Energy Gels: A Deep Dive

Energy Gels: A Deep Dive

As we discussed in our previous article on the Evolution of Endurance Sports Fueling, the first use of gels was in the late 1980s. Now, we are seeing energy gels regularly consumed by endurance athletes. But what exactly is an energy gel and how is it created? 

What is an energy gel?

In the context of sports nutrition and fueling, an energy gel is a viscous fluid that is calorically dense. An energy gel generally has a caloric range anywhere from 80 calories to 240 calories in a single serving with these calories coming from carbohydrates or fats. However, carbohydrates are the more popular calorie source in gels with fats being less popular due to its limitations as a rapidly usable energy source (when compared to carbohydrates). The flavor profile of most gels are sweet due to the prominent use of carbohydrates. We discussed what a carbohydrate is and the different types of carbohydrates in a previous blog post, What is a Carb?. While not necessary for an energy gel, some companies choose to add the following: 

  • Electrolytes
  • Amino acids 
  • Nootropics
  • Caffeine
  • Gelling agents
  • Flavorings

These additives are thought to improve aspects of endurance performance and/or achieve a particular taste and flavor. Preservatives can also be used for shelf-stability. 

Why should athletes consume energy gels?

Energy gels seek to solve the problem of the high energy demands of athletes participating in prolonged exercise. Gels are typically offered as single use packaging with a tear off tab or a multi-serving resealable packaging. Because carbohydrates are the primary fuel source for the muscle during these activities and given that there is a limited amount of carbohydrates in the body, carbohydrates must be consumed to meet the energy demands of the working muscles. Energy gels solve this problem as a portable carbohydrate dense product that is easily and rapidly consumed during activities. Some gels also solve the problem of electrolyte loss by replenishing some of the lost salts in sweat. 

How do you make an energy gel? 

In theory, making a gel is simple since the ingredients are often just water and carbohydrates with the option of additives. However, creating an energy gel goes beyond mixing water and powders together. There are additional steps involved in the manufacturing process that need to be tightly controlled. This includes, but is not limited to, proper packaging design, the order in which ingredients are mixed,  pasteurization, the temperature the product is filled into packaging, and testing for shelf life and bacterial growth.

Beyond the manufacturing processes, there is extensive science, research, and development that goes into creating an energy gel. If you have tried gels from different companies you often see the ingredients lists being vastly different or even similar in some cases. As a result the flavor profile and texture can be extremely different. So why is this?

First off, you will see that most companies will prescribe by a certain ratio of carbohydrates. The reason for this was discussed in our Evolution of Endurance Sports Fueling. In short, products optimize the ratio of glucose to fructose to maximize the amount of carbohydrates that can be absorbed by the gut and thus utilized by the muscle. The most common are ratios of glucose to fructose in a manner of 2:1 and 1:0.8 with some companies using a 1:1 ratio. Depending on the ratio selected, the types of carbohydrates can be carefully selected to craft an energy gel with the ideal mixture and balance of caloric density, flavor profile, and texture.

Another consideration with fueling products is how quickly they can be emptied by the stomach into the small intestine. The faster this process, the more quickly you can absorb the carbohydrates. Factors that impact this rate of gastric emptying include the carbohydrate density and the osmolarity of these products. As such, careful selection of the carbohydrates used is often critical. Furthermore, this is why the current generation of energy gels contain more water and are less viscous compared to early generation gels that are thick and pasty and require water consumption following ingestion of the energy gel. 

Electrolytes can also be added to a gel to serve as a method for replenishing sodium loss, but the amount needs to be carefully considered as to not affect the osmolarity and taste of the product. Nootropics and caffeine can also be added to a gel depending on the goals of the products and the problem to be solved. 

Once the above factors have been addressed, depending on the properties of the energy gel, the gel manufacturer will adjust the acidity, add gelling agents to help with texture and the shelf stability of the product, and add any preservatives as needed. The risk, however, is that a small percentage of the population may experience gastric discomfort due to sensitivity to these gelling agents and/or preservatives. Fortunately, the Carbs Fuel Original 50g energy gel does not use gelling agents nor preservatives because of the unique properties of the gel. 

The Carbs Fuel Energy Gel

Our approach in creating the Carbs Fuel Original 50g Energy Gel focused on simplicity and delivering what the athlete needs and nothing more. This means that each ingredient was carefully chosen to develop an energy gel that delivers a high amount of carbohydrates that has a favorable flavor and texture profile while still being able to maintain shelf stability.

We chose the 2:1 glucose to fructose ratio because we believe that this ratio will allow a wider breadth of athletes to fuel their sport. In choosing this ratio, we carefully selected various forms and amounts of carbohydrates to also achieve a texture and flavor profile that we found favorable to most athletes. The use of citric acid and sodium citrate acts as acidity regulators to maintain shelf stability, but also enhance the flavor of the product and provide a small amount of salt (alongside sodium chloride).

Given the stability, texture, and fluidity of our energy gel, we found that using gelling agents was not necessary. By omitting the use of both preservatives and gelling agents, we are able to make a gel that is more appealing to those who may have sensitivities or may not desire to consume these types of ingredients. 

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