Nutrition: Gels, Part 1
Many of you may have read a syndicated article that studied endurance athletes' preferences of different "energy gels". The article* discussed several brands but limited the "test" to only a few and focused on their results solely on taste or flavor.
Endurance athletes realize flavor is an important issue in picking a supplement, but more primary than taste are ingredients. Interestingly, not even the highest-rated gel scored very high on. This demonstrates that while taste is important, both the energy gel manufacturers and athletes realize the purpose of the gel is the most important issue. To the point, very few of these gels actually taste "good", but they do a good job.
Endurance athletes have long taken supplements to ease the burden of eating directly after a workout or while competing. Energy gels, consisting of a disposable pouch filled with a sugar combination first appeared in the late 1980s and caught on big by the early '90s. In the early years the gels were strictly a simple sugar such as glucose or fructose. These sugars are great for a quick pick-me-up and last about 20 minutes.
The problem, however, with simple sugar-based gels is threefold: 1) They can cause gastric distress; 2) they cause a spike in insulin; 3) and, once you consume one, you need to keep them coming so you don't bonk (exhaust yourself) even harder.
In the last 3-4 years, energy gel manufacturers have started producing gels with more complex sugars like maltodextrin (made from natural corn starch) or even modified complex sugars like galactin (a gummy carbohydrate that yields several sugars upon decomposition). These sugars are less refined and cause a slower release of insulin, avoiding a spike in blood sugar levels and keeping your blood sugar stable.
In summary, the newspaper article neglected to answer the most important questions about gels: Why purchase certain brands and what is in them? Next time, we will investigate the ingredients in different types of gels and discuss how to choose a product that works for you. Using this information, you can narrow your search for a product and find a flavor to suit your taste buds, too.
*The Seattle Times, Nov. 8, 2004, "Marathoners: Going for the goo?"