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Energy Gel Taste Test

Packed with fast-working carbohydrates, energy gels are booster rockets for tired muscles. The big question is: How do they taste?

By Jonathan Dorn, BACKPACKER Editor-in-Chief, May 2001

Popeye had spinach, hikers have energy gels.

Gulp down one of these gooey, syrupy sugar bombs as you reach the base of a mountain, and faster than you can say "I yam what I yam," a dose of concentrated carbohydrates helps you skip right to the peak. At roughly 100 calories a pop, one packet of energy gel is the nutritional equivalent of mainlining half a bagel, but a whole lot faster and less painful. Chemically formulated to provide intense bursts of energy right now, gels leave out the complex nutrients like protein, fat, and fiber you find in an energy bar or peanut-buttered bagel, so there's less stomach grumbling and faster absorption into your bloodstream. That makes them suited for high-intensity, can't-stop-now activities like tackling the day's last steep climb before yonder storm hits yonder pass.

I set out on high-energy hikes in Utah, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and New York, pack stocked full and body ready to find the best-tasting energy gel out there.

After sucking glycogen from small plastic packets for more days than I care to count, I couldn't detect a significant difference in energy boost between the three gels initially tested (Clif SHOT, GU, and PowerGel). All gave a quick and powerful, but not sustained, surge of energy that kicked in quickly and lasted about 30 minutes. If I hadn't reached my summit by then, I gobbled another packet--or two, since 100 calories doesn't really provide enough fuel for a fatigued 220-pounder like me. Which brings me to serving size and packaging: If you also need more calories, or don't want a pocketful of sticky plastic packets, buy bulk refills and load the gel in a small plastic flask instead of carrying numerous single servings. In either case, expect the gels to get a bit sludgy when cold, and soupy when hot. To my pleasant surprise, none froze solid when left out overnight at 10F.

I did detect significant variations in flavor, texture, and ease of use, which make all the difference in the backcountry. Consult the chart to find the best-tasting gels for those afternoons when your muscles need a Popeye-size wakeup call.

Note: We kick off our energy-gel review with the three gels most commonly available. In the coming months, our energized hiker will test more brands and add the results to the chart. Check back to see which are the best, or tell us (moveablefeast@backpacker.com) what your favorite brand is so we can add it to the test.

ENERGY GELS

Gel/contact Flavor Tested BP Flavor Rating Calories Fat (g) Sodium (mg) Carbohydrates (g)
Clif SHOT/
(800) 421-1223
www.clifbar.com
packet/ $.99

Comments: All-natural ingredients and ideal texture--slightly grainy, not too thick 'n' gooey.
Cocoa Peanut *** like a half-melted chocolate bar 100 50 24
Mocha Mocha with caffeine ** 100 50 24
Peanut Buzz with caffeine *** Like a PayDay candy bar--salty, sweet, and peanutty 100 50 24
Razz Sorbet ** Tangy kick of real raspberries, but sweet like sugar, not fruit 100 50 24
Viva Vanilla *** Rich and exotic 100 50 24
Gojus de France
877-465-8746

$13.50/10-pack
Comments: Excessive packaging for small portion size and energy boost. Serving size is 100 grams, which you get by downing 4 packets at once. Nutritional information below is for 1 serving (i.e., 4 packets)
Berry Mild flavor, not sickly sweet 370 70 92
Lemon COMING SOON 370 70 92
Original COMING SOON 370 70 92
GU
(800) 400-1995
https://guenergy.com/ or http://www.rei.com/product/610028/gu-energy-gel
$1.25/packet
$4.99 for a five-serving refill
Comments: Compact package is easiest to rip, sip, and go; smooth texture; flows fast when warm.
Banana Blitz ** 100 20 25
Chocolate Outrage *** Like licking the brownie batter bowl 100 20 25
Orange Burs 100 20 25
Just Plain ** Good choice for late in the race, when stomachs can get finicky 100 20 25
Tri Berry *** A hint of wild berries without a sickly sweet aftertaste 100 20 25
Vanilla Bean font color="#c11b17"> ** 100 20 25
Hammer
(800) 336-1977
www.hammernutrition.com/products/hammer-gel.hg.html
No individual packets
$15/26 oz. Jug (free flask included)

Comments: Goes down more easily than competition when you're low on water and the tasty natural flavors are less sugary-sweet than most.
Banana *** Tastes like fresh banana smoothie, sans the overpowering sweetness of other gels 100 14 23
Chocolate Like unsweetened, artificial chocolate syrup 100 14 23
Orange ** Pleasant but understated citrus flavor could be stronger 100 14 23
Plain ** Flavor-neutral taste beats most "plain" gels 100 14 23
Raspberry COMING SOON 100 14 23
Vanilla Tastes more like milkshake syrup than real vanilla 100 14 23
Honey
Available at all grocery and health food stores
$tk/17.5 oz.

Honey flavor Great on sandwiches, oatmeal, or drizzled over an energy bar, but unbearably sweet when quaffed gel-style 60 17
PowerBar/PowerGel
(800) 587-6937
www.powerbar.com
$1.29
$10 for a 10-serving refill

Comments: Long neck slows sucking; strong flavors, but some taste artificial.
Chocolate with caffeine (25 mg) ** 120 1.5 50 28
Lemon-Lime 110 50 28
Strawberry Banana with caffeine (25 mg) ** More banana than strawberry, with a mellow aftertaste 110 50 28
Tangerine with caffeine (50 mg) ** Pucker-up flavor, plus a double jolt of caffeine 110 0 50 28
Tropical Fruit 110 50 28
Vanilla ** Smooth and tangy, but very sweet 110 50 28
Banana Peach ** A powerful burst of real peach taste comes with a banana undertone. The gel?s texture is smooth, and its sweetness is not overwhelming. 107 50 27
Rating Scale
*** = Excellent, superior
** = Good, decent
= Poor, miserable