Jan 29, 2015Analyzing Easy Energy
By Stan Reents, PharmD
In the beginning, athletes had sports drinks like Gatorade. Then, energy bars such as PowerBar were what serious endurance athletes used. Several years ago, energy gels arrived on the scene. Today, athletes who want a burst of energy during exercise have an even wider variety of sports nutrition products to choose from. In this article, frequent contributor Stan Reents reviews carbohydrate-containing gels and chewable products.
First, let’s clarify the names I will be using in this review. Virtually all of the manufacturers of these carbohydrate gels call their products “energy gels.” Don’t be misled into thinking these are caffeine-laden products like energy drinks. While some brands do contain caffeine, most don’t. Since there is a clear difference between “sports” drinks like Gatorade and caffeine-based “energy” drinks, I want to underscore the fact that carbohydrate gels are legitimate products that athletes can safely use.
Another name that might cause confusion is “sports gels.” The word “gel” has a distinct meaning in the world of dermatologic pharmaceuticals. In fact, some sports creams (e.g., BenGay, etc.) are marketed in a gel form. So, is a sports gel something you apply to sore muscles, or a sports nutrition product you ingest?
Finally, I considered the term “carbohydrate gels” but my elite athlete friends thought that was a weird term, so I scrapped that idea even though it’s the most accurate label. Throughout this review, I will use the term “energy” gels.
These newer carbohydrate-based sports products can be grouped into liquids and chewable forms. Whether it’s a gel, cube, or bean, all of these products are intended to provide rapidly-available calories in the form of carbohydrates. Some also contain vitamins, electrolytes, and/or caffeine.
Gels: •Accel Gel (by Accelerade, www.Accelerade.com): Accel Gel is the only product to combine carbs and protein in a gel. (Note: several products contain specific amino acids.) Each packet contains 20 g carbohydrate with 5 g protein, to provide a total of 100 kcal. Sodium, potassium, Vitamin C and Vitamin E are also included. Available in chocolate, citrus orange, strawberry kiwi, and vanilla flavors.
•Carb BOOM! Energy Gel (by Carb-BOOM, www.CarbBoom.com): One packet contains 27 g carbohydrate and 110 calories. Each packet also provides sodium and potassium. They come in the following flavors: apple cinnamon, banana peach, chocolate cherry, double espresso, strawberry kiwi, vanilla, and vanilla orange. The chocolate cherry and vanilla orange flavors contain 50 mg caffeine per packet. The double espresso flavor contains 100 mg caffeine per packet.
•Clif Shots (by Clif Bar, www.ClifBar.com): First, it is important to point out that Clif Bar uses the product name “Clif Shot” on several different products: in addition to energy gels, they also market a recovery beverage and an electrolyte beverage under the Clif Shot name. The main carbohydrate in their energy gels is organic brown rice syrup. Clif Shot energy gels come in a variety of flavors: apple pie, chocolate, double espresso, mango, mocha, razz, strawberry, and vanilla. The mocha flavor contains 50 mg caffeine and the double espresso contains 100 mg caffeine.
•CytoMax Energy Gel (by CytoSport, www.CytoSport.com): Each packet contains 27 g carbohydrate, 110 kcal, sodium, potassium, and a much different spectrum of vitamins: Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin E, and chromium. Available in orange and vanilla flavors.
•Enervitene Sport Gel (by Enervit, www.Enervit.com): Enervitene Sport Gels contains 18 g carbohydrate, 72 kcal, sodium, potassium, and small amounts of water-soluble vitamins in each packet. The carbohydrate sources are fructose, glucose, and maltodextrin. This gel is unique in that it also contains branched-chain amino acids. Available in cola, lemon, and orange flavors.
•GU Energy Gel (by Sports Street Marketing, www.GUsports.com): GU Energy Gels contain 25 g carbohydrate and 100 calories per packet. The company recommends 1 packet (with water) 15 minutes before and every 45 minutes during exercise. GU gels come in the following flavors: just plain, lemon sublime, orange burst, strawberry banana, and tri-berry.
•Hammer Gel (by Hammer Nutrition, www.HammerNutrition.com): Each packet contains between 88 and 93 kcal. The carbohydrate source is listed as “long-chain maltodextrin.” This gel also includes four amino acids: alanine, leucine, isoleucine, and valine. They are available in the following flavors: apple cinnamon, banana, chocolate, espresso, orange, plain, raspberry, tropical, and vanilla.
•Honey Stinger Gel (by Honey Stinger, www.HoneyStinger.com): This product lists pure honey as its base. The strawberry and ginsting flavors contain kola nut extract, which is a natural source of caffeine. Available in banana, chocolate, ginsting, gold, mint, and strawberry flavors.
Chewable Products: •Clif Shot Bloks (by Clif Bar, www.ClifBar.com): The Clif Bar company makes several categories of nutrition products: bars, gels, and now these rather unique, moist cubes they call Clif Shot Bloks. One packet of Bloks contains six pieces, which provides 48 g carbohydrate and 200 calories. They recommend three to six pieces (with water) every hour during activity. Clif Shot Bloks come in a variety of flavors: black cherry, cola, cran-razz, lemon-lime, margarita, orange, and strawberry.
•Sport Beans (by Jelly Belly, www.SportBeans.com): Jelly Belly is the company that brought you jelly beans. Now, they have created Sport Beans. A single one-ounce packet contains 25 g carbohydrate (as sucrose and corn syrup), which provides 100 calories. Sport Beans also contain some sodium and potassium, and small amounts of the water-soluble vitamins thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, and Vitamin C. According to their marketing literature, Sport Beans are for people “engaged in prolonged exercise of 60 minutes or longer.” They recommend one packet (with water) 30 minutes before exercise, and then one packet (with water) roughly every 45 minutes throughout activity. Sport Beans come in berry blue, fruit punch, lemon lime, and orange, none of which contain caffeine. They taste like, well, jelly beans… which is what they are, with the addition of small amounts of electrolytes and vitamins.
What’s Your Favorite Flavor?
Taste is so subjective that it’s pointless to try and recommend a product on this basis alone. Some people like gels that taste like cake frosting (“raspberry creme” for example), but those are way too sweet for me. I prefer the chocolate- and coffee-flavored products (especially if they contain some caffeine!). And trust me, I have tried them all! One thing I can say for sure, Clif Bar’s Shot Bloks have the strangest consistency of anything I’ve eaten in a long time.
You have to find what you like. And you should definitely figure this out before an important race. The last thing you want in the middle of a marathon is to develop a queazy stomach from something that is supposed to be helping your performance.
Energy Gel Drawbacks
GI intolerance: As mentioned above, you never want to ingest something during a race if you haven’t previously determined how your body will handle it. In a small Australian study, three out of 18 well-trained runners complained of “gastrointestinal discomfort” when consuming carbohydrate gels during a half-marathon. Because of this, and the fact that the improvement in performance was slight, the researchers concluded that the use of commercial sports gels is not warranted during a half-marathon (Burke LM, et al. 2005).
It’s possible that when carbohydrate gels cause GI cramps, athletes just aren’t drinking enough water with them. Extensive research over the past several decades has revealed that, when the carbohydrate concentration in a sports drink is greater than six to eight percent, GI intolerance and nausea are more likely. Most of the manufacturers of these gels specifically mention they should be consumed with water.
The foil packet irritates my mouth! Some may say this is a minor gripe, but I don’t necessarily agree. All of the manufacturers market their gels in a foil packet so you can tear off the top and suck the contents out. But, the foil is stiff and feels like the edges are slicing into my mouth. Try consuming several packets during your next run and see what you think. Manufacturers need to market these products in a toothpaste like container (i.e., something without any edges). On this point, products like Clif Shot Bloks and Sport Beans have a clear advantage.
They’re expensive: When you get down to it, these products are just simple sugars. Retailing for $1 to $2 each, that seems a high price. Yes, they are a “scientific” blend of sugars, and yes, some products contain other ingredients such as electrolytes, vitamins, and caffeine. And yes, with these products you know exactly how much you’re getting in each packet. But, be honest: do you really know how much your body needs? We’re not talking about a chemistry experiment here where something will blow up if you don’t get the amounts just right.
Burke LM, Wood C, Pyne DB et al. Effect of carbohydrate intake on half-marathon performance of well-trained runners. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 2005;15:573-589.
Stan Reents, PharmD, is a former healthcare professional. He holds Personal Trainer and Fitness Counselor certifications from the American Council on Exercise. He has been certified as a tennis coach by USTA. He is the author of Sport and Exercise Pharmacology (published by Human Kinetics). He can be reached at: [email protected].