The global energy gel market reached US$637 million in 2022 and is projected to expand at a 7-8% compounded annual growth rate to top US$1 billion by 2028, according to data from market research firms.
With the pandemic in the rearview mirror, race signups already exceeding pre-Covid levels, a growing fascination in sports nutrition (just search for podcast episodes on fueling), and new players in both the event organization and energy gel manufacturing spaces, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence as well to support the optimistic forecast.
As 2023 draws to an end, let’s look at several interesting trends that will likely influence how you and I fuel our endurance athletic pursuits.
More flavors or more tasteless?
When I started running more than two decades ago, GU Energy Labs and Hammer Nutrition were the gold standard of energy gels. Over the years, they have continued adding new flavors, hoping to better cater to endurance athletes’ highly subjective and diverse tastes.
The rise of Maurten has created a new direction in the design of energy gel flavors. The Swedish company only offers one flavor, a so-called “neutral taste” with no distinctive flavoring, as a solution to sweetness fatigue.
Several brands soon followed with a similar philosophy. Energy gels from Precision Fuel & Hydration also come in one flavor, while Neversecond, popular amongst cyclists, simplified its portfolio to 2-3 flavors.
In my humble opinion (and I’m certainly not on an island for thinking this), no energy gels truly taste good anyway, and even the relatively tastier options are tolerable at best.
Making energy gels more tasteless instead of over-flavoring is a trend I welcome.
Source: Maurten website
Dumb down or nerd out?
While I applaud Maurten’s effort in the flavor department, the brand popularized a trend that I’m not a fan of — complicating things with science to market energy gels at higher prices. As a former manufacturer of sports nutrition products, I know the cost of many ingredients, plus energy gels are essentially just concentrated sugar water. Should they be so expensive? (Here are some affordable alternatives)
Like many of you, I do enjoy nerding out on the science behind the energy gels we take. For example, the different pathways of glucose and fructose or how technologies such as hydrogels and isotonic solutions can speed up the processing of carbohydrates. It’s all very educational, and I appreciate all the great videos and articles the brands create.
I just wish they didn’t leverage the content and marketing strategy to justify charging more.
Carbs Fuel, a new brand on the block, is bucking the trend. Their product design and marketing message are also science-driven, but they “dumb it down” to simplify the science and provide affordability.
I hope we see more brands democratizing sports nutrition instead of fostering exclusivity via pricing.
Separation instead of integration
There are energy gels that integrate a boatload of extras: branched chain amino acids (BCAA), plentiful electrolytes, vitamins, exotic ingredients, etc. And then there are gels that strip it down to the bones and contain just a few items such as water, sugars, and thickeners.
Several brands following the latter direction typically separate their products into two categories:
- For replenishing carbohydrates
- For hydration and maintaining electrolyte balance.
Their energy gels provide sugar and very little else. And if you need something for hydration, they have separate product lines, usually near-zero sugar drink mixes and tablets packed with sodium and other essential electrolytes.
They reason that athletes should be more precise with their fueling. By dividing carbohydrate and electrolyte intake into separate products, you can better keep track of what you consume to prevent over-fueling that could cause stomach issues and electrolyte imbalances.
There is truth to that, but it’s also clever marketing. Instead of buying one item, you now need two. And the stripped-down energy gels aren’t necessarily cheaper than options with all the bells and whistles.
Source: Precision Hydration website
More carbs, please
Not too long ago, energy gels typically provided around 20 g of carbohydrates; most marathoners, for example, would consume 2-3 packs per hour.
Since the publishing of research studies concluding the human body can process up to 90-120 g of carbohydrates an hour, sports nutrition brands kick-started an arms race to pack in as much carbohydrates as possible in a sachet.
It began with several brands unveiling energy gels with 30 g of carbohydrates. Then SiS came out with the Beta Fuel series containing 40 g per pack. Santa Madre recently launched the 60 g Unusual Gel, and Precision Fuel & Hydration introduced a 90 g “Jumbo Gel.” Even Maurten came out with a bigger gel that ramped up carbohydrate content to 40 g from 25 g in the original version.
Source: Santa Madre website
I don’t expect this trend to fade anytime soon.
We have all seen videos of professional long-distance triathletes showcasing their superhuman ability to stomach gel after gel and sports drink after sports drink while red-lining in races.
We might not be able to run like Kristian Blummenfelt, but we sure can train our stomachs to handle energy gels the way he does.
No matter how hard and smart we train, we can never match the physiology of elite athletes. However, most of us should be able to improve our carbohydrate tolerance to 90-120 g per by gradually upping gel intake over time.
New takes on blasts from the past
Although sodium bicarbonate and exogenous ketones garnered tons of attention in 2023, they are not new technologies, just companies putting a new spin on some blasts from the past.
In the case of sodium bicarbonate, aka baking soda, there are a slew of studies from decades ago proving its effectiveness in neutralizing acid build-up in muscles during exercise. However, it never gained steam due to its horrific taste and the potential to cause stomach issues. Maurten encased sodium bicarbonate in a neutral-flavored hydrogel to solve these issues. With the brand’s promotional machine in high gear, the humble baking soda became one of sports nutrition’s most prominent buzz terms this year.
The ketogenic diet and the fat-as-fuel concept gained a considerable following in the mid-2010s. Achieving the state of ketosis requires a very restrictive diet that most people would find hard to sustain. Hence, the emergence of exogenous ketones. Due to its prohibitive cost, exogenous ketones were used mainly by professional cycling teams with richer resources in the past. In 2022, sports nutrition company HVMN introduced its Ketone-IQ exogenous ketone, a lower-price option (though still quite expensive) for the everyday athlete in other endurance disciplines.
Continuous glucose monitoring is another example. The technology has been prevalent for decades, helping diabetic patients manage blood sugar levels. Modified glucose monitors with recalibrated parameters for blood sugar measurements are now applied to optimize fueling for pre-, mid-, and post-exercise, as well as an athlete’s daily diet.
We will likely see similar, scientifically proven concepts getting a facelift in 2024.