Energy gels are dense packets of fuel that help you perform your best during endurance activities such as marathons, triathlons, or long bike rides. They are used to help you replenish the glycogen stores in your muscles. They typically contain carbohydrates that are easy to digest but there are also some gels that use fats as a source of energy. Some energy gels also contain electrolytes and caffeine to help boost your performance.
The easiest type of foods that can be converted into energy are simple carbohydrates (aka simple sugars) such as glucose or fructose as well as other easily digestible sugars such as maltodextrin. There are also some energy gels that cater to “burn fat as fuel” diets and may contain ingredients such nut butters or coconut oil.
The last category of gels are pure naturals such as honey or maple syrup – which are in fact mostly fructose in case of honey and sucrose (a combination of a glucose and fructose molecules) in case of maple syrup. This article will take a look at the specific ingredients inside energy gels and attempt to translate the ingredients into language you can understand.
How to Read the Nutrition Label of Energy Gels
First let us make sure we understand how to interpret the ingredients list of any processed product. Here is the most important part to remember:
So when it comes to energy gels if we see maltodextrin listed first followed by water and then fructose as in the example below. We know that Maltodextrin is the most prominent ingredient, followed by Water and then Fructose, and so on.
We’ll take a look at some of the key individual ingredients in a bit, but first let’s go over some of the other important pieces of information using the above label as an example:
- Serving Size: 1 packet (32g) — this is the typical size of energy gels but some might go a little bigger especially if they are isotonic (meaning they have already been mixed with a good balance of water). It is my sincere recommendation that you do not try to divide the gel into multiple servings during a run unless you want to suck the gel out of the fabric of your shorts pocket.
- Calories per serving: 100 — I’ve never run into gels that have less than 100 Calories, the typical range is from 100 to 150 Calories.
- Total Fat & Cholesterol – these have to be included on the label according to FDA regulations but are not really too relevant to the benefits of energy gels. Seeing 0 in these categories is most of the time a good thing.
- Sodium 60mg – when you sweat your body sweats out salt along with other electrolytes (like Potassium). Many gels will naturally contain or add ingredients to help you replenish the lost electrolytes.
- Total Carbohydrates 22g – this is where the bulk of energy is contained. A subset of this includes Total Sugars 7g which counts all the sugars contained in any natural foods within the gel as well as the Added Sugars which includes concentrated sugars like maltodextrin or fructose.
- Protein – gels are not meant to be a steak meal but in some cases they will contain BCAAs.
Key Ingredients in Popular Energy Gels Explained
As we already explained gels are packed primarily with sugar of some sort. Some gels keep it simple and others have extensive list of “other” ingredients. We’ll divide our explainer into these two categories: sugars and others.
Common sugars in energy gels
Below are some popular sugars in energy gels with a bit of explanation and links to helpful resources:
- Maltodextrin – technically (molecularly) speaking it is a polysaccharide, or in other words a chain of glucose molecules ranging in length from 3 to 17 glucose pre chain. More practically speaking it is a white powder substance that serves as a food additive that improves texture, taste and shelf life — and in the case of energy gels provides energy that helps us go beyond the limits of the energy stores in our muscles and liver. This article from energy gel maker SIS explains the rationale of why they include it as the primary source of sugar in their products.
- Dextrose/Glucose – dextrose and glucose are often used interchangeably. Glucose is the simple (single molecule) sugar that is found in your blood stream, and dextrose is molecularly very similar. Dextrose can be quickly digested and replenishes your energy in a very short time. It is not as sweet as sucrose (table sugar) and can also extend the shelf life of processed foods such as energy gels.
- Fructose – also known as “Fruit Sugar” is another form of simple sugar derived as the name implies from fruits, as well as from starchy veggies, beets, cane, and honey. Gu Energy Labs do a good job describing why adding fructose to energy gels can help during endurance sports. Essentially it is due to the fact that fructose uses a totally different protein transporter than glucose – allowing for faster delivery of energy throughout your body. Fructose is also sweet and used as a taste enhancer.
- Cane Syrup, Maple Syrup, Honey – these are sugars derived or harvested from nature and are sometimes used as gel substitutes or flavor/energy additives to energy gels. Cane and maple syrups primarily contain sucrose while honey is loaded with fructose which also makes it the sweetest of the three.
- Fruit or Rice – some energy gel makers that cater to the “all natural” consumers use ingredients such as rice or pureed fruit as the main source of sugar. These ingredients will contain starches (more complex carbohydrates) as well as sugars such as sucrose and fructose. 100g of banana for example will contain 2.1g of sucrose , 7g of glucose, and 6.7g of fructose according to the USDA nutrient database.
Other ingredients in energy gels
After sugar the other beneficial ingredients include electrolytes, amino acids, flavorings, and other (sometimes questionable) additives.
- Salt – when we run far, we sweat and out of our pores comes out sweat. Many gel makers add salt to help you replenish this vital electrolyte. If you’re wondering how much salt you actually need – here’s an article from runner’s world that goes into some of the latest research.
- Citric Acid – citric acid is naturally found in citrus fruit like limes and lemons and it’s what gives them the tart/sour taste. It is used in many types of applications in processed foods. Ones that are specifically applicable to energy gels are taste enhancement, food preservation, and improved energy metabolism.
- Ascorbic Acid – also known as Vitamin C is a nutrient that your body needs to form blood vessels, cartilage, muscle and collagen in bones. Vitamin C is also vital to your body’s healing process. Ascorbic acid is added to energy gels to fortify it with Vitamin C, add flavor, and as a preservative.
- Natural Flavor / Artificial Flavor – all flavors are small chemical compounds that affect how we perceive the taste of the foods we consume. Natural vs Artificial is an FDA classification that draws the line between those compounds derived from plant or meat material – natural, and those that are not – artificial.
- L-Leucine, L-Valine, L-Isoleucine – these three amino acids are three out of nine essential (cannot be made by the body) amino acids – that are used to form proteins and perform other critical functions inside the body. They are branched chained amino acids (BCAAs) and are crucial components in the process of muscle repair in your body – although scientists are still investigating the body repair benefits of consuming BCAAs during endurance activities. So don’t forget to consume protein after your hard workout or race.