The world’s first energy gel, Leppin Squeezy®, was introduced in the mid 1980’s and was co-developed by Dr. Tim Noakes, an exercise physiology professor in Cape Town, South Africa and Bruce Fordyce, 9 time winner of the Comrades Ultra Marathon. It took several more years for the next commercial energy gel to emerge (Gu® Energy Gel, 1991) but because of its popularity and strong market presence, Gu has become as synonymous with energy gels as Kleenex® has with tissues, at least here in the US. Since this time, numerous other energy gel companies have entered the market but the total number of gel manufacturers (currently 18 in the US) is still very small in comparison to the number of energy bar and sport drink companies in existence.
In essence, energy gels were created because athletes are always looking for an edge—in this case, a better way to fuel their body during competition. When Gatorade® sport drink was developed in the late 1960’s it quickly became the ‘go- to’ way to prolong and enhance exercise performance. Since that time, sport drinks have amassed a market worth $4 billion dollars per year. Although the beverages hydrate and provide energy, sport drinks have to be consumed in relatively large amounts to deliver the amount of carbohydrates ideally needed for long duration events (2+ hours). As a quick example to show how large this volume can be, consider the following. The human body can absorb between 60-90 grams of carbohydrates per hour during exercise. An athlete needs to consume 32-50 ounces of a sport drink each hour in order to reach 60-90 grams. Relate this to a marathon event. The average runner takes 4 ½ hours to complete the 26.2 mile distance (2010 data from Running USA). Assuming that a runner takes their first sip of a sports drink 1 ½ hours into the race, they would be consuming between 90-150 oz of sports drink before they cross the finish line. That’s a lot of fluid! Taken from another perspective, most races provide an aid station every 3 miles, so using the same example above, an athlete would start ingesting sports drinks at mile 9 (1 ½ hours into the race) and would need to stop at each and every aid station to consume 16-24 oz of fluid—about 3-4 cups per stop! It’s no wonder athletes started experiencing gastro-intestinal distress following these guidelines!
So although sport drinks were a great boon to endurance activities, some of the downsides listed above drove the need for an alternative source of fuel. Hence the energy bar was born in the mid 1980’s (notably PowerBar®). Energy bars provided the athlete with a mixture of energy sources (carbohydrate, protein, fat) in convenient individual packages – a great ‘on the go’ alternative to sport drinks. In addition to serious athletes this concept also translated very well to the average weekend warrior, and due to their portability and effectiveness, large numbers of energy bars soon exploded onto grocery store shelves, convenience stores, gyms, etc. Energy bars were clearly serving a need for those looking for a quick and handy energy source. However, the energy bar has its own disadvantages. Although portable, bars don’t handle temperature extremes well (they freeze during winter sports and produce a sticky mess during the summer months). Due to their texture and chewiness, they can be difficult to consume during intense activity and the presence of fat and protein along with the carbohydrate slows down absorption, thus leading to the dubbed expression of being ‘heavy on the stomach’.
In short, issues with drinks and bars still left the endurance athlete in search of something better. They needed a product that could be carried easily, delivered a significant amount of quickly absorbable energy and was easily consumed on the fly. These desired attributes drove the creation of the energy gel. Gels deliver a very concentrated amount of energy that is lighter on the stomach than energy bars, much less susceptible to temperature flunctuations (they don’t freeze or melt) and due to their flexible small size, they fit into the smallest of pockets and spaces. They are a ‘pre-chewed’ bolus of quick energy that can be easily eaten during even the most intense activities without the worry of choking or swallowing.
Energy gels, however innovative, cater to a relatively small niche market, primarily the ‘serious’ endurance athlete. Because of their unique consistency and texture, gels have not reached (and will likely never reach) a broad mass-market appeal. Sport drinks and energy bars are successful with the mainstream consumer because they’re identifiable as drinks/foods. Energy gels are somewhere in between—present in a virtual no-man’s land of food classification. To someone who has never heard of or tried an energy gel before, the act of coaxing a person into tasting a small sample can sometimes be as difficult as trying to persuade a two year old to eat their creamed spinach. It’s not that energy gels taste bad (well, most don’t taste THAT bad), it’s the foreign appearance of gels that scare most people away or bias their opinion before it even hits the taste buds. Those of us who have used energy gels during a grueling event or training session and felt their beneficial effects don’t need much convincing. They work and work well based on the foundation of what decades of scientific research has shown: consuming carbohydrates during exercise lasting longer than 2 hours helps to prevent/attenuate the dreaded ‘bonk’ caused by muscle glycogen depletion.
In summary, energy gels are the product of four decades of carbohydrate research and countless hours of self reported field testing by athletes. They can be described as a ‘race car’ hybrid of a sports drink and energy bar….sleek, smooth, fast fuel for the endurance athlete.