How do the leading energy gels compare with one another? Listed below is a detailed comparison of all the current energy gels either produced in the US and/or readily available in the US. Yes, other gels do exist: Leppin Squeezy, Enervit Sport Gel, ZipFit as examples, but since these are made overseas and aren’t easy to find domestically, they have been omitted from the list.
|Energy Gel||Calories||Total CHO (g)||Malt (g)||Simple Sugars (g)||Sodium (mg)||Potassium (mg)||Caffeine (mg)||Other|
|Accel Gel||76||15||5||10||88||15||15, 30||P|
|Clif Shot||83||20||10||10||75||46||20, 40, 80||-|
|EFS Liquid Shot||75||20||10||10||75||55||-||AA|
|Hammer Gel||77||19||17||2||21||21||21, 42||AA|
|Power Gel||74||20||12||8||135||13||17, 34||-|
KEY: CHO = Carbohydrates, NL = Not listed on label, Malt=Maltodextrin, Other: P=Protein AA=Amino Acids
Huh? These numbers aren’t what I see on the energy gel packets! Correct! In order to provide an unbiased view, each company’s stated nutrition facts are ‘normalized’ using a standard of 1 oz (28 grams). Another sidenote…each company makes more than one flavor and not all flavors have exactly the same nutritional profile; the numbers above show the relative average of all the flavors produced by each gel company.
What pictures do we see?
In terms of caloric punch, the majority of energy gels (11 out of 15) contain an average of 76 calories per ounce. Two gels, Gu® and Honeystinger® contain 14% and 19% more calories respectively, while Chia Surge has 26% fewer.
Energy gels derive their energy from one primary ingredient, carbohydrates (CHO). As such, they are the single most important aspect of a gel. Carbohydrates are technically divided into four chemical groupings (monosaccharides, disaccharides, oligosaccharides and polysaccharides), but are more widely recognized by the general public as falling into two main categories: simple sugars and complex carbohydrates. The three main simple sugars present in energy gels include glucose (oftentimes labeled as dextrose), fructose and sucrose, while the overwhelming type of complex carbohydrate used is maltodextrin. Read more in-depth info on simple sugars and maltodextrin here.
Thirteen of the fifteen energy gels utilize multiple carbohydrate types in their formulations, an important component to note. Of the various carbohydrate types present, every gel except four (Honeystinger®, Chocolate #9®, Reload® and Vega Sport®) contains a considerable amount of maltodextrin in the formula. The use of maltodextrin is significant. The number one reason gel companies use maltodextrin in their products is because it has a very bland/neutral taste….i.e..it’s not too sweet.
In the simplest terms, energy gels are essentially concentrated sport drinks. An athlete can consume 1 oz of gel and attain the same amount of carbohydrate as they would by ingesting ~ 11 oz of a sports drink. This concentrated dose of carbohydrates has to be palatable however, and utilizing traditional simple sugars (e.g. glucose, sucrose, fructose) would result in a product that is undesirably sweet. Puckeringly sweet to be more descriptive. A sport nutrition product that doesn’t taste good fails the athlete at the first hurdle -- if it can’t be ingested then the athlete can’t reap the performance benefit. The ideal energy gel has to have its main carbohydrate source possess the characteristics of being quickly oxidized and mildly sweet. Maltodextrin fits the bill perfectly. Its neutral taste combined with an oxidation rate equivalent to glucose makes it an ideal ingredient for use in energy gels because it delivers a fast and appropriate dose of carbohydrate in a palatable way.
Looking at Table 1, you can see that both extremes exist regarding the amounts of maltodextrin and simple sugars used in gel formulas. Honeystinger®, Chocolate #9®, Reload® and Vega Sport® contain no maltodextrin whatsoever, whereas Lava Gel®, Hammer Gel® and Carb-BOOM® contain maltodextrin almost exclusively as the carbohydrate source. Note: Maltodextrins contain an average of 7-8% simple sugars, so an energy gel using solely maltodextrin as the carbohydrate source will by default contain ~ 1.5 grams of simple sugar per 1 oz serving.
Before we go a little more in depth on this topic I think it’s helpful to look at the above table with two additional columns: maltodextrin:simple sugar ratio and the sources of carbohydrate supplying the energy. See below….
|Energy Gel||Total CHO (g)||Maltodextrin (g)||Simple Sugars (g)||Malt: Sugars||CHO Type(s)|
|Accel Gel||15||5||10||40:60||M, F, S|
|Chocolate #9||15||0||13||0:100||F, G2|
|Clif Shot||20||10||10||50:50||M, F, G3|
|EFS Liquid Shot||20||10||10||50:50||M, G, S|
|Hammer Gel||19||17||2||90:10||M, F, G, S4|
|Honeystinger||23||0||23||0:100||F, G, S5|
|Power Gel||20||12||8||60:40||M, F|
|Wilderness Athlete||18||16||2||90:10||M, F, G, S4|
Key of CHO types: M=maltodextrin; F=fructose; G=glucose; S=sucrose
1 Fruit purees and concentrates contain fructose, sucrose and glucose
2 Agave nectar contains primarily fructose, with a small amount of glucose
3 Evaporated cane juice contains glucose, fructose and sometimes sucrose
4Energy Smart® is comprised of maltodextrin and fruit juice concentrates (fructose, sucrose, glucose)
5 Honey is comprised of fructose, glucose and a small amount of sucrose
6Palatinose® is an isomer of sucrose; also known as isomaltulose
7Figs contain primarily fructose and glucose
8Dates contain primarily fructose and glucose
From this, we can see a pretty varied difference in carbohydrate blends between the 15 gels. What ratio and carbohydrate type is ideal? Each company’s marketing arm will tout their particular formula as being superior to the others, but the truth is, we don’t know for sure. It’s unclear whether an 80:20 blend of maltodextrin to simple sugars is better for an endurance athlete versus a 60:40 or a 50:50 one. What IS evident, however, is that the presence of multiple sources of carbohydrate is very important in an energy gel’s composition. Recent research has shown that ingestion of multiple carbohydrate types results in increased carbohydrate absorption, delivery and oxidation over ingestion of a single carbohydrate type. This is primarily due to the fact that carbohydrates are transported across the intestinal wall differently. Glucose is absorbed in the intestine by a sodium dependent transporter called SGLT1, whereas fructose is absorbed by GLUT5, a sodium independent transporter. What does this mean in laymen’s terms? Because glucose and fructose are not competing for the same transporter, more total carbohydrate can be delivered to the bloodstream when both are ingested together as compared to consuming glucose or fructose alone (see Figure 1). Additional support for using multiple carbohydrate sources is a lower level of GI discomfort that has been reported with glucose-fructose combinations versus a single carbohydrate solution of just glucose or maltodextrin.
The ‘burn rate’ of carbohydrates, or how quickly they’re oxidized in the body, is also important in a gel’s design (see Table 3). Glucose has a maximum oxidation rate of about 1 g/min. Fructose is about half of this and one of the slowest at 0.5 g/min). Not surprisingly, maltodextrin, which is made up of multiple glucose units that are weakly linked together, has a peak oxidation rate the same as glucose. Sucrose, made up of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule, has a maximal oxidation around 0.9 g/min. A combination of carbohydrates such as [glucose + fructose] and [glucose + fructose + sucrose] can reach oxidation rates as high as 1.5 g/min. Simplifying things with the figure above, more carbohydrate can be delivered to working muscles and at a more efficient rate if a mixture of carbohydrate types is consumed. Look for multiple carbohydrates on the ingredient label when choosing a gel, specifically ones that contribute glucose (dextrose, maltodextrin, sucrose, e.g) as well as ones that contribute fructose directly or as part of a disaccharide (sucrose, isomaltulose, lactose, e.g).
|Glucose + Fructose||1.5 g/min|
|Glucose + Fructose + Sucrose||1.5 g/min|
I don’t like to single out energy gels (good or bad) but want to mention Chocolate #9®, Reload® and Vega Sport® very briefly. These three gels are taking a more 'natural' angle by using ingredients such as agave syrup, figs and dates as their prinicipal sources of carbohydrates. Although I'm an avid believer of eating wholesome and minimally processed foods, I feel that high concentrations of figs, dates and agave syrup for use during exercise is worriesome and should be approached with caution. Figs and dates are known natural laxatives, whereas agave syrup contains predominantly fructose (at levels up to 90%). Although fructose is beneficial to have in an energy gel, when used alone and/or as the sole carbohydrate source, fructose has a negative implication of being VERY sweet tasting, thus possibly affecting the consumption rate (see Flavor/Taste notes below). If these gels work for you, great, just be sure to test them out thoroughly during training first.
Already stated above, a sport nutrition product that doesn’t taste good fails the athlete at the first hurdle. I strongly believe that an energy gel’s taste is absolutely critical to its function. Why? Because if you don’t like the taste of a gel then you likely won’t eat it all and/or eat it as frequently as needed---in turn, you likely won’t get an optimal performance benefit. This principle applies to all sport nutrition products, whether drinks, bars, gels, chews, etc. All the energy gels listed in Table 1 will benefit endurance performance if taken properly, and for all practical purposes, all are essentially equal in terms of function; therefore, taste is a hugely important factor that sets energy gels apart from one another. Take the time to critique their taste in order to find your favorite(s).
Almost half of the gel companies produce at least one flavor with caffeine. Reason being, caffeine has a solid backing of scientific research (one of the very few supplements that does) as a performance enhancer. Caffeine likely works through several mechanisms to aid in glycogen sparing, mental focus, pain attenuation and increased muscle contractions. Ingestion is beneficial during prolonged exercise (2+ hours) as well as short-term intense exercise (like a basketball game, weight lifting, etc). Caffeine is absorbed quickly and tends to stay elevated in the body for several hours, so to maximize its advantages it is recommended that athletes consume 3-6 mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight about one hour prior to exercise.
The amount of caffeine found in commercial energy gels ranges from 25mg-100mg per packet. Using the table below and at the low end of recommended ingestion (3 mg/kg), you can see that an athlete would have to consume quite a few energy gels if using one that only contains 25mg of caffeine, so if you’re looking for a fix before your workout/event you may want to choose one of the more heavily caffeinated gels or opt for an early morning cup of Starbucks® coffee (which contains an average of 250mg of caffeine in a 12 oz ‘tall’ cup). Ingesting caffeine an hour before a race also allows one of its well known side effects to clear the system before competition starts… (yes, talking about a bathroom visit here).
|Weight (lbs)||Recommended caffeine consumption
(1 hr prior to exercise)
|Recommended # of gels needed if caffeine amount is:|
|100||135-275mg||6 gels||3 gels||2 gels|
|125||170-340mg||7 gels||4 gels||2 gels|
|150||205-410mg||8 gels||4 gels||2 gels|
|175||240-480mg||10 gels||5 gels||3 gels|
|200||270-550mg||11 gels||6 gels||3 gels|
|225||305-610mg||12 gels||6 gels||3 gels|
In addition to pre-exercise consumption, caffeine can also be a great strategy to take in the later stages of a race to help boost mental clarity/attitude and stimulate the release of fatty acids to aid in glycogen sparing. Any of the commercial gels containing caffeine (Table 5) are adequate for this late, last push to the end line.
|Gels containing caffeine||Caffeine per packet/serving (mg)*|
|Accel Gel||20, 40|
|Clif Shot||25, 50, 100|
|Hammer Gel||25, 50|
*Most companies make regular as well as ‘double caffeinated’ flavors
Aside from carbohydrate content, electrolytes are probably the second most highly marketed ingredients in energy gels. Sodium and potassium are present in every energy gel currently on the market. PowerGel® and E-Ge®l contain the highest amount of sodium per ounce at 135mg and 118mg respectively, with Chia Surge® and Vega Sport possessing the lowest at 4mg. (As a point of reference, one 8 oz serving of Gatorade® contains 110mg of sodium and 30mg of potassium.) With the exception of a small amount of sodium (mainly for flavor), electrolytes really aren’t effective or necessary in energy gels.
Accel Gel® is the only gel that contains protein (5g per pouch) and is present in the company’s patented 4:1 ratio of carbohydrates and protein. Research showing a performance advantage DURING exercise of a carbohydrate-protein solution versus a carbohydrate only solution has been controversial at best, with the current majority believing that protein does not help endurance. (Using protein AFTER exercise is a different story, however, and clearly important for recovery.)
The following categories of ingredients fall into my ‘marketing/fluff category’ because their presence in a gel doesn’t positively affect exercise performance. Energy gels containing any/all of the ingredients below are not any better than a simple energy gel containing just carbohydrate, water and a modest amount of salt. The simple fact is, most energy gels are pretty uniformly similar, so in order to try and sway an athlete into choosing one over the other, nutrition companies resort to throwing in a number of highly marketed ingredients in an effort to increase sales.
Amino Acids: Only one amino acid, beta alanine, actually carries merit as a possible ergogenic aid but because it requires a loading phase (about 2 weeks) and fairly high daily dosages (4-5g), its presence in an energy gel is insignificant. (Chia Surge® contains 500mg of beta alanine.) All the other amino acids, which include the branched chain, essential, and non-essential categories, don’t have significant science backing to show they actually help endurance performance. Six gels (Chia Surge®, Gu®, Hammer®, EFS®, E-Gel® and Wilderness Athlete®) contain amino acids in this category.
Vitamins & Antioxidants: No need to really expand here, the addition of vitamins/antioxidants in an energy gel’s formula just makes the overall product look ‘prettier’ to the consumer; not effective for performance, with some studies even showing that these ingredients (antioxidants in particular) may block the beneficial effects of exercise.