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What Are Energy Gels?

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  • Written By: Meg Higa
  • Edited By: Amanda L. Wardle
  • Last Modified Date: 27 November 2016
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Energy gels are sports drink concentrates that have been thickened with an agent to a jelly texture. All are loaded with complex carbohydrates, mostly derived from the simple sugars glucose or fructose. Most also contain electrolytes, compounds containing free ions, to replace electrically conductive nutrients consumed by muscle cells during respiration. For their high content in calories, they are popularly consumed as fuel for vigorous exercise.

Energy gels are typically packaged in single-serve disposable packets to be squeezed and consumed by the mouthful. Larger packets are available with reclosable spouts or other openings. Some gels are further processed to a crystalline form and molded into solids such as chewable sticks and “jelly beans.”

Sometimes called endurance or running gels, these products are superbly transportable, and thus, popular with endurance athletes such as bikers, runners, and walkers. Ounce for ounce, energy gels provide substantial fuel for any sport. Furthermore, the nutritional gel helps mitigate the build-up of lactic acid in the blood that occurs when muscles are stressed by oxygen deprivation.

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One of the best known sport recovery drinks, formulated by the University of Florida and produced worldwide by the company PepsiCo Inc., is Gatorade®. Adequate hydration with water during prolonged exercise has always been a given, but to provide its namesake Gators football team players an extra edge, the University added carbohydrates and electrolytes that are depleted by a body’s working muscles. Energy drinks, gels, and solid bars by Gatorade® and other companies serve a large global demand for sport supplements.

Exact ingredients will vary from brand to brand, but they share a few commonalities. First, and foremost, they are meant to supply energy to muscles quickly, and therefore typically do not contain fat, protein, fibers, or other ingredients that digest less easily. The energy comes from carbohydrates including the glucose sugar chain derived from maltodextrins. Most gels will also contain electrolytes, amino acids, and the catalytic enzymes known to be needed for muscle cells to convert sugar to mechanical energy. Other ingredients specific to a brand may include caffeine, which aids in anaerobic muscle respiration when oxygen supply is diminished, as well as vitamins, ginger, and other herbal extracts.

A rough guideline, variable by athlete, for a sports gel to effectively raise blood sugar levels, improve strength performance, and extend muscle endurance is 30-45 minutes. A packet should be accordingly consumed prior to the start of physical activity, and in the case of endurance exercises, packets should be consumed in according intervals. It is important to note that energy gels contain very little water, and should not be considered a hydrating element. It is imperative to consume adequate water during vigorous exercise to avoid dehydration.

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