Energy Gel Roundup

author : DominiqueL
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By Dominic Lazzaretto

I started using energy gels five years ago while training for the Los Angeles Marathon and have come to rely on them for any physical activity that lasts more than an hour. [Add your own Tantric jokes here] Energy gels are much easier to carry and digest than energy bars and they provide a better energy boost than fluid replacement drinks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Energy bars and fluid replacement drinks have their place – and will surely be the subject of future reviews – but there is nothing quite like the immediate lift an energy gel can provide.

Gels look like simple creatures, but they need to do several very important things. First, they need to provide a quick burst of energy. You’ve been working out for nearly an hour, your mind is starting to wander, and your muscles are hungry. You need help. Enter your good friend, the simple sugar. Just ask any parent how quickly sugar reacts in the body and you’ll know why a good gel has a supply of simple sugars.

The Bottom Line
Highly Recommended:GU

Recommended

PowerGel,
Carb-BOOM,
Hammer Gel & Clif Shot
But that’s not all. As an endurance athlete, you need to keep going for the long haul. Simple sugars aren’t going to get that done – if they did, we’d be reviewing gummy bears and Pixie Stix. For that reason, gels are packed with complex carbohydrates and additional ingredients to fight the effects of fatigue. A good gel will have a long, slow burn to get you to the finish line in great shape.

Don’t ask me how, but the best gels somehow also provide clarity of thought. You go from feeling like you can’t go another

Gel prices are generally around $1.25 each, with discounts offered for buying full boxes.
step and wanting to cry to thinking, “OK, this isn’t so bad. Just keep this up for a little while longer and we’ll be done in no time.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, a gel has to be enjoyable. A nice tasting gel will take your mind away from the pain of your workout, which is probably why many of the flavors are reminiscent of childhood. Part of taste is consistency and – to borrow a line from Goldilocks – things have to be just right. A gel that’s too thick can be hard to swallow and a gel that’s too thin can be messy.

The Test

The consistency of a gel can change dramatically with temperature. Gels can and do melt on hot days

Lots of Gels
A few of the gels used in the test.

In order to provide some control in the testing, I took a gel at the mid-point of a rolling eight mile run. I didn’t eat anything prior to the workout and only consumed water with the gel. I road tested several of each variety and taste tested every variety made by each company, except where noted. The results are identified below. Scores are based on a five-point scale with five being the ideal.

Every product in this test is readily available online (including at our partner sites, where discounts can be had). For the bricks and mortar devotees out there, I have noted whether the products could be found in local stores. I live in Los Angeles, so if it can’t be found in shops here, finding it anywhere might be a challenge (my apologies to the small town folks with great local shops).

The reviews mention packaging. Sure, it has nothing to do with how well a gel performs, but in a field of high-quality products, looks matter. Yeah, I said it. It’s out there. No, I won’t take it back. In fact, I’m even giving it a name: “The Cosmo Factor”.

Now, on to the results…

CarBOOMCarb-BOOM (www.carbboom.com)
Flavors Available:Apple Cinnamon, Banana Peach, Strawberry Kiwi, Chocolate Cherry (double-caffeine), and Vanilla Orange (double-caffeine).
Cosmo Factor:Very busy and vibrant, making it perfect for the MTV Generation and perhaps a little annoying to everyone else.
Carb-BOOM packets are available at many high-end bike shops and tri stores, but they’re not quite easy to find. They are advertised as using real fruit and the natural flavor comes through. Carb-BOOM is extremely easy to swallow; so easy that it almost doesn’t require any water. Even though these had the largest serving size and the most calories of those tested, it didn’t have the longest burn. All products either have double-caffeine (50mg) or none at all. Carb-BOOM is sold in individual packets as well as multiple serving "Big Boom" bottles.
Category              Score                       Notes
Taste  4 starNatural and very fruity, on the sweet side, stay away from the Chocolate Cherry. Favorite flavor: Apple Cinnamon – like warm pie filling (did not taste Strawberry Kiwi).
Consistency 3 starVery thin, almost watery, which can be messy on the road.
Initial Boost 4 starControlled, nice.
Sustained Boost 3 starPretty long lasting, but a hard crash.
Overall 3.5 starsIf you like sweet and/or thin gels, this is the one for you.

 

Cliff ShotClif Shot (www.clifbar.com)
Flavors Available:Cola Buzz (w\caffeine), MMM...Chocolate, Mocha Mocha (w\caffeine), Orange Cream, Razz Sorbet, Sonic Strawberry (w\caffeine), and Viva Vanilla.
Cosmo Factor:Straightforward and fun – it’s hard to beat the picture of a roadrunner and simple graphics.
Clif Bar gained a reputation for providing interesting and unique flavors using simple ingredients (never get between me and my Cookies N’ Cream Clif Bar). While Clif Shot uses wholesome ingredients – mostly brown rice syrup – I was disappointed that the flavor options are fairly standard and the taste is far from exciting. They are easily found in most local sporting goods stores and they come with a “litter leash” to keep the top from ending up on the highway. Clif Shot is sold in individual packets and the Big Shot tube for multiple servings. Not all flavors are offered in the Big Shot.
Category              Score                       Notes
Taste  2 starsStrong molasses flavor in all varieties, none are really outstanding. Favorite flavor: Razz Sorbet.
Consistency 2 starsExtremely thick, needs extra water to get down.
Initial Boost 4 starVery quick ramp up.
Sustained Boost 3 starFizzed out a bit early.
Overall Nice start but it doesn’t last, caffeine varieties provide better jolts.

 

GUGU (www.gusports.com)
Flavors Available:Banana Blitz, Chocolate, Espresso Love (w\double-caffeine), Just Plain, Orange Burst, Tri Berry, and Vanilla Bean.
Cosmo Factor:A nicely unassuming mix of homespun and hi-tech.
These are my favorite gels because they do everything well and most of the flavors are quite good. All versions have some caffeine and they now offer Espresso Love, which has twice the caffeine. GU is not available in every sporting goods store, but can be easily found (especially at bike shops). If you return five empty packets, they will send you a free one. GU is sold in single serving packets and five serving Flask Filler packets.
Category              Score                       Notes
Taste  4 starNatural, not overly sweet. Chocolate flavor could use some help. Favorite flavor: Vanilla Bean – just like pudding (did not taste Espresso Love).
Consistency 4 starThick, but not heavy
Initial Boost 4 starTakes a moment to get there, but it’s like a shot of adrenaline when it arrives.
Sustained Boost 5 starLong lasting with no hard crash.
Overall 4.25 StarGood results and a variety of tasty flavors.

 

Hammer GelHammer Gel (www.e-caps.com)
Flavors Available:Apple Cinnamon, Banana, Chocolate, Espresso (w\caffeine), Orange, Plain, Raspberry, and Vanilla.
Cosmo Factor:Whimsical and attractive, with a hammer head used as the tear away area for added cuteness.
Hammer Gel is available only in select specialty stores, which makes it difficult to find. It has the least calories of any gel tested, which hurts its long-term boost. They do, however, use real fruit in their mix, which helps the flavor. Hammer Gel is sold in individual packets and multiple serving jugs. Only the Espresso flavor has caffeine.
Category              Score                       Notes
Taste 4 star Fruity and natural Favorite flavor: Banana – tastes like real banana (did not taste Apple Cinnamon, Chocolate, or Vanilla).
Consistency 3 starVery thick, but washes down easily.
Initial Boost 3 starSomewhat weak, but a solid charge.
Sustained Boost 2 starsFizzed out earlier than the rest.
Overall 3 starNeed to be taken more often to be effective, offering more caffeine-filled choices would be better.

 

Power GelPowerGel (www.powerbar.com )
Flavors Available:Chocolate (w\caffeine), Green Apple (w\caffeine), Lemon Lime, Raspberry Cream, Strawberry Banana (w\caffeine), Tangerine (w\double-caffeine), and Tropical Fruit.
Cosmo Factor:Attempts to be flashy and modern, but ends up being, well, kind of ugly (on the bright side, they’re really easy to spot from a long distance).
PowerGel is the easiest product to find of the bunch. In fact, many races I’ve been to offer them at aid stations. Anyone who’s tasted a PowerBar knows that the company puts more emphasis on performance than flavor and PowerGel is no exception. The packets were the biggest of those tested, which could make it hard to take quickly. They also offer the most calories per serving, which aids the overall boost. PowerGel is sold only in individual packets. For some reason, the packets occasionally can be hard to tear open.
Category              Score                       Notes
Taste  3 starLight, slightly metallic, and generally not great. Favorite flavor: Tropical Fruit – think pineapple on a sunny beach (did not taste Strawberry Kiwi).
Consistency 4 starThick, but easily swallowed.
Initial Boost 3 starUnderstated, no big spike.
Sustained Boost 5 starKept feeling strong.
Overall 3.75 starsA solid all around performer but taste should be better.


Originally, I had planned on testing Accel Gel as well (try to say that five times fast); however, I could not find them for sale individually anywhere in the Los Angeles area. While they do offer a mixed box, my meager budget kept me from buying a full case just to test a few. I guess you’ll just have to run your own test on these.

Overall Comments

Unfortunately, no gel can make up for a lack of training.
While the highest marks go to GU, every one of these gels can help you to a stronger finish. All provided a lift that was faster and better than what could be provided by solid food or fortified drinks. None of the gels gave me any stomach problems and all had at least one flavor that was tasty enough to be used frequently. As a result, the choice of a perfect gel largely comes down to personal preference. Here are some thoughts to help you choose:

For a medium consistency, go with GU or PowerGel. If you like thicker gels go for Clif Shot or Hammer Gel. If you like thinner gels go for Carb-BOOM.

  • For eating quickly, I preferred the smaller serving sizes (Clif Shot, GU). Even though these highly concentrated varieties felt heavier in the stomach, they were easier to gulp down quickly than the larger packets (PowerGel, Carb-BOOM).
  • If you want a longer burn, go for GU or PowerGel. This may have something to do with the amino acids that are included in their products – that’s just a guess, I’m not a nutritionist. If you want a gel with a shorter life span and less calories, go for Hammer Gel.
  • If you’re desperate for a fast blast of energy, Clif Shot is a great choice. Other strong early performers were GU and Carb-BOOM.
  • Caffeine proved to be a good ingredient. Too much caffeine made me jittery. See more on this below.
  • Taste is kind of personal, but fruit flavors seem to work best for gels. Of all the gels tested, GU Vanilla Bean was my favorite. Normally, I’m a devotee of all things chocolate, but it doesn’t seem to be ideal in gels. Also, “Plain” doesn’t mean without flavor. It’s sort of a malt/sugar flavor and is generally agreeable.
  • Getting gel on your fingers during a ride can make your handlebars feel like the floor of a movie theatre. A little water can solve the problem quickly.
  • If you’re going to taste test 20 gels at one sitting, make sure you plan a workout right afterwards. Otherwise, your significant other may throw you out of the house before your sugar/caffeine high breaks.


A Note on Caffeine

I was surprised to find that more caffeine was not necessarily a good thing. Although a standard cup of coffee has far more caffeine (+/- 80mg) than the double-caffeine gels (50mg), I could sense caffeine’s effects on my body far more in the gel. The standard caffeine options (25mg) gave me great results without the jumpy feeling provided by the double-caffeine versions.

I should point out that I’m a one cup of Joe per day kind of guy. This information states that caffeine has a greater effect on performance for those who don’t use it regularly. If you indulge in a triple shot of espresso every morning, you may find that the double-caffeine options are just right for you.

*Note: these tests are subjective and individual results may vary from person to person.


A Note on the Author: Dominic Lazzaretto has completed four triathlons (generally in the middle of the pack) and has competed in dozens of road running races, mountain bike races, and road cycling events. He is one of the official gear reviewers for BeginnerTriathlete.com.
 

 

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date: January 30, 2005

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