A Review of Several Energy Gels, In Spite of the Fact that I Think They ALL Taste Nasty

11.21.2005 | 5:10 pm

Not that I ever hold myself up to any kind of journalistic standard, but today’s headline is particularly flawed. I didn’t, for example, go out this weekend and buy a bunch of different kinds of energy gels and try them out. That would be gross.

Further, I didn’t go on the Web to find out what kinds of energy gels are out there right now, and which kinds experts recommend. If you want to do that, though, I’d be interested to know what you learn (but only mildly interested, to be honest).

Instead, I just dug into my years and years of being a gullible gel consumer. I’ll base the strength of recommendation for each gel on how weak of a gag reflex the memory of that gel inspires.

And the thing is, that’s a totally unfair way of reviewing gels. I mean, Hammergel in particular is going to get a raw deal out of my review; my aversion to their stuff is due entirely to my own stupidity.

So, let’s begin: my subjective, non-scientific, unfair, and totally non-comprehensive review of gels I have tried.



This is the energy gel I started with. And I stuck with it for years, for two reasons, neither of which I’m especially proud of:

  • Taste: PowerGel Lemon Lime flavor tastes better than any other gel, by any other brand. On one hand, that’s not a half bad selection criterion. On the other hand, admitting that I like the taste of lukewarm key lime pie is not something I’m all that enthused about.
  • Cost: PowerGel seems to be free. Oh, sure, you can go into your bike shop and buy it for a buck a shot, just like any kind of gel, but if you race at all, you’re bound to have noticed that organizers always seem to have boxes and boxes (and boxes) of free PowerGel just lying around. And the organizers don’t want to take it home after the event. So, while I have consumed more PowerGel than any other brand, I have spent less on it than on practically any other brand.

I have no science at all to back this claim, but it seems to me that PowerGel hits you faster than any other gel. This is both good and bad. It’s good because just a few minutes after you suck it down, you’ve got a big spike of energy.

It’s bad because I chose the term “spike of energy” in the previous paragraph very carefully. PowerGel drops you off a cliff, energy-wise. If you haven’t queued up the next boost of PowerGel 15 minutes after you took one, you’re in for a sudden and discouraging energy sag.


Clif Shot

When Clif Shot first came out, it came in little toothpaste tube-like containers, with a resealable twist cap. It also made a big deal of using brown rice syrup, and so didn’t have that same spikey surge of energy that other gels had.

The problem was, it tasted so bad that nobody ever finished a single tube. People would buy one sample tube, tried it, twist the cap back on, and never twist it back off again.

Clif came out with a second iteration of Clif Shot, this time in the single-serving foil pouch. And this time they did something really clever: they put a little connector between the top tab that you rip off and the main pouch, so that you don’t accidentally lose the top tab and litter.

I used Clif Shot for about two years in this second iteration, because . . . well . . . because I got it for free. I got about a truckload as partial payment from a race organizer for building him a website. I love the bartering system.

The best Clif Shot flavor is to mix Razz Sorbet with Viva Vanilla. The vanilla tones down the insanely sweet taste of the Razz Sorbet to something nearly tolerable. Wow, that’s quite a recommendation, isn’t it?

My final observation on Clif Shot: while it isn’t as obvious as it used to be, the brown rice syrup flavor is still back there, and it leaves a molasses-like aftertaste.


Hammer Gel

I have always understood the cardinal rule of endurance racing: don’t try anything new on race day. No new clothes, no new equipment, no new food. Especially no new food. So I have no excuse for why, a few years ago, I bought a big Apple-Cinnamon Hammer Gel jug the day before the Brian Head 100. Maybe it was because of all the positive recommendations I had heard. Maybe it was because it seemed so convenient to be able to just put the bottle the gel came in in the water bottle cage. Maybe it’s because I had gotten cocky from having done a lot of endurance rides, and thought the cardinal rule no longer applied to me.

It still applied to me.

Within an hour of the beginning of the race, I had decided that I hated the taste of Hammer Gel.

Within three hours, I had decided Hammer Gel hated me. I was experiencing stomach cramps in a unique, almost exquisitely painful way.

So I stopped using the Hammer Gel. And of course, in the absence of a nutritional Plan B, I bonked in a manner most colossal.

I finished the race, but I have only one enduring memory of that year’s Brian Head 100: Hammer Gel = pain.

Which is unfair to the Hammer Gel folks, of course. I shouldn’t have tried it for the first time in a race. I should have found a flavor I liked. And it’s totally possible that the cramps were due to something I ate the day before.

But that doesn’t change the reality: I can’t even think about Hammer Gel without shuddering.


Honey Stingers (Warning: Website has Very Annoying Audio)

I love honey. I confess, as a kid I would secretly get the honey bear out, upend it and suck out a mouthful (Note to parents and sisters: sorry ‘bout that. Also, sorry I did the same thing with the milk jug. And the Hershey’s Syrup). And so having a company come out with a “gel” that is really nothing more than honey with some flavoring and salt seemed like pure genius.

There are just a couple problems, though:

  • Sticky: Any gel is capable of making a sticky mess. However, honey is stickier by an order of magnitude. And it spreads, somehow. You get a little on your lip and soon it’s on your glove, then on your handlebar grip, then on your jersey. Soon, gnats and road debris are sticking to you. It’s less attractive than it sounds.
  • Does Not Play at all Well With Others: Most gels mix badly with some things, but as near as I could tell, honey mixes badly with every single kind of sports drink that exists.

I tried making my own honey-based energy gel by diluting honey with water, adding a little salt, and microwaving it to make it easy to mix together. The result tasted really good, but the 5-serving gel flasks I used to hold this honey didn’t seal well, with predictably disastrous results involving me stuck to my saddle.



Gu is the gel brand I’ve settled on for now. Specifically, Vanilla Bean Gu. The way I stumbled on this flavor underscores how subjective these preferences are. My riding buddy Nick had bought a box of Vanilla Bean Gu and hated it so badly he asked if I’d take it off his hands. Always the scrounge, of course I said yes. Turns out, I can tolerate it just fine.

Here’s what I like about Gu: I can slurp one down with a mouthful of water, and it’s gone. The energy pick-up comes quickly enough, but doesn’t pitch me off a cliff immediately afterward. It is, in short, moderately good at everything a gel needs to be good at.

I declare Gu the Honda Civic of energy gels.


PS For DIY Types: Kent’s Choco-Peanut Goop

Cycling guru and expert at keeping things simple Kent Peterson shares the following recipe for making your own Reeses Peanut Butter Cup –flavored gel in a randonneuring ride report. I haven’t tried it yet, but Kent’s ideas are generally worth investigating. Plus, I like chocolate and peanut butter a lot.

  • 1/4 cup creamy peanut butter
  • 1/4 cup chocolate syrup (like what you’d put on ice-cream)
  • 1/4 cup water

Take the ingredients listed above and put them in a mug. Heat the mug in a microwave for about 30 seconds and then stir everything up. It should all blend together nicely and and have a thin, creamy texture. Spoon it into one of those refillable Gu flasks. Be sure you taste the leftover Goop that’s stuck to the mug and the spoon. If you don’t like the taste of this stuff at home, you probably won’t like it on the road. But I find it delicious. Unlike commercial Gu which is basically just carbohydrates, Goop has some protein, fat, sodium, niacin and vitamin E in it as well.


PPS About All Those Brands I Didn’t Mention

Yes, I know. There are a lot of brands out there I haven’t mentioned. Carb-Boom, for example. If they’d like to send me a batch, I’ll try it and even write about it. Same thing goes for pretty much any other brand (except Hammer Gel, which I’d have to give to someone else to try).


  1. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 5:32 pm

    The gels I’ve tried have all reminded me of canned pie fillings. Maybe you should include some of those in your next tests. Yumm.

  2. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 6:04 pm

    Shame about the Hammer Gel. Hammer Gel is the only one that doesn’t put me on an up/down blood sugar roller coaster, so I can eat just one, and have more wholesome munchies when I have a chance. Complex carbs, no simple sugars, according to their site. (Drink plenty of water with them though… remember that the complex carbs give beans and many other fibery foods their, um, kick). Their energy drink is amazing – weak flavored with a solid hint of tangy orange or lemon, but nothing else. I can swill two or three quarts of it at once on a hot day with no pushback, perfect if you are setting up rest stops on a century on a hot day. Tastes just fine lukewarm too, like orange flavored pedialyte. No, I’m not their sales director. Three quarts – yes, I am a Rocky caliber sweater.

  3. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 6:24 pm

    I realize this is slightly off the subject but the small V8 cans are a great gel substitute.A lot of soduim and you can drink them in one gulp.The Lemon Lime PowerGel is by far the best tasting during consumption; however, it has an aftertaste like vomit.

  4. Comment by Kevin | 11.21.2005 | 6:27 pm

    I can’t stand energy gels. I never really liked the taste, but one bad experience can ruin the whole concept…I do team 24 hour races with my family. We were at one when my second night lap came, and I decided to have a gel – I think it was a Clif, but who can remember. The previous lap came in, I gulped it down, and ran towards my bike. I got halfway there when the gel, the water I drank, and anything that was left over came back up. That was almost 4 years ago, and I have not had one since. Even reading the post makes me sick to my stomach.Although, I think I’ll try Kent’s recipe.

  5. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 6:28 pm

    The complex carbohydrates in gels (almost always maltodextrin) are not really that complex. Maltodextrin is a disaccharide of glucose (two glucose molecules hooked together). They are taken up by different transporters than glucose monosaccharides, but they still have favorable gastric emptying kinetics and have a fairly high GI score.You can get maltodextrin powder from your local home brewery store (same for brown rice syrup). Mix it with water and some kool-aid for flavor and you’ve got GU. The final concentration IN YOUR STOMACH needs to be about 14% for maximal gastric emptying and you should take at least 250 calories per hour of the stuff (more if you can handle it, I for one tend to get sick).You can also make a drink out of maltodextrin or brown rice syrup solids by adding some sugar (paradoxically the maltodextrin is not sweet tasting at all) to the Gel mix and diluting it with water.Botched

  6. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 6:33 pm

    OOPS, should have re-read my post before publishing it.I should have said that maltodextrin tends to be short glucose polymers, but isn’t always two glucoses. They actually partially digest maldodextrin so that it is quite short.Also, maltodextrin has a high GI, not a "fairly" high GI.Botched!

  7. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 6:59 pm

    Are these gels appropriate for children’s lunches?(I’m thinking of omitting the lunch part and sticking a foil package into the box each day.)Are there any gels I could bring for a Thanksgiving dinner?

  8. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 7:03 pm

    Or during the Rapture? Or the Avian Flu? Would these gels make it so I wouldn’t have to leave my apartment?

  9. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 7:08 pm

    Does anyone know where I can find Guard Dog Watches? I might know some people who work.

  10. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 7:15 pm

    All this talk about the energy spike of these gels makes me feel like I am at a distinct disadvantage when I show up and race without anything but a couple of water bottles with regular old water in them.

  11. Comment by Ariane | 11.21.2005 | 7:19 pm

    I frigign’ love Chocolate Outrage GU. In fact, somedays I go for a long ride solely for the purpose of consuming a couple little packets of fudgy goodness. Okay, maybe not, but still, it tastes just like brownies to me. If there were some way I could work Chocolate Outrage GU into my cooking, you bet I would. Anyone up for Chocolate Outrage tofu? Stir Fry?

  12. Comment by pete | 11.21.2005 | 7:37 pm

    As if your sordid addiction to bizarre energy products wasn’t enough, you have to go and throw bestiality into the mix. Unless you have another explanation for this outrageous admission: "I would secretly get the honey bear out, upend it and suck out a mouthful."Is a honey bear the same as a honey badger? You sick, sick, sick man.Anyway, I don’t know if it’s got anything to do with energy gels, but this is what I think of when I see the word Gu. Toad, you may want to consider this for your cooking. My personal favourite is the hot chocolate souffle. Although the chocolate truffle with raspberry compote is tip-top too. And who can resist a proper, rich chocolate mousse. Oh, and they do an excellent sideline in fruity desserts as well. Maybe you could sell them a license for your own chocolatey-melt-apocalypse cake thing?http://www.gupuds.com/

  13. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 7:49 pm

    This is starting to remind me of the time I bought energy pills at the dollar store. Never ever again. Imagine Hammer Gel plus two bags of grapes divided by mexican food – and you have my interesting-but-not-so-fun Saturday night/Sunday morning.Bleh.

  14. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 7:51 pm

    I’m gonna fire up the Cuisinart and make some gel for Rocky. Ingredients will be tuna, mayo, celery, a little onion, lime juice, and whole wheat bread. Add a little thin gelatin solution for consistancy. Yumm.Think there would be a market for it ?Boz

  15. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 7:53 pm

    Hmmmmmmm… it seems to me that if you left out the water, you might have a nice spread for graham crackers or maybe frosting for cake! Pretty healthy, too, because of the magnesium and anti-oxidant properties of the chocolate and the great protein and other vitamins and minerals from the peanut butter.I’m picturing Botched in a lab coat, wearing horn-rimmed glasses, standing in a laboratory while holding up a beaker and pointing to it, a la Vanna White.I think Toad may be on to something! Or on somthing?Hugs,MuMo

  16. Comment by Zed | 11.21.2005 | 7:58 pm

    This is so unrelated it’s not even slightly funny, but I read a description of Chris Eatough’s diet on the Trek web site once. Oh, look, I’ve found it again: "The food menu that kept Chris fueled to win included; ham sandwiches, potato chips, pancakes with syrup, and warm rice pudding – all served and eaten on the run. For liquids, Chris consumed a steady diet of Cytomax energy drinks." Somebody explain to me how he ate pancakes on the run. I’ve just been doing plain water too, Lars. Face the facts, man, we’re toast.quote source: http://www2.trekbikes.com/us/en/Mountain/News/2005_09_10_229125.phpBy the way, Botched, I don’t know what you do for a living, but you know way too much about chemistry for my comfort. I’ll be keeping an eye on your suspicious posts from here on out.

  17. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 10:20 pm

    I’ve made this stuff before:http://www.dirtragmag.com/web/article.php?ID=422&category=web_onlyI really like both honey and molasses, so this worked great for me. My only real problem was the old honey I used. After a few weeks, it crystalized in the container and I couldn’t get it out (without heating up the whole thing–note, I don’t carry a microwave with me on my rides, so this was inconveneint).My favorite purchased Gel is Gu, plain flavor. That is, no flavor. Because gel tastes bad, no flavor is an improvement.

  18. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 10:37 pm

    Honey is made of glucose and fructose monomers so it is just like using table sugar (sucrose, which is a glucose and fructose dissacharide). Molasses is basically cane sugar concentrate, so it is essentially sucrose.Using honey or table sugar isn’t necessarily a bad way to go, but some people don’t like the sweetness of honey and molassas, and the simpler sugars will tend to give greater oscillations in blood sugar concentration (the spike and cliff of energy that fatty refered to).Also, both honey and sucrose contain a lot of fructose, which isn’t taken up as quickly as glucose, and which can cause gastro-intestinal distress.BotchedP.S. The gels are really intented for high intensity exercise (above 75% max HR). Below that, it doesn’t matter so much what you eat, as gastruc function is pretty high. At the higher intensities your guts kind of shut down a little, so gastric emptying really matters for two reasons. 1) to get the nutrition from your stomach to your small intenstine where it is taken into your blood, and 2) to avoid distress.At high intensity exercise, 2% protein is supposed to speed gastric emptying (to go a health store and buy whey protein to add to your home made gu–I also add lite salt with has sodium and potassium) and basically any fat will slow down gastric emptying.

  19. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 10:56 pm

    The more Botched says "gastric emptying", the more I shudder.

  20. Comment by Unknown | 11.21.2005 | 11:55 pm

    Man do I feel outdated. Bananas, grapes, fig newtons and water is about all I have ever had on a ride, which makes me paleolithic protosapiens I suppose. Seems like I am missing out on my share of gastric distress. I am pretty sure I get my share of gastric emptying, thank God.

  21. Comment by TIMOTHY | 11.22.2005 | 12:07 am

    I don’t eat a lot of gels – though I usually have an emergency one stashed to stave off the bonk.People make fun of me for it but for 24 Hour Races I swear by Ensure (Vanilla). One about 1/2 hour before a lap and one right after. Like thin Vanilla pudding!I think I may have to try some of the homemade recipes…

  22. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 11.22.2005 | 12:13 am

    What’s wrong with a bidon of soft drink and a bag of grapes tied onto your handlebars?

  23. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 1:06 am

    BIG Mike–In Oz, or Europe, nothing. Over/under there soda is made with glucose syrup for sweetening. Here in the USA, they use high fructose corn syrup for sweetening.So, as I mentioned before, at low to moderate exertion levels, even in the states, most people could get away with the soda and grapes. At high exertion levels, the fructose from the grapes and soda might over-whelm the limited number of fructose transporters in the guts, leading to fructose haning around and . . . GASTROINTESTINAL DISTRESS!BotchedP.S. In real life I am also an insufferable know it all.

  24. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 7:07 am

    After weeks of reading your blog religiously (don’t panic I’m not a Presbyterian and I don’t drive a Toyota) today’s entry inspired me to post a comment.Energy gels have been my saviour (there’s that religious motif again – maybe I am a closet Presbyterian) and my undoing on a few occasions. For the past two years I’ve done the Letape du Tour which is a mass participation event in France where you get to ride a stage of the Tour. Last year was a stage in the Massif Central (English translation – enormous central) area of France. It was the longest stage of the ‘04 Tour – 236KM (3.4 miles) and included a couple of nasty climbs. To add some spice to the event there is a cut-off time with a broom wagon to sweep up those who don’t maintain the minimum average speed. I’d prepared well with enough gels in the bento box (a much better place to keep your gels than up the leg of your shorts) to last the whole ride. Only problem was that in the excitement of riding a real Tour stage on closed roads with 8000 other riders I forgot to slurp any down. Predictably the dreaded bonk hit me after a couple of hours and despite having two Gu’s in quick succession I couldn’t climb out of the hole I had dug myself. To add insult to injury at that point two discarded gel packets (think they were PowerGels) got stuck to both tyres. I was too far behind the cut-off time to think about stopping and taking them off so for the next hour I put up with a thwack-thwack noise of the packets hitting my brake callipers and other riders pointing out in a variety of languages that I had gel packets stuck to my wheels. Then the broom wagon came along and put me out of my misery.This year’s Etape was a different story. Gels every 30 minutes and plenty of liquids to wash them down. The highlight of the ride was climbing the Aubisque and then knocking down an Enervit before the 30KM descent. For anyone who hasn’t tried this brand I recommend you do. Its 60ml of pure Italian style (Mario Cipollini uses it as hair gel) I made it to the finish line in Pau and even had enough energy for a two hands off the bars victory salute. Pity I came in 6380th….

  25. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 8:02 am

    Fatty, dear heart… I was just about to go to bed when I read your comment on my Brain Triggers… so then I started laughing and here I am, reading all this great stuff and laughing even more. So goodnight, all and thanks for a lot of great information, scientific data (that Botched is a caution, isn’t he!) and plenty plenty laughs.I mean good morning… It’s just turned into morning here.Hi, Mike! Tea time in Oz… hope you’re enjoying it!Hugs,MuMo

  26. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 8:16 am

    P.S. You said that if pregnancy is the time before birth, then gnancy must occur at the moment OF birth. If that’s true, then is preconception the moment BEFORE pregnancy?

  27. Comment by tayfuryagci | 11.22.2005 | 8:32 am

    I guess I gotta switch to gel too. My "gallons of water and lotsa chocolate" technique is not really working.

  28. Comment by BIg Mike In Oz | 11.22.2005 | 12:32 pm

    MuMo – if preconception is the moment BEFORE pregnancy, does that make misconception a synonym of coitus interruptus.

  29. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 5:08 pm

    Fatty–you are nuts. These people are all nuts. You are a nuts magnet.Boz–thanks for the thought. The Tuna Gu sounds tasty. Although it kills the concept. Feeling full is part of the objective.Caloi–Eatonough’s diet. See, I told you. But not ham, tuna. Pancakes sound like a recipe for gas on the bike. But potato chips and rice pudding. The guy is a genius.Botched–credentials, please. Does BotchedExperiement have anything to do with vivisections, a Mary Shelley re-enactment, or something similar?

  30. Comment by Unknown | 11.22.2005 | 7:17 pm

    Rocky–My credentials are impeccable:Angiosperm Embryo (or hard shelled fruit) megalomaniac.Botched

  31. Comment by Selina | 11.25.2005 | 12:27 am

    You talk about Gels being sickeningly sweet, and they are. But all of the ones I hear you talking about are the very sweetest ones out there. Try Dark Chocolate Gu – I can eat 5-6 of them before wanting to hurl, as opposed to about 2 of the Vanilla Bean/Plain Gu.


Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.