings. 

Carbohydrate Source
Gel Carb source

Caffeine:

CLIF SHOT – various flavors contain 25-100mg 
GU Energy Gel – various flavors contain 0-40g 
GU Roctane – various flavors contain 0-35mg 
Hammer Gel - Tropical contains 25mg of caffeine
Honey Stinger Classic - Classic Ginsting contains 32mg
Honey Stinger – Chocolate and Strawberry Kiwi contain 32g 
Huma – various flavors have 0-50mg  
Trail Butter – Dark Chocolate & Coffee contains 15mg of caffeine 
VFuel – all flavors contain 10mg of caffeine 

GEL BASICS
Gels come in all shapes and sizes. At the basic level, most gels contain one or more of the carbohydrates listed above, while some gels contain added electrolytes, amino acids
, fats, and fiber to enhance performance and recovery. Most gels are consumed about 15 minutes prior to physical activity, then every 30-45 minutes. Packaging includes single use packets, resealable pouches, and large twist off pouches for refilling your own gel containers. Depending on your sport, you may have preferences regarding flavor, packaging, mouth-feel, carbs, calories, and electrolytes. This is where the chart comes in! 

QUICK AND CONVENIENT ENERGY

Most gels contain an easily digestible form of carbohydrate to replace glycogen that is used for energy during physical activity. For an activity lasting longer than 60 min, we tap into our glucose storage (known as glycogen, which is stored in the muscles and the liver). In order to keep that energy flowing, we need to replace what is lost through diet. While we can find other energy by breaking down fat within our body, this is a longer process, and may not provide the energy we need in the moment in order to prevent ‘’bonking’’.  

There are many carbohydrates used in gels, such as dextrose, maltodextrin, and fructose. You’ll also see more recognizable ingredients such as honey, molasses, brown rice syrup, cane sugar, and fruit puree. While each carbohydrate is built slightly different at the chemical level, all of them breakdown to glucose in the body.

INGREDIENTS FOUND IN GELS

Carbohydrates
Carbohydrates are one of the three macronutrients and consist of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen. Saccharides are synonymous with carbohydrates and include four main chemical groups: monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides, and polysaccharides. The easiest way to think of saccharides is as simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. Monosaccharides (like glucose or galactose) and disaccharides (like sucrose) are smaller carbohydrates and belong in the simple sugar category, while oligosaccharides and polysaccharides are complex carbohydrates (such as starches and dietary fiber found in plant foods). 

Dextrose is the isomer of glucose (it has the same molecular formula, but has a different chemical structure). It appears in nature and is one of the most basic forms of carbohydrates – often referred to as a simple sugar. Dextrose fits under the monosaccharide chemical group.

Fructose is another example of a monosaccharide and is known as fruit sugar. You’ll most often see it bonded with glucose to make sucrose (table sugar, which is a disaccharide). 

Maltodextrin is a polysaccharide (long chains of monosaccharides bound together) and although it is a complex carbohydrate and it can be absorbed as quickly as a simple sugar. It is derived from a variety of starches, such as corn. It is often used as a thickening or filling agent in foods and beverages.

Added ingredients for performance and recovery

In addition to the basic ingredients of carbohydrates, gels can contain a number of other ingredients to support performance and recovery. Here is a quick list to help you sort it out.

Protein – this is key in muscle building and overall recovery. Very few gels contain more than a gram of protein, however, products such as CLIF Organic Energy Foods and Trail Butter contain about 5g. This is great for the athlete who needs additional support for recovery and for the athlete who craves a more ‘’real food’’ taste and mouthfeel. Huma is a great example of a hybrid of both real food ingredients like raspberries, chia seeds, and lemon, along with the gel like consistency most of us are used to. They contain 1g of protein per packet. 

Fats – Fats provide a great source of long lasting energy, and for those athletes following a high fat, low-carb, or ‘’ketogenic’’ diet, a gel with high fat would be great option. Both CLIF Organic Energy Foods and Trail Butter contain 9-15g of fat per packet from ingredients such as olive oil, sunflower seed butter, almonds and coconut oil. Another example is VFuel, which also has a little fat at 1g from the added MCT Oil (from coconut). 

Omega 3 – this can be found in the Huma gels, and is a product of adding the chia seeds to their gels. The chia seeds add a nice texture to the gels, making it slightly more like jam vs gel, and provides some fatty acids. These fatty acids help in recovery, reducing muscle soreness and overall joint support.

Dietary Fiber – Fiber helps modulate carbohydrate absorption, which means no sugar spike and a steady release of energy. Examples of products that contain fiber are B-LINE, CLIF SHOT energy gels, Huma+ and Trail Butter. 

Electrolytes – these are important when doing physical activity over an hour, and are needed to replenish what’s lost in sweat. Electrolytes do many things in the body, including the control of fluid balance and muscle movement. For the athlete, electrolytes are especially important in preventing muscle cramping, dizziness, and hyponatremia. The main electrolytes are sodium, potassium, and magnesium. Examples of gels that contain all three are EFS Liquid Shot, Huma+, and VFuel. To read more about electrolytes, click here.

Amino Acids – these help support muscle performance and recovery. As the building blocks for muscle, amino acids help support the recovery process when muscle is broken down. Amino acids also help address fatigue during strenuous exercise. You’ll find amino acids in EFS Liquid Shot, GU Energy Gel, GU Roctane, Hammer Gel and VFuel. 

MCT Oil – this stands for medium chain triglycerides, which helps get energy diffused through the GI tract which minimal effort. As VFuel states ‘’MCT oil requires very little energy for absorption, utilization, and storage, while at the same time, being a dense source of calories. MCT also acts as a mild anti-inflammatory." 

BOTTOM LINE

Gels are a great addition to any athlete’s program, whether you’re an adventure racer, triathlete, cyclist or CrossFitter, gels can provide a quick boost of energy and nutrition in an easy to use pouch. With so many options, flavors, and beneficial ingredients, you really can’t go wrong! We suggest trying a variety of brands and flavors to find the right gel for you! 

 

 

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