Energy gels revolutionized quick consumption and digestion in sports nutrition—but their highly-processed ingredients raise some pertinent questions. Are energy gels the best substitute for food found in nature? Do they actually do what they claim to do? And will they digest well without bloating, cramping or discomfort? In many cases, especially for athletes troubled with gastrointestinal issues when racing, simpler, less-processed nutrition can be a game-changer.
In my quest to find the latest quick fuel that could satisfy these concerns, I tried four newer “natural” gels. Here’s what I learned:
Best for GI Issues: Spring Energy
Spring Energy is a product born of ultra trail runners, who demand consistent energy and put their bodies through extreme exertion and pounding over a very long period of time. The labels include recognizable foods like basmati rice, organic banana, strawberry, and maple syrup— ingredients which the company says are “acidity and osmotically” tuned to be easy on the stomachs of athletes with GI issues.
I tried Spring gels in marathon, Ironman and ultra training, and they seemed to be a great alternative for traditional gels. I experienced no energy spikes, energy drops, or gut issues of any kind. The taste is good and the science is convincing. Of the bunch, spring gels were the closest natural option to traditional gels, just without the processed ingredients.
Most Unique Flavors: Muir Energy
Muir Energy markets “clean, pure, nutritionally dense, portable food with
4-6 clean ingredients, and no junk.” Products are made in SanDiego and are all-vegan, organic, gluten free, paleo and non-GMO, which should appeal to those with allergies or other dietary restrictions. The company is also environmentally-conscious: you can buy gels in the standard single-serving pouches, or an 8 oz jar to avoid wasting packaging.
Muir divides their products into “slow burning” and “fast burning,” with the slower containing some fat from nuts. They offer some standard flavors like pineapple and raspberry, as well as some that are more unusual, like sweet potato and oregano, or blueberry and bergamot. I tried the savory blackberry thyme flavor and found it so odd that I couldn’t go on. However, I gave it to a friend who dislikes the sweetness of a lot of gels, and she loved it.
With ingredients like molasses, various nut butters and dehydrated fruits and vegetables to create their products, ultimately I had to give them kudos for their creative ingredient list! This could be a good product for athletes tired of standard gel and bar flavors.
Most Customizable: 33Shake
33Shake is founded on the idea that “the foundation of performance nutrition is a powerful, whole food diet that minimizes processed ingredients, additives, sweeteners and sugar.” The company makes some intriguing plant-based protein powders and energy drinks, but for the purposes of this gel test we tried the chia energy gel, which is simply chia seeds, coconut palm sugar, organic vanilla and Himalyan pink salt—with a twist: it comes dry.
The gel mix comes in a small plastic pouches with a removable cap. Directions suggest you add water, coconut water, juice or even coffee then shake, wait 10 minutes or more, and consume. Our testers admittedly had a little trouble getting the fluid into the small opening, but the idea is a cool one. The ability to customize your gel with your liquid of choice could appeal to athletes who like to tweak their carbohydrate levels for different events.
Simplest Ingredient List: Untapped Maple
Maple syrup is 100% nature’s energy, and Untapped Maple brilliantly packaged pure organic maple syrup into small gel packets to provide athletes with 100 calories and 26g of sugary carbohydrates on the go. They also also sell it in larger bottles for use with your own reusable containers.
I tried a shot of maple syrup during my last gravel grinder; I simply added it directly to a water bottle and it made a super energy drink for the rest of my ride. These products are no nonsense, but should be distinguished from slower-burning, more complex carbohydrates. Untapped is for athletes looking for a quick energy boost—there is even a coffee-infused version for those of us who like a little caffeine!
In summary, there are a lot of real food gel options proliferating out there, so do some experimentation, remember that you can use different fuel for varying efforts and disciplines, and don’t be afraid to get creative and even try making your own!