To Gel or Not to Gel – Energy Gel Alternatives

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Paige Sheen, MS, RD, METS

 

Talk to enough sport dietitians or read their blogs, and you’ll come to find out we basically fall into two camps when it comes to sport gels.  One camp finds them a great way to get needed carbohydrates during endurance exercise and typically recommend taking several gels an hour to meet those needs.  The other camp thinks that at best gels are unnecessary, and at worst can cause some serious GI issues in a lot of athletes.  The sport RDs at Fuel4mance would be in that second camp, but also come from the perspective that if you teach your body to burn as much fat as possible through daily nutrition interventions (i.e. metabolic efficiency), gels may not need to be in the picture at all.

 

 

We are certainly not alone in our outlook on gels.  In a recent article on BikeRumor.com, Dr. Stacey Sims, founder of Osmo Nutrition, says gels are “one of the most detrimental fuel sources for performance” (http://goo.gl/Iipb6B).  Dr. Allen Lim, founder of Skratch Nutrition, is also not a fan.  In a Slowtwitch.com Q and A from 2012 (http://goo.gl/GvSxtq), he states, “For the recreational amateurs who think they need these highly concentrated solutions and gels – they are actually creating more problems than they’re solving.”

 

Why all the anti-gel sentiment?  The simple answer is this: GI distress.  The high concentration of carbohydrate (which must be diluted with water), the type of carbohydrate (maltodextrin and fructose), and other additives (flavorings and preservatives) can wreak havoc on a gut that is by definition compromised during exercise due to reduced blood flow.  In addition, if you are practicing your race day nutrition strategies often during training, as you should, a lot of gels means a lot of simple sugars going down the hatch.  This is probably not ideal from a health perspective.  And finally, if you are a fat adapted metabolically efficient athlete, gels present a problem since the high sugar load can decrease your body’s ability to burn fat.

 

One big advantage of gels, however, is their convenience.  Those little 1.1 oz. packets are easy to throw into a bike jersey or into a bike frame box.  They don’t take any preparation, and some athletes like the taste.

 

So if an athlete wants the convenience of gels without their potential negative effects, what can they do?  Luckily, as fat adapted and/or health conscience athletes shy away from standard gels, several products have arisen to meet a growing demand for an alternative.  In addition, products that have been around forever, such as nut butters, are being repackaged and marketed to athletes as an alternative to standard sport gels.

 

Following is a list of a few gel alternatives, their characteristics, and some pros and cons of each (taste not included as a pro or con since it is very subjective).  For the sake of comparison, I’ve started the list with a popular standard gel.

 

GU Enery Gel, Chocolate Outrage (https://guenergy.com)

 

Serving Size: 1.1 oz.

Ingredients:  Maltodextrin, Water, Fructose, Unsweetened Chocolate (processed with alkali), Leucine, Potassium Citrate, Valine, Sodium Citrate, Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C), Calcium Carbonate, Sea Salt, Histidine, Green Tea (Leaf) Extract (Contains Caffeine), Sodium Benzoate (Preservative), Calcium Chloride, Fumaric Acid, Potassium Sorbate (Preservative), D-Alpha-Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E), Pectin Powder, Isoleucine, Citric Acid, Malic Acid, Ginger Extract, Chamomile Extract.

Macronutrients (per serving): Carbs: 20 gm, Pro: 0 gm, Fat: 0 gm

Electrolytes: Sodium: 40mg, Potassium: 40 mg

Cost per oz: $1.31

Pros: Convenient squeeze packs.

Cons:  sugar sources may cause GI distress; many preservatives and flavorings.

 

 

Yumbutter (http://yumbutter.com)

Yumbutter is a nut butter company that has packaged several of their nut butters in 7 oz. squeeze packets.

 

Serving Size: 1 oz.

Ingredients:  Low-temp roasted California almonds, organic sunflower seeds, organic chia seeds, organic coconut palm sugar (low-glycemic), organic hemp seeds, organic goji powder, organic lucuma (lucuma is a tropical fruit used as a sweetener).

Macronutrients (per serving): Carbs: 8 gm, Pro: 6 gm, Fat: 15 gm

Electrolytes: Sodium, 8mg

Cost per oz: $0.99

Pros: healthy ingredients; protein and fat may help with satiety during longer sessions; low carb level ideal for fat adapted athletes.

Cons: comes in a relatively large squeeze pack (7 oz), but you can separate the serving into individual squeeze packs (more on that below); available online only; sticky consistency may not be ideal for eating at higher intensities.

 

Justin’s Nut Butter (http://justins.com)

Similar to Yumbutter, Justin’s has packaged several of their nut butters into squeeze packs.

 

Serving Size: 1.15 oz. (there is also a 0.5 oz. packet)

Ingredients:  Dry roasted almonds, palm fruit oil.

Macronutrients (per serving): Carbs: 6 gm, Pro: 6 gm, Fat: 18 gm

Electrolytes: none

Cost per oz: $1.04

Pros: healthy ingredients; protein and fat may help with satiety during longer sessions; low carb level ideal for fat adapted athletes; convenient squeeze packs; available at most grocery stores.

Cons: sticky consistency may not be ideal for eating at higher intensities, harder to open on the fly than a regular gel.

 

Pocket Fuel (http://www.pocketfuelnaturals.com)

Pocket Fuel is a company out of Oregon who has packaged a nut butter base with added whole food ingredients.

 

Serving Size: 1.15 oz. (there is also a 1.8 oz. packet)

Ingredients (Coconut Cherry Flavor):  Dry roasted almonds, organic cane sugar, organic coconut, bing cherries, sunflower oil, sea salt.

Macronutrients (per serving): Carbs: 10 gm, Pro: 5 gm, Fat: 13 gm

Electrolytes: Sodium, 38mg; Potassium 173 mg

Cost per oz: $1.29

Pros: whole food ingredients; no preservatives; protein and fat may help with satiety during longer sessions; convenient squeeze packs; sugar source less likely to cause GI distress; available at many bike and triathlon shops.

Cons: Sunflower oil is high in omega-6 fatty acids (the ones we already get too much of), but the total amount is minimal; sticky consistency may not be ideal for eating at higher intensities; if left sitting too long, it can take some time to knead and remix.

 

Huma Gel (http://www.humagel.com)

Huma Gel is a fruit and chia seed based gel that is more similar in consistency to standard gels than the nut butter based options above.

 

Serving Size: 1.6 oz.

Ingredients (Strawberry Flavor):  Strawberry puree, evaporated cane juice, filtered water, brown rice syrup, ground chia seeds, sea salt, citric acid.

Macronutrients (per serving): Carbs: 22 gm, Pro: 1 gm, Fat: 1 gm

Electrolytes: Sodium 105mg; Potassium 30 mg

Cost per oz: $1.40

Pros:  no preservatives; 470 mg of omega-3 fatty acids per serving; packaged like standard gels; available at many bike and triathlon shops; sugar source less likely to cause GI distress.

Cons: Higher cost per ounce, may not be ideal for fat adapted athletes due to higher carbohydrate content.

 

VFuel (http://vfuel.com)

VFuel is a Colorado based company that makes a gel that is more similar to standard gels than any other on this list.  However, since it contains medium chain triglycerides and some other functional ingredients that other gels don’t have, I thought it was worth including on this list.

 

Serving Size: 1.1 oz.

Ingredients (Maple Bacon Flavor): MaltoDextrin, water, dextrose, VFuel Endurance Formula (MCT Oil, Taurine, Glucuronolactone, Ornithine Alpha-Ketoglutarate (OKG), citrulline malate, magnesium aspartate, sodium citrate, potassium aspartate), natural bacon flavor, potassium sorbate, sea salt, caffeine powder, natural maple bacon flavor.

Macronutrients (per serving): Carbs: 23 gm, Pro: 0 gm, Fat: 1 gm

Electrolytes: Sodium 50mg; Potassium 15 mg

Cost per oz: $1.44

Pros: packaged like standard gels; available online or at many bike and triathlon shops; some flavors contain caffeine for athletes who want that boost in their gel.

Cons: Higher cost per ounce, relatively low levels of electrolytes, maltodextrin may cause GI distress in some athletes (however their second sugar source is dextrose vs. fructose which may help with this); may not be ideal for fat adapted athletes due to higher carbohydrate content.

 

Do-it-Yourself: EZ Squeezees (http://www.ezsqueezees.com)

If you want ultimate control over your training and race nutrition, but still want the convenient squeeze packets, EZ Sqeezees may be just the thing you’re looking for.  You can make whatever concoction you like, load it into the side of their reusable bag, zip it up, and off you go.  The website has some recipes to try, but you can also experiment with ingredients like fruit purees, nut butters, coconut butter/oil, coconut milk, cocoa powder, protein powder, and sea salt.

 

So if you are looking for an alternative to standard gels, perhaps one of these options will work for you.  As with any other sport nutrition product, you must practice (practice, practice) with them prior to using them in an event to make sure they work well for you.

 

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