With the enormous popularity of Chris McDougal’s book, Born to Run, I figured it was only a matter of time before a chia seed energy gel hit the market. I happened to run across it during a recent trip to REI. Made by Vitalyte, Chia Surge energy gel made its debut this spring and comes in a 1.3 oz packet in two different flavors: Pineapple Orange and Raspberry.
Why chia seeds in an energy gel? For those of you who may have forgotten the details of why this ingredient is popular in the Tarahumara culture and why it might be interesting to an endurance athlete I’ll do a short recap. Chia is an ancient crop first cultivated by the Aztec people in pre-Columbian times (14-16th centuries). The chia plant is grown for its seed, which contains a macronutrient profile of about 20% protein, 30% fat (omega-3 fatty acids make up about 60% of the total fat content) and about 40% carbohydrate (of which about 35% is fiber). The outer shell of the chia seed is comprised of a soluble fiber that absorbs a substantial amount of water, forming a thick gluey gel around the seed. When ingested, this gel matrix acts like a physical barrier between the seed and the digestive enzymes in the stomach and small intestine, thus slowing down the digestion and absorption process and resulting in a less pronounced effect on insulin and blood sugar parameters. The Tarahumara runners are known to mix chia seeds with water, lime and sugar, making a drink called ‘iskiate’ that is ingested prior to and during their ultra long runs.
Many athletes are quick to make the association that because the Tarahumara are legendary endurance athletes and fuel themselves with iskiate (as well as a corn flour mixture called pinole), these ingredients must be a magic bullet for success. It's important though, to take a deeper look into these claims to consider the following:
- Chia seeds contain very little ‘usable’ carbohydrate for energy. Fiber makes up the overwhelming majority (almost 90%) of total carbohydrate, so if you’re planning on solely using chia seeds as a fuel source during shorter term exercise (lasting 1-2 hours) or at a high intensity (above 75% VO2 max) they won’t be much use to you.
- Since protein and fat are the primary energy sources of chia seeds, exercise intensity needs to be maintained at a steady moderate level (below 70%) to utilize the energy that chia provides. Think long and slow as far as distance and pace go.
- The slower digestion and absorption of chia seeds may pose a problem for athletes with a history of GI problems during exercise since they sit in the gut longer than other fuel sources.
In terms of benefitting performance, chia is really a better option for recovery from prolonged exercise rather than a food during exercise. In an isolated running environment like the Copper Canyon with very limited options for fueling prolonged physical activity, chia seeds are indeed a great resource for the Tarahumara, but modern day endurance athletes have access to MANY more practical and efficient fuel choices. Instead of using chia seeds for your sport nutrition needs, add them to your normal diet in cereal, baked goods, yogurt, salads, etc. Besides being a complete protein, they're very concentrated with healthy omega-3 fats and also contain high levels of antioxidants, B vitamins, iron, calcium and magnesium.
So getting back to Chia Surge.... Even though I'm not sold on the benefits of chia seeds for 'energy on the go', this gel does have some positive assets. I've done a detailed analysis below on how it compares to a standard energy gel.
|Chia Surge |
(per 1 oz)
|Standard Energy Gel|
|Size||37 g (1.3 oz)||29 g (1 oz)||29 g (1 oz)|
|Fat||1 g||<1 g||-|
|Total CHO||17 g||13 g||18 g|
|Maltodextrin||5 g||4 g||11 g|
|Simple Sugars||11 g||8 g||7 g|
|Fiber||1 g||<1 g||-|
|Protein||<1 g||<1 g||-|
|Sodium||4 mg||3 mg||61 mg|
500 mg amino acids (leucine, isoleucine, valine)
500 mg Carnosyn® (beta alanine)
2000 mg chia seed
3700 mg Palatinose®
Ingredient list: water, dextrose, maltodextrin, citric acid, fruit and vegetable juice, natural flavor, ULS® sweetener.
Chia Surge is trying hard to ride the positive media wave of chia, yet contains very little of the actual ingredient in the formula. Each 1.3 oz packet only contains 2 grams of chia seed—equivalent to about ½ a teaspoon. In Vitalyte's defense though, it's really not feasible to get a greater quantity into a packet of this size. The picture I took of the gel (to the right) illustrates what I mean. The concentration of seeds is pretty much maxed out—adding any more would negatively affect mouthfeel and texture too much. So, the end result is that the product ends up looking and feeling like you're getting a significant serving of chia, when in fact, the amount is not enough to warrant any true benefit. The low magnitude of this is reflected in the nutritional facts, which reports 1 gram of fat and less than 1 gram of protein per serving (all from chia). The numbers reported in the carbohydrate panel provide additional useful information. Each packet contains 17 grams of total carbohydrate and 11 grams of simple sugars. We can deduce that roughly 7 grams of the simple sugars come from dextrose because Palatinose® is shown to be present in the amount of 3.7 grams (found in the lower half of the supplement facts table). We also know that the 1 gram of dietary fiber shown is from the chia seeds (remember that the seeds consist of about 35% dietary fiber, so taking 35% of 2 grams leaves us with about 700mg of dietary fiber, which is rounded up to 1 gram following FDA labeling guidelines). Simple subtraction leaves us with 5 grams of complex carbohydrate, which by cross checking with the ingredient list can only be maltodextrin. Comparing this with a standard energy gel (Table 1) allows us to see how Chia Surge stacks up. One of the immediate facts that jumps out is that Chia Surge has about 25% fewer calories than most other gels and contains almost no sodium (4 mg). On a positive note, however, it does contain three different sources of carbohydrate: dextrose, Palatinose® and maltodextrin.
What's Palatinose®? It's the trade name for isomaltulose, an isomer of sucrose. Even though it has the same chemical formula as sucrose (one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule), the bond that connects them is in a different location, which slows the rate of digestion and absorbtion to one about half as fast as a typical sucrose molecule (and which happens to equal the rate of fructose oxidation at 0.5g/min). This seems like a fancy and expensive choice of carbohydrates---adding fructose to the gel would be much cheaper yet deliver the same slow sustained release of energy to the athlete.
A second licensed product, CarnoSyn® is also present in Chia Surge. CarnoSyn® is a patented form of beta alanine and is an amino acid that synthesizes carnosine in muscle cells. I've briefly mentioned this ingredient in other areas of the website; although it has some good scientific backing as an ergogenic aid I don't feel it's useful in an energy gel due to the fact that beta alanine needs to go through a loading phase (you need to ingest it for about two weeks to start seeing a response in carnosine levels) and needs to be consumed in fairly large daily doses (4-5 grams/day). A small one dose application (500 mg) as found in Chia Surge is very unlikely to be of any benefit to endurance performance.
To sum up.... What I do like about Chia Surge is the fact that they're trying something a little different and are differentiating themselves from other energy gels--not an easy thing to do in a niche market that keeps getting more and more crowded. In addition, the taste is pretty good. You'll definitely notice a unique texture due to the presence of the chia seeds but it wasn't a big negative in my opinion—others may disagree though. If you ignore the unnecessary ingredients of chia and Carnosyn®, what's left is a pretty standard energy gel that contains maltodextrin, dextrose and a fructose substitute; so although Chia Surge may be a little low on the calorie and sodium end, I'll belt out a familiar tune...this gel should be as good performance-wise as all the others so let your palate be the true decision maker on whether or not it becomes a regular in your endurance routine.