Published on June 2, 2014
Perhaps you've decided that you're simply tired of sickeningly sweet sports gels.
Maybe it's the candy-like taste.
Maybe it's having your brain wired on a potent combination of caffeine and sugar for hours after your workout or race.
Maybe it's knowing that every time you dump boatloads of sugar into your body, even during the relatively insulin-sensitive state of exercise, you can still rip yourself out of fat oxidation.
Maybe it's all the damaging and deleterious health effects of chronic blood sugar surges that you just learned about in my last article “Rewriting The Fat Burning Textbook: Why You’ve Been Lied To About Carbs And How To Turn Yourself Into A Fat Burning Machine.“
But no matter why you're interested in lowering your intake of sports gels, there's a problem: even though you can go for hours and hours exercising with your own adipose tissue as a fuel source, for long, sustained and relatively difficult exercise efforts that exceed 2-3 hours in duration, you still should use a quick and convenient source of extra energy if you want to minimize central nervous system fatigue and maximize activation of ATP production via fatty acids and amino acids pouring into the Krebs cycle…
…and a small, portable packet of calories can be an efficient way to accomplish this.
So in a situation like this, why not just use something like the liquid Endurance Pack that I've talked about in the past? After all, that pack is simply amino acids, medium chain triglycerides, and a very slow release form of high molecular weight starch – so it doesn't present any of the performance or health issues of sweet, sugary solutions. There are three reasons why liquids sometimes simply don't work or need to be accompanied by other fuel sources:
1) Liquids needs to be carried in either flasks or water bottles, and I've found that when doing races such as a Spartan or obstacle course event (in which you're often rolling or crawling on the ground) flasks and water bottles get smashed, leak, and can press up against your body in very uncomfortable ways.
2) Sometimes you need a “break” from the texture of liquids, and especially during long events such as an Ironman triathlon, you may find yourself either something to chew on, or something that has more of a gel-like texture.
3) Pre-made gels require no previous forethought, planning or mixing. You just put them in your pocket and…go.
Fortunately, when it comes to venturing outside of the realm of glucose, fructose, maltodextrin, honey and the other common sources of sugar used to form the base of most gels, there are a variety of options. So below, you will find 12 fat-based alternatives to sickeningly sweet sugar-based sport gels. If you have questions, comments, feedback, or your own additions, then leave them below this post and I'll be happy to reply!
Option #1: Justin’s Nut Butter
Justin's Nut Butter Ingredients:
-Dry Roasted Almonds
-Organic Cane Sugar
-Organic Cocoa Butter
-Palm Fruit Oil
Justin's Nut Butter Nutrition Label:
Anytime you see “cane sugar”, this means that a gel contains a disaccharide sugar comprised of fructose and glucose mixed in a 1:1 ratio – very similar to table sugar but with a possibility of slightly higher nutrient density. You can read up more on cane sugar (the sucanat version) here. Two different sugars means that you're using two different sugar transporters in your gut, which may help absorption of the sugars. But ultimately, with only 9g of carbs – compared to 30-60g of carbs in a standard sugar-based gel serving with this many calories – this is kind of a moot point.
Justin's uses palm fruit oil because it minimizes oil separation – and although this isn't a completely natural oil, they do source their palm fruit oil from a sustainably harvested farm in Brazil, so it contains no trans-fatty acids and has much less damaging effects compared to the hydrogenated oils used in many similar products. You can read more about palm fruit oil here.
Justin's Nut Butter tastes excellent, and the cocoa is a nice touch. But note that it contains 190 calories in one gel – so if you're accustomed to the 80-100 calories of energy in a standard sugar based gel, you'll get a stomachache fast if you try to match this gel-for-gel with what you're used to eating. Because of this, most folks will do just fine on ONE of these Justin's Nut Butter servings per hour, with larger athletes or males potentially doing OK with two. In either case, I'd recommend you take it in smaller doses, like half the packet at a time, along with 4-6 ounces of water.
Option #2: Vitalyte Chia Gels
-Fruit and Vegetable Juice (for color)
-ULS (Organic Cane Sugar, Natural Flavors, Stevia)
Vitalyte Nutrition Label:
This gel has whole chia seeds in it, so it definitely has a bitty texture that will have you picking bits of chia out of your teeth after you use it. I find this slightly annoying, although I definitely recognize the long term energy benefits of the amino acids and fatty acids present in chia seeds.
Chia seeds have a long history as an endurance fuel. Ancient Aztec tradition held that an ounce of chia seeds could sustain a warrior for 24 hours. Today, chia is considered a superfood because it has more Omega-3’s than any other crop in the world, it has more antioxidants than blueberries, it is a complete protein, providing you with all 9 Essential Amino Acids (important for preventing muscle breakdown when exercising longer than 2 hours), and it has 25% soluble fiber. A chia seed can absorb 9-12x its bodyweight in water – and this helps regulate absorption, which can prevent sugar spikes and crashes. So despite the issue with having to pick it out of your teeth, I'm a fan of chia.
However, Chia Surge also has relatively high amounts of dextrose and maltodextrin compared to the amount of fat in the gel and overall, very few calories (75kcal) in an actual serving – so you'll need to carry quite a few of these for a very long event. I do like that Chia Surge contains beta-alanine (which has been shown to improve sprint performance), though the amount included is pretty small compared to how much beta-alanine is used in most studies. You may also find that the lactic acid buffering combination of beta alanine and the BCAA’s in Chia Surge creates a tingling sensation – which you may find uncomfortable. A big bonus is that Chia Surge also contains Palatinose, a low-glycemic index sugar that can increase the amount of fat you use as energy.
The biohacker in me likes the stuff like chia, beta-alanine and palatinose. The 180 pounds of me just wishes this gel contained a slightly higher calorie punch so I can carry fewer of them.
GU Peanut Butter Ingredients:
-Peanut butter (peanuts, salt)
-Amino acids (leucine, valine, histidine, isoleucine)
–Potassium and sodium citrate
-Antioxidants (vitamin E and C)
-Preservatives (sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate)
-Herbal blend (chamomile, ginger).
GU Peanut Butter Nutrition Label:
Compared to the other GU's, the peanut butter flavor is less sweet and has more amino acids, more sodium, more potassium and more fatty acids.
But if you're Paleo, don't eat peanuts, have a peanut allergy or are concerned about aflatoxins, this may not be a good option for you. Aflatoxins are natural toxins produced by certain strains of the mold Aspergillus flavus and A. parasiticus and are known to grow on peanuts and other crops stored in warm, humid environments. Since peanuts are highly susceptible to aflatoxin, many companies take careful initiatives to make sure that their products are safe for the market. I'm not sure if GU tests rigorously for aflatoxins, but this is one concern for me.
I have to admit that this gel tastes awesome, the calorie count (100kcal) is about perfect, the chamomile and ginger are an excellent touch for soothing your stomach, and the Branched Chain Amino Acids are a good addition for staving off central nervous system fatigue – but I'd personally rather go with a nut such as almond (e.g. Justin's Nut Butter, Pocketfuel, etc.)
Option #4: Chocolate #9
Chocolate #9 Ingredients:
-Organic agave nectar
-Breakfast cocoa processed with alkali
Chocolate #9 Nutrition Label:
This is a unique one. The only ingredients are Agave and Cocoa. Agave is mostly fructose, and the amount of fructose in it is a bit too slow to be absorbed adequately (and can be difficult to digest), which is why fructose does much better for exercise when mixed with glucose or maltodextrin. And the fructose by itself from agave can taste way too sweet. But ultimately all this is kind of a moot point since we're primarily interested in the fats anyways.
So what the heck is breakfast cocoa anyways? According to the FDA, Breakfast cocoa, also known as “high fat cocoa” is a food prepared by pulverizing the material remaining after part of the cacao fat has been removed from ground cacao nibs. Breakfast cocoa contains no less than 22 percent by weight of cacao fat, so it's pretty low-glycemic index stuff. However, lest you be interested in all the health benefits of dark chocolate, the fact that the breakfast cocoa is processed with alkali means that most of the antioxidants in the cocoa are destroyed. This is also an extremely thick gel and is almost more like a paste than a gel (and nearly impossible to squeeze out if it gets cold).
I must admit: I actually kind of like the taste of Chocolate #9. But similar to Chia Surge, you'd have to carry a lot of these gels, and you may not dig the texture.
Option #5: VFuel
VFuel Ingredients (Peach Cobbler flavor):
-VFuel Endurance Formula (MCT Oil, Taurine, Glucuronolactone, Ornithine Alpha-Ketoglutarate)
-Organic Peach Flavor
VFuel has zero amounts of fructose, so if you have a fructose malabsorption, intolerance or allergy, then it's a good choice. Unfortunately, the very small amount of fat it has in the form of Medium Chain Triglycerides (MCT), is not very significant, and it packs a relatively large wallop of carbs (23g) compared to many of the other gels I review in this post. Ultimately, I”m not sure if the VFuel Endurance Formula (MCT Oil, Taurine, Glucuronolactone, Ornithine Alpha-Ketoglutarate) contains high enough amounts of the fat-based ingredients to make much of a difference compared to the amount of sugar.
This stuff actually reminds me quite a bit of the GU Roctane I used to use during my Ironman triathlons, but with a little bit of MCT added in. However, I like that they flavor their gel using natural sources. For example, in the chocolate they use only organic, non-alkalized (that means the antioxidants aren't destroyed), real cocoa powder and a hint of pure, real vanilla. In their peach cobbler, they we use organic natural peach flavor to get as close to the real flavor as possible, then add a dash of ground cinnamon. There are no frills, no synthetic blending of ‘flavors,’ and no additives.
Option #6: Huma Gel
Huma Mango Flavor Ingredients:
-Evaporated cane juice
-Brown Rice Syrup
-Ground chia seeds
Huma Nutrition Label:
Hüma is based on the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico. Using “Tarahumara” as a name would have been far too long for our gel package, so they chopped it down to “Hüma ”.
Like VFuel, Huma still has lots of carbs in it, with the addition of a small amount of chia seeds. However, they claim that it is 100% stomach-problem free due to their blend of sugars. Sports nutrition research does indeed indicate that consuming sugar blends with a ratio of 2:1 glucose to fructose increases carbohydrate absorption by the body, compared to a single isolated sugar source. As you learned earlier, evaporated Cane Juice has a chemical composition of 1:1 glucose to fructose, and Brown Rice Syrup is 100% glucose. So together, they provide you with the “ideal” 2:1 ratio. But it's still sugar. Sure, the fiber content of the chia seeds acts to modulate carbohydrate absorption,
Hüma gels have a higher water content than other gels, which makes them easier to swallow and digest, but that also means fewer calories per ounce, so they have to put more gel in the package to get you the 100 calories that I like to see in a gel – meaning a larger package. So it's a lot of bulk for relatively few calories and a big hit of sugar. Once again, this is better than a strictly sugar-based gel, but not the best choice in my opinion.
Option #7: Pocket Fuel Naturals
Banana Blueberry PocketFuel Ingredients:
-Dry roasted almonds
-Organic cane sugar
Banana Blueberry PocketFuel Nutrition Label:
PocketFuel Nut Butter blends are made from 100% natural, whole food ingredients found in nuts, seeds and fruits. Their blends are packed with many B-complex group of vitamins such as riboflavin, niacin, thiamin, pantothenic acid, vitamin B-6, and folate, which function as co-factors for enzymes during cellular substrate metabolism. Because of the mix of nuts and fruits, they are also a rich source of minerals like manganese, potassium, calcium, iron, magnesium, zinc, selenium and sodium.
I'd rank PocketFuel right up there with Justin's Nut Butter, with most of the advantages I've already mentioned related to gels that are comprised primarily of nuts, with relatively low amounts of sugar. These PocketFuels are larger than most other gels (about 1.8oz compared to 1.0oz) but have far more calories (~280kcal) due to their higher fat content.
From a pure taste standpoint, this is my favorite fat-based gel. I really dig that all the sugars are from natural fruits, and there are also MCT's from the coconut oil. If I had to choose any of the gels I've discussed so far, PocketFuel would have to rank as one of my favorites. Dangerously addicting, however.
Option #8: Peanut Butter Hammer Gel
Hammer Gel Ingredients:
-Peanut Butter (Dry Roasted Peanuts, Dextrose, Hydrogenated Cottonseed and Rapeseed Oil, Salt)
-Energy Smart® (Grape Juice, Rice Dextrin)
-Sodium Acid Sulfate
-Potassium Sorbate (as a preservative)
-Amino Acids (L-Leucine, L-Alanine, L-Isoleucine, L-Valine)
Hammer Gel Nutrition Label:
This unique flavor from Hammer is very, very similar to the GU Peanut Butter I mentioned earlier. Like GU, Hammer adds none of the “ose” sugars such as dextrose, glucose or sucrose, ranking these as recommend to avoid due to:
1) inconsistent and short-lived “flash and crash” energy; 2) very low and almost always inadequate amounts of calories that the body can assimilate and utilize for energy, with a calorically weak simple sugar concentration of 6-8% being the limit and higher concentrations necessary in a gel based format being digested less efficiently, resulting in an increased risk of digestive problems such as nausea, bloating, cramping, and diarrhea; 3) increased potential for overhydration and its host of associated problems (when you try to fulfill your body's calorie requirements by consuming increased quantities of simple sugar-containing energy gels, you must drink copious amounts of fluids to adequately digest them).
Kudos to Hammer for, similar to GU, adding BCAA's to this blend. Unlike GU, there is no chamomile and ginger in this blend, although Hammer does have it's “EnergySmart” Grape Juice and Rice Dextrin in it. Since we're trying to avoid sugars, this isn't very relevant. Ultimately, since I'm trying to avoid many peanuts anyways, I'd be more prone to use a nut butter based on almonds.
Option #9: Artisana Foods
Artisina Almond Butter Ingredients:
-Organic raw almonds (California)
Artisina Almond Butter Nutrition Label:
Artisina is a pretty interesting company. They not only make the almond butter featured above, but also Coconut Butter made from raw 100% Organic Pure Ground Coconut Flesh, a packet of raw 100% Organic Extra Virgin Coconut Oil and also cashew butter, pecan butter, walnut butter, macadamia butter, raw Organic Chocolate & Coconut Butter Decadence – all in squeeze packs, all organic and all raw.
They are Peanut , Gluten, Soy & Dairy Free. They are certified both Organic & Kosher. They do not add any extra oils, sugar, emulsifiers or preservatives. All you are getting is the good clean nutrition from the nuts. And the amazing thing about Artisana is that with no preservative, it is still completely Shelf Stable, with no need for refrigeration, even after opening, for up to 18 months.
Due to the low sugar, high fat and incredibly versatility of their fat-based sources, allowing you to choose a fat that works well for you, this one ranks right up there for me with PocketFuel and Justin's Nut Butter. These are well worth trying, and are mind-numbingly tasty.
Option #10: YumButter
-Dry roasted California almonds
YumButter Nutrition Label:
I love the social message behind YumButter. Here are some of the ways they're creating social and environmental goodness:
-Leading socially-conscious nut butter company
-14,000 feedings for children with malnutrition
-Over 4% of revenues contributed to social good in 2012
-B Corp score of 87 (other sustainable businesses score 80)
-Offset 36 tonnes of CO2 (~250% more than we create) through reforestation
But here's my beef with YumButter (even though it tastes amazing and ranks right up there with Pocketfuel in terms of it's tasty combination of fruits and nuts):
At about 227g, or around the size of a running flask, the packet is just too freakin' big to carry around for anything except perhaps a bicycling century. I simply can't stuff this in my pants at the start of a Spartan race and have it not be one big flattened mess the first time I roll through a barbwire obstacle, or have it in a pair of marathoning shorts without being extremely weighed down in whichever pocket this stuff is in.
But YumButter tastes really, really, addictively good, and I love their social message. Through their BuyOne:FeedOne model, they've been able to help feed over 14,000 children with malnutrition since mid-2012. That's pretty cool.
Option #11: WinForce
–Coconut milk powder
-Vegetable oil blend (olive oil, coconut oil, sunflower oil, canola oil, wheat-germ oil, emulsifier: sunflower lecithin)
-Thickener: modified starch
WinForce Nutrition Label:
I was intrigued by this one. It's the only vegetable oil based blend of the gels that I've reviewed so far. Their Ultra Energy Complex is based on five vegetable oils containing Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids, and is free of artificial flavors, colors, sweeteners and preservatives. In addition, the L-carnitine contained in this product has been shown to enhance fatty acid utilization and recovery.
As you can see from the nutrition label, it does indeed contain maltodextrin and modified starch, but a standard 25g gel size portion is still under 13g of total carbs.
My biggest concern with Winforce was the potential for extracted vegetable oils, which are notoriously fragile compared to coconut oils, to become oxidized or laden with free radicals. When I wrote to Winforce, they informed me that:
“All 5 vegetable oils are mixed into the product and afterwords low temperature heated to make the product microbiological long term stable. The product is not oxidized. Because of its high content of omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids the product has a good influence against inflammatory.”
In addition, rather than coming from American-based GMO crops, the oils in Winforce come from:
-olive oil: Italy
-coconut oil: Philippines
-sunflower oil: Switzerland
-canola oil: Switzerland
-wheat-germ oil: Switzerland
In the spirit of full disclosure, this is a gel with which I was unable to experiment with or taste prior to writing this article, but I am planning on ordering it very soon to trial, as I'm curious to see how the blend of the different oils compares to using solely a nut butter or solely a coconut oil or MCT oil base.
-Royal jelly (240mg)
-Bee propolis (120mg)
-Wasp extract (100mg)
VESPA Nutrition Label:
Not available, but here's the skinny:
-Serving size: 1 pack (80ml)
-Fat Calories: 0
-Total carbohydrates: 5g (2% of daily value)
This is another unique one. VESPA’s key ingredient is an all-natural amino acid complex (in a naturally occurring peptide) derived from the Asian Mandarin Wasp (yes, a wasp) – and it works by shifting the muscles to metabolize a higher level of fat during physical activity, thus stabilizing and conserving your glycogen stores.
The Asian Mandarin Wasp (Vespa mandarina) is one of nature’s most potent endurance animals. It flies between 70-100 KM per day in search of food and carries half its body weight to its entire body weight in food back to the colony to feed to the larvae. The adult wasp does not eat this solid food, but instead it receives a liquid secreted by the larvae in a symbiotic relationship called “trophallaxis”.
So this company called KAWAHARA Co., Ltd. (of Japan) developed a method for isolating this food source from the wasp, then putting it into every packet of VESPA. Note that there are only 18 calories in a whole packet of this stuff. So rather than being a source of calories, it's mostly allowing to better tap into the other fats you may have available. So it allows you to tap into your own adipose tissue more efficiently, or tap into fats you're getting from other sources more efficiently.
These things are spendy, so I'd use them sparingly, but I've mixed them very successfully with my other fuel sources (MCT oil, Superstarch, amino acids) during Ironman triathlons and it allows me to tap into the energy from those other fuel sources much better. For something like an obstacle race, I wouldn't carry this stuff, but instead (since it will last about 4-6 hours) just take a shot prior to the race, then rely upon other fuel sources during the actual event.
So that's it!
I'd have to say that out of all the sources listed above, my three favorites are Justin's Nut Butter, PocketFuel and any of the blends from Artisina. Then for the pure fat biohacking properties, if budget permits, I like a serving of VESPA taken prior to or with any of those fuel sources. If anything, you'll at least be able to tell your friends you ditched sugar and instead had nuts and wasp extract prior to your workout.
Now it's YOUR turn.
Which of the gels above have you tried? Which would you add?
Do you have questions, comments or feedback about any of these fat-based alternatives to sickeningly sweet sports gels?
Leave your thoughts below!