Are Ready-made Energy gels better than their natural substitutes? Honey, Maple-Syrup, Dates…


An energy gel is an essential element of Triathlon.

Athletes use them in training, during events, and as substitute energy during aerobic exercises. Typically energy gels are very expensive and range anywhere from 25$-30$ per 24 pack. The question is, Are they really worth the hype?

Is it better to use ready-made energy gels than natural energy substitutes? If you are going to invest in energy gels then you might as well make an informed decision.

Ready-made energy gels are not any better than their natural alternatives however, they are time-consuming to prepare for race day consumption. Athletes are usually in a rush, thus, opt to use readymade energy gels packed with all their nutritional needs. Their natural substitutes can provide a similar level of nutrition and energy for a fraction of the cost, with no potential side effects.

On a side note, do not waste your money on useless gear purchases and check out my Best Triathlon Battle-Tested Budgeting Gear

If you are confused between using expensive energy gels or natural energy-rich alternatives, I would recommend using natural products for the following reasons which shall be detailed in this article. 

  • They are cheaper
  • They are easily accessible
  • They don’t have any side effects
  • You can control what you are putting in your body
  • If you are a vegan, you can make them in gluten-free vegan-friendly ways
  • Your stomach will probably thank you for making the right choice.

Check out How Many Calories Are Consumed In Triathlons; Why Is It Important? All Distances

Constituents of expensive energy gels

When you see the label of expensive energy gels, you will find a list of fairly common products such as cane sugar, water, caffeine, green tea extract, chocolate, or some flavoring compound.

You will also notice some strange words like maltodextrin, potassium sorbate, sodium benzoate, fumaric acid, or malic acid. (source). Now, these constituents are what cause the side effects of expensive energy gels.

Make sure to check our post on Triathlon Nutrition Guide: Before, During & After Race (What Not To Eat !!!)

Caffeine

Caffeine is the active ingredient of many energy gels. it is added for a variety of reasons. It makes you more active and decreases the sense of energy you are using during strenuous exercise.

These two reasons make it perfect for an ingredient of energy gels.

Whether you should use caffeine or not in endurance sports is still a matter under debate.

While caffeine is known to cause psychological dependence, it is still one of the most commonly used stimulants added to energy gels.

These stimulants give your nervous system a kick and make your brain more active. Although this is fine when you need a little support, it can be harmful to your health and well-being.

Palpitations, anxiety, and insomnia can all be caused by taking too many stimulants.

Pros– Caffeine is added due to the additional support it provides during endurance sports. it can give you a sense of rapid energy boost. It is a good supporting agent if taken in a reasonable amount.

cons– stimulants have a negative effect on your heart and your brain. Too much of them can cause insomnia and physiological dependence. It means you cannot work without them anymore. They can also cause anxiety and palpitations same as the ones you feel after drinking too much coffee.

Maltodextrin

 Maltodextrin is a food additive that is a polysaccharide (a long carbohydrate molecule).

Maltodextrin is easily digestible and quickly consumed as glucose in the body. It can be made from any starch, but corn is the most commonly used.

Although maltodextrin can be made from wheat, still you can use it If you have a gluten sensitivity or allergy, because it is so heavily processed that little to no protein remains to cause an allergic reaction. it is readily available and digestible. It comes really handy in the triathlon. (Source)

Sodium Benzoate

Sodium Benzoate is a preservative used in the food industry. It acts as a bacteriostat and fungistat in acidic environments. This means it prevents bacteria and fungi from developing on your gel. Meat, cosmetics, medication, and fireworks all use it (the whistling noise of fireworks comes from sodium benzoate).

Pros-  sodium benzoate makes sure the gel is free of bacteria and fungi. 

Cons- Sodium Benzoate can be harmful to cats at low concentrations

Fumaric acid

Fumaric acid is a form of sulfuric acid. It is not as potent and acidic as sulfuric acid. It is the mildest form of sulphuric acid that won’t cause any reaction but will maintain a sufficient amount of acidity in the gel.

Fumaric acid is a compound with a fruity aroma and flavor. It’s an acidity-controlling food additive. Polyester resins, polyhydric alcohols, and absorbents for dyes are all made with fumaric acid or at least have it as a constituent.

It greatly enhances the flavor of gels

Why you shouldn’t use it? While it is considered healthy around the world, it is still a chemical, and there are other more natural food additives that can produce the same result.

Potassium Sorbate

Potassium sorbate is a food preservative that prevents the growth of mold and yeast. It’s also a valuable substance for extending the life of a product’s shelf life.

They add it because of the preservative properties. No moldy gels are actually a bonus for companies who want to market their product in far-off areas.

According to research, it has a long track record of protection and it can double the shelf life of energy gels. Why you should Avoid Potassium Sorbate?

Potassium Sorbate can irritate the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. These symptoms are not manifested in everyone. Some people are prone to it and some don’t even feel a difference. This is why you should test the energy gel you are planning on using prior to the race.

The overall negative effect of energy gels

Sugar loves water. The simple sugar easily leaves the stomach and reaches the small intestine after consuming a gel.

If the concentration of sugar in the intestine is too high (osmolality), water may enter by osmosis to dilute it. Water flows out of the body and into the intestines to dilute the sugar.

This may cause dehydration even if you are drinking plenty of water.

These two processes trigger gut rot, which is characterized by bloating, cramping, nausea, and diarrhea in most endurance athletes.

What Are The Natural Alternatives To Energy Gels?

Natural sugar sources, as a race-ready substitute, are minimally processed and naturally delicious. They have a higher dose of minerals and antioxidants than gels and refined sugars.

Plus, you will usually find them in your local supermarket. During preparation, try out these four solutions to see which one works better for you on race day.

1. Honey

Honey was the original energy gel of our ancestors. It was used as fuel for athletes in the ancient Greek Olympics. Honey contains sugar, small quantities of vitamin B6, iron, manganese, as well as pollen and protein with large amounts of glucose and fructose.

Honey has a lower glycemic index than gels, which means sugar is released more slowly into the bloodstream, resulting in more stable blood glucose levels. T

his is highly recommended for athletes for slow-burn endurance activities. Honey often contains antioxidants that aid in the reduction of muscle inflammation and oxidative damage; the concentration varies depending on the flowers from which the pollen was collected

How to use it during the event?

Honey can be eaten on the go because it has a consistency close to regular gels. Honey Stinger, a Colorado-based company, sells honey in the same packets as gels. (source)

You can choose honey of your choice from them. Alternatively, you can make your gels with resealable snack bags. Honey has 130 calories per 30 mL (approximately two tablespoons).

2-Maple syrup

Maple syrup is a product of the North American maple tree. It has more benefits than just making pancakes. For a sugar-based material, maple syrup is nutrient-dense, far surpassing honey.

It is high in iron, which is essential for transporting oxygen to muscles via the bloodstream; manganese, which aids nutrient absorption and free radical neutralization. It also has high amounts of sodium and potassium which are essential for electrolyte balance and staying hydrated.

Maple syrup, like honey, has a relatively low glycemic index so it will provide you with stable sugars for a longer time.

How to use it during the event?

Since maple syrup is less thick than honey, it is easier to swallow. Another mess-free, compact option is maple candy. It is easier to carry and even easier to consume. About 108 calories are contained in two tablespoons of maple syrup.

3-Dates

Dates are a staple of Middle Eastern cuisine, and they’re widely used to break the fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan due to their swift energy boost.

Dates are a better whole-food alternative to synthetic energy gels for mid-run fuel because they are quickly digestible and less sticky than the viscous liquids on this list. (Plus, there’s no need to deal with packaging.)

Dates contain anti-inflammatory tannins and a large amount of vitamin B, which aids in metabolism. Manganese and potassium, among other trace minerals, are also present. A glycemic index of moderate provides long-term energy. 

How to use it during the event?

Dates are a very reliable option to try during the event for a quick energy refill. They are easily available everywhere and can be packed on the go.

For even better results, you can get pitted dates. They have dry fruits in the center of them and can provide better nutritional value. Dates can contain calories anywhere from 25 to 70 calories.

4. Blackstrap molasses

Even though molasses is made from sugarcane, it is not the same as refined white sugar, which is usually not a very good energy source.

They have a very basic difference. When you boil cane juice enough, you get white sugar.  Molasses is the syrup that remains after boiling.

The highest sugar content is found in light molasses, which comes from the first boiling. It is followed by dark molasses from the second boiling, and blackstrap molasses from the third boiling.

Since most of the sugar has been boiled out, thick blackstrap molasses contains a high concentration of minerals, making it the most nutrient-rich fuel on the list. It contains a lot of magnesium, which helps with calcium absorption and nervous system function, as well as preventing muscle spasms.

While blackstrap molasses has many nutritional benefits, it has a heavy, bittersweet flavor that many people hate. This is something I would only recommend if you have time before the event to incorporate into your recipes.

How to use it during the event?

Even though molasses is not a very good option when consumed without any preparation, it can do wonders when added to recipes of homemade energy gels.

You can prepare your energy bars with molasses beforehand for the event.

Also, check out our article on Is It Okay To Add Alcohol/Vodka to Gatorade/Electrolytes In Triathlon Races?

Final thoughts

Energy gels are a must-have for racing athletes. You can run out of your reserved energy stores very soon if you don’t replenish them from time to time, but no one said you can’t have the natural free version.

You may also find this article we wrote about How Long After A Triathlon Should I Eat? And what not to eat

sherifjallad

An extreme triathlete who have competed in dozens of triathlons including IronMans and Extreme triathlons.

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