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Nutrition: Gels Part 2

Following up on the piece above on energy gels, this discussion turns to their nutritional value and deciding which one will work the best for you. Gu, PowerGel, Crank e-Gel, Hammer Gel and Clif Shot are some of the most popular gels and, surprisingly, more similar nutritionally than you might expect.

First, we do a review of their calories. Simply put, calories are the amount of fuel (not what kind, but how much) you are giving to your body. Most of the gels have 120 or fewer calories. Hammer had the fewest at 91 and Crank had the most at 150. So, for someone who needs more bang or who weighs more, Crank might be for you. 

Most gels have around 25 grams of total carbohydrates except for Crank at 37. Total carbs indicate how many sugar molecules you are getting. The types of sugars (simple or complex) used in the product are important, too. A quick scan of the ingredients shows all five gels are made with complex sugars (good stuff) as the first ingredient, specifically maltodextrin.

But what about simple sugars?
This question reveals some interesting results and might be the best indicator of which gel you want. Products low in simple sugars help balance your insulin release. PowerGel, Clif and Crank have between 7-8 grams of simple sugar. Remember, though, that Crank has more total sugar so the percentage of simple sugar is actually substantially lower. Gu has 3 grams of simple sugar and Hammer has the lowest with 2 grams. From a percentage standpoint, Crank still has twice as much simple sugar as Hammer. 

A final analysis of the sugar content reveals that Hammer has the lowest amount of simple sugar and Clif Shot has the highest. What does this mean? For endurance events, Hammer should cause a slower release of insulin in your body, preferable for long events. For shorter events, say a 5K, you might try Clif Shot.

Electrolytes (electrically charged salts, including sodium, potassium and calcium) are the things that keep our muscles and heart functioning smoothly. In hot weather and times of stress it extremely important to keep your electrolytes balanced. Different people lose different amounts of electrolytes, but we all lose more in heat and with prolonged exercise. Crank was heads and shoulders above the rest in electrolytes. It contains between 9 and 7 times what the other 4 contain in sodium. It also has almost twice the potassium of the other gels. If you are going long, racing in heat or have a problem with cramps, Crank might be the one for you.

Which energy gel has the most protein? The answer: They all have zero grams because the products are less for recovery and more for sustaining your energy during an event. 

With this nutritional overview you can hopefully make a more informed decision about what you want to use and when. It's surprising that all of the gels' first ingredient was maltodextrin! It looks like the writing is on the wall and energy gel companies see that endurance athletes want something for the long haul

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?"