When I was coming up with the criteria for evaluating energy gels, I decided the best way to do it would be to compare them all to the “perfect” energy gel. For me, the ideal gel would boost my performance, be healthy, be a great experience to eat, and be free (hey, if I’m dreaming…). With that in mind, I developed the following criteria: Performance, Health, Experience, Value.
Aside from price, performance is probably the easiest to evaluate objectively. The nutrition facts can be laid out side-by-side and the contents considered in light of various research studies. Be aware that I score each based upon my own preferences, which I highlight next to each category.
- Calories: Most endurance athletes can handles somewhere around 200-300 calories an hour, which is why energy gels come in ~100 cal pouches. Since your body can’t handle more than that, eating more calories is a waste.
- Density: for the hardcore ultra people.
- Sugar Profile: this is the core of the energy gel market. Different research studies show different results from using different sugars. Generally, they fall into one of three camps: Maltodextrin only, some type of sugar + Maltodextrin, and some type of sugar only. My personal opinion is that unless you’re Lance Armstrong where a .05% performance boost is relevant, other factors like taste and stomach problems are more important than choosing the “best” sugar profile, so long as it works. However, I rate each product based on my critical opinion of the research available and the amount of research that company has provided to back up the claims.
- Protein: protein is mainly useful in recovery. It’s not a great fuel source. That being said, Hammer makes a strong argument for including small doses of it for extended endurance activities due to the potential for muscle breakdown. As such, my preference is to only use minimal amounts of it pre- and during exercise.
- Caffeine: the jury is still out on caffeine in energy gels and seems largely dependent on the person.
- Electrolytes (Sodium, Potassium): the main purpose of energy gels is calorie replacement. Anything else is at best a bonus, at worst a distraction. Personally, I feel no product is or should try to be your total nutrition package. I base my nutrition strategy on product strengths. Gatorade/Nuun/etc. spent a lot of money researching electrolyte replacement, so I’ll use them for electrolytes and energy gels for calories.
- Other Ingredients/Relevant Facts: any relevant research studies and nutrition additions.
Given that the energy gel’s performance is satisfactory, this is my most important category. When I’m suffering through a hot, hard, long workout, I don’t want the added hassle of dealing with a terrible energy gel. I want to look forward to eating my gel. Experience breaks down to my experience with the gel itself and my experience with the package.
- Taste: this is a subjective evaluation on taste as compared to other energy gels (energy gels aren’t known for their great taste).
- Consistency (video demo): my preference is for thicker consistency because it’s less messy. But I don’t want to choke it down either.
- Sweetness: after an extended amount of exercise, sweetness becomes amplified. This is why most energy gels have very mild sweetness.
- Texture: self explanatory.
- Aftertaste: how good/bad the aftertaste is and how long it lingers.
- Ease of use (video demo): my general thoughts on the ease of using the package. This mostly comes down to mouth size and how the tear-top comes off.
Like most endurance athletes, I’m a bit of a health nut. I read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto” and “The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals” and they changed my food purchasing habits. I like to know exactly what’s going into my body. Seriously, what’s the purpose of running 80 mile weeks if your diet kills you by 50?! With that in mind, I strongly prefer simplicity over complexity, whole/real food, and a minimization of added chemicals, “safe” or not.
- Quality of Ingredients/ Artificial ingredients: how artificial do the ingredients sound? Would my grandmother understand any of them? How many ingredients are there? How natural are the ingredients?
- Flavorings: artificial flavor? Gross. “Natural flavors”? Not any better. Here is a good article about it: http://www.organicauthority.com/foodie-buzz/what-is-natural-flavor.html.
- Preservatives: chemicals designed to keep food fresh for months to years cannot be good for my body.
- Allergens: this is for my friends with gluten, dairy, and/or soy intolerances. They need a gel that isn’t going to inflame their food allergies.
When it comes to price, I live by the philosophy “you get what you pay for”. As such, the criteria “price” is based upon my perception of the value of the product.
My overall opinion of the product with all factors considered.