Energy gels boosting fitness nutrition to the next level

The days of sucking on a honey bear before and/or during exercise have gone the way of the dodo. Ever since the early '90s, energy gels have raised fitness nutrition to the next level, reeling in an estimated market of 8 million eager gel-swillers.

Ironically, the three leading energy gel companies are based in the same town: Berkeley, Calif. While it is believed that there is little room at the top for this niche product, sold mostly in cycling, running and outdoor sport shops, we'll let you decide which second-wind-in-a-tube is right for you.

Sports Street Marketing was the first company to introduce its GU Energy Gel to the fitness-crazy Northern California market and effectively set the industry precedent for energy gel serving size, carbohydrate amount and caloric yield. Much of this credit can be attributed to Dr. Bill Vaughn, the primary developer of the all-natural product.

GU, which commands close to 50 percent of energy gel market share (unofficial), is an all-natural product with a single serving size of 1.1 ounces, 24 grams of carbohydrates and 100 calories. The gel has a taste that is far from overpowering, a fitting attribute for a product which can be taken 30 minutes before or 30 minutes into exercise.

The defining characteristic of any energy gel is its digestibility, and GU answers the body's call for simple and complex carbohydrates (Maltodextrin), Branch Chain Amino Acids (Leucine and Valine), antioxidants (Vitamin C and Vitamin E) and muscle buffers (Histidine and Calcium Carbonate).

GU has expanded its product line to six flavors (Vanilla Bean, Chocolate Outrage, Orange Burst, Just Plain, Tri Berry, Banana Blitz) and sponsors endurance athletes such as mountain biker Tinker Juarez and tri-athlete Lori Bowden. GU representative Jhanna Dawson notes that Just Plain was the most popular flavor among samplers at the recent Outdoor Retailer.

Hot on GU's heels is PowerBar's PowerGel. The cross-town rival offers a slightly different product to the consumer, namely a slightly larger serving size (1.4 oz.), caloric yield (110 calories) and caffeinated and double caffeinated options.

It is ironic that it was the same Dr. Vaughn who developed the original solid PowerBar, though it took the company until the mid-'90s to create an energy gel and follow GU into the market. Today, PowerGel is not far from displacing GU as the industry leader. PowerGel understands that it is the athlete who chooses his/her energy gel, thereby offering the largest serving size among competitive brands. Very American. PowerGel comes in Vanilla, Chocolate (caffeinated), Lemon Lime, Strawberry Banana (caffeinated), Tropical Fruit, and Tangerine (double caffeinated).

Clif Bar's Clif Shot is the latest major player to enter the gel market. Consumers may find this product appealing because of its stronger and sweeter flavoring — an attribute which plays well with athletes looking for the pre-workout boost. Some athletes, however, find ClifShot's flavoring to be overpowering during mid-exercise.

Clif Shot is the first company to create an environmentally aware product with its "Litter Leash" — which eliminates the hassle of two pieces of plastic waste. Clif Shot comes in the caffeinated flavors of Sonic Strawberry and Mocha Mocha as well as non-caffeinated Razz Sorbet, Viva Vanilla and the Homer Simpsonesque Mmm ... Chocolate. After tinkering with its serving size for about four years, Clif Shot followed GU's example with a 1.1 oz. size.

Whether all three products will survive amidst a slough of smaller companies (Hammer Gel, Fireball, Leppin, Carb-Boom and Sharkies) remains to be seen. But if you want to see your favorite product remain on the shelves, get out and start slurping some goo.

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