Listed below are all the ingredients found labeled on the packets of the 18 commercial energy gels discussed on the Energy Gel Comparisons page.
Carbohydrates – Carbohydrates get the most attention here as they are the foundation for why energy gels exist and serve to function for the endurance athlete. These are broken down further below, as gel companies use a wide range of carbohydrates to deliver energy.
- Maltodextrin – maltodextrin is the predominant carbohydrate source found in energy gels. Although technically a complex carbohydrate, maltodextrin is oxidized at about the same rate as glucose (1 g/min). This aspect, combined with the fact that maltodextrin is not nearly as sweet as glucose, makes it an ideal carbohydrate for use in an energy gel. More detailed information on maltodextrin and other gel carbohydrates can be found here.
- Glucose/dextrose – these two terms are interchangeable, but when used on food labels most companies typically list the sugar source as dextrose rather than glucose for simple marketing reasons (glucose has a negative connotation in the food industry). Glucose is a monosaccharide and is the primary fuel source used by the brain and exercising muscles.
- Fructose –a monosaccharide found naturally in fruits, vegetables and honey. Fructose is sweeter than dextrose but more slowly oxidized (about half the rate). Fructose is absorbed in the intestine via a different route than glucose. Several studies have shown that when fructose is ingested in combination with other carbohydrates (glucose, sucrose, maltodextrin e.g) more carbohydrate is able to be absorbed and at a faster rate versus ingesting fructose or other carbohydrates by themselves. The only downside to fructose is that because it is slowly absorbed, consuming too much at one time can end up with fructose being passed into the large intestine (rather than absorbed in the small intestine) thereby possibly leading to diarrhea and general gastrointestinal distress.
- Sucrose —sucrose is a disaccharide made up of one glucose molecule and one fructose molecule. Sucrose is more widely known as table sugar.
- Honey —honey is comprised mainly of fructose (40%) and glucose (30%) and has the same relative sweetness as sucrose. It also contains maltose, a disaccharide consisting of two linked glucose units (7%), a small amount of sucrose (1-2%) and complex carbohydrates (1-2%).
- Evaporated cane juice —derived from sugarcane (like ordinary white table sugar) and comprised primarily of sucrose. Evaporated cane juice should more correctly be labeled as ‘dried cane syrup’ according to recent FDA guidelines. It undergoes one less processing step than white sugar, thus viewed by some as healthier.
- Figs and dates -these fruits contain primarily fructose and glucose, with a small amount (~5-10%) of complex carbohydrates. They are both high in potassium and contain a significant amount of fiber (thus making them known natural laxatives).
- Brown rice syrup -this sweetener is comprised of the tri-saccharide, maltotriose (~50%), the di-saccharide, maltose (~45%) and the monosaccharide, glucose (~3%). It has a very viscous consistency (similar to honey) and a distinct 'nutty/buttery' flavor.
- Fruit purees/concentrates —some gel companies use fruit purees and concentrates to sweeten and flavor their products. Fructose is the predominant sugar found in fruits, but glucose and sucrose are also present.
- Energy Smart® -a patented (#4,873,112) sweetener composed primarily of maltodextrin and fruit juice concentrates. The fruit juice concentrates contain fructose, glucose and sucrose.
- Palatinose® -trade name for isomaltulose, which is an isomer of sucrose.
Water – Nothing complicated here—water is present in a gel as a solvent for the carbohydrates. The amount of water varies slightly amongst energy gels resulting in some having consistencies that are thinner/thicker than others. A few gels have begun to use coconut water as a substitute for plain water.
Acidulants – These are listed on the ingredient label as citric acid, fumaric acid, malic acid and sodium acid sulfate. Acidulants are used to bring the pH of energy gels down to safe levels for packaging. Citric (the most common acidulant in energy gels), fumaric and malic acids create a tart taste to energy gels, which is beneficial in fruit flavor profiles. Sodium acid sulfate is sometimes used with higher pH flavors like chocolate (cocoa powder is alkaline and therefore raises the pH of a gel) because it imparts less tartness to the end product.
Flavors –Gel companies use a variety of items to flavor their products. These include natural flavors, cocoa powder, vanilla extract, honey and fruit purees/concentrates.
Electrolytes – Sodium and potassium are the two main electrolytes found in energy gels and are added by way of sodium chloride (table salt), sea salt, sodium citrate and potassium citrate.
Caffeine – Almost every energy gel company makes at least one flavor that contains caffeine. Caffeine can be directly added to a gel’s formula (shown as caffeine in the ingredient list) or as a component of an extract (kola nut extract, green tea extract. guarana seed extract as examples).
Colors – The majority of gels don’t contain added coloring; those that do (Accel Gel and E-Gel) get it via artificial colors, Yellow #5 and Red #40.
Antioxidants – Vitamin C (as ascorbic acid) and Vitamin E (as vitamin E acetate) are found in several gels.
Amino Acids - Several labels (Chia Surge, Gu, Accel Gel, E-Gel, EFS Liquid Shot, Hammer Gel, Wilderness Athlete) list some combination of leucine, iso-leucine, valine (otherwise categorized as branched chain amino acids or BCAA’s), beta alanine, histidine and L-glutamine.
Protein – Only two gels (Accel Gel and Mud Energy) contain protein. Accel Gel's protein sources come from whey protein isolate and hydrosylate (both derived from milk) while Mud Energy uses collagen peptides, whey protein isolate and brown rice protein.
Vitamins/Minerals – Vitamin B1 (thiamin mononitrate), vitamin B2 (riboflavin), vitamin B3 (niacinamide), vitamin B5 (calcium pantothenate), vitamin B6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), vitamin B12 (cyanocobalamin), vitamin C (ascorbic acid), vitamin E (vitamin E acetate), calcium (as calcium carbonate, calcium chloride and calcium chelate or Calci-K®) and magnesium (as magnesium chelate or Magnachel®) are vitamins and minerals found in 4 of the gel products.
Herbs – Only two energy gels (Gu, Honey Stinger) contain herbs; those present include chamomile, ginger, kola nut extract and ginseng extract.
Other – Pectin is found in one company's gel line (Gu) and glycerin is seen in another (Accel Gel). These two ingredients are present primarily for mouthfeel. Note: Energy gels do not need ‘gelling agents’ to attain their viscous consistency. Contrary to one company’s loud marketing claim (EFS), none of the energy gels on the market use a gelling agent to achieve their viscous end product. The simple act of mixing lots of carbohydrates with small amounts of water produces an energy gel’s ‘gel-like’ consistency. Although pectin is used in commercial food applications to thicken and/or stabilize a product (jams, marmalades, protein drinks, etc), my hunch for the presence of pectin in Gu is simply to enhance the silky feel of their product—it is not there acting as a gelling agent. Along these same lines, I believe glycerin is probably acting to improve mouthfeel in Accel Gel due to the presence of protein in the formula. Proteins are not typically very acid or heat stable. During the manufacturing process, proteins can breakdown and result in a ‘grittiness/lumpiness’ in the final product. This grit can be abated by using a product such as glycerin to achieve a smoother texture.
Preservatives – With the exception of Clif Shot, Reload, Vega Sport and Mud Energy, all other gels contain sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate (also sometimes listed as sorbic acid). Preservatives are necessary to keep the product safe and shelf-stable. The majority of energy gels possess a pH between 3.5 – 4.2; sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate are the food industry’s preservative standards for this pH range.