By Larry Carroll
In 2018, the athletic footwear business was a $16 billion industry. In the United States alone, more than 60 million people consider themselves runners, joggers or trail runners — a number that climbs to more than 110 million who walk for fitness. As you can imagine, all these people need something to supplement their efforts, nourishment that they hope will improve both performance and overall health.
If you are one of these millions of people — or have been around one — there’s a good chance that you’ve tasted the gels that often adorn their fuel belts. Housed in small, brightly-colored pouches, the substances typically come in all kinds of Pinkberry-sounding flavors like Salted Caramel, Chocolate Outrage and Gingerade — and taste a bit like cake frosting squirted directly into your mouth. In a billion-dollar industry, gels and goos (the words are often interchangeable) have grown exponentially since research scientist Dr. Bill Vaughan formulated the first GU energy gel in 1993 in a Berkeley kitchen — launching GU Energy Labs, one of the biggest players in the market.
“Drinks are good in that they empty the stomach quickly,” his son and the company’s current president, Brian Vaughan, explains in an interview on the product’s site ( 25years of GU: The Invention of the energy ‘Gel‘ ) “Bars and solid foods are good in that they provide nutrients, but they both have limits to them. As a research scientist [my father] began to play around with formulations. And so, through a series of reductions of that bar concept, he came up with simpler complex carbohydrates, amino acids, muscle buffers, electrolytes … you don’t have to destroy your muscles, providing you can supply the right nutrients at the right time.”
As is the case with any successful business model, there are many different companies now elbowing each other for market share. In addition to GU, runners have a choice between gels from Honey Stinger, Clif, Huma, PowerBar and others. What they have in common is a desire to top off glycogen as it gets depleted by offering simple sugar — after that, it’s up to the athlete to seek out brands with carbohydrates (glucose, fructose), electrolytes (for running in warmer weather) sodium (for those with salty sweat), or whatever else their personal needs may dictate.
But when all is said and done, are goos and gels worth the hype? A 2016 analysis from radio station WBUR interviewed dietitians and Sports Medicine experts and concluded that in some ways, energy gels are the exercise version of Santa Claus.
“They’re a wonderful thing to believe in on the starting line, and during training. Just as believing in Santa gets us in the spirit of giving around the holidays, maybe GU gets us in the spirit of competing,” the article concludes (As Olympians Suck Down Energy Gels, A Believer In ‘GU’ Gel Seeks Reality Check ). “The magic of GU maybe not in the specialized chemical formula, but more in the convenient packaging. It is certainly easier to slip a small gel-pack into your pocket during a long run than it is to carry a cup of coffee and a slice of bread.”
In short, many of the benefits of these gels can be consumed just as effectively via traditional pre-exercise meals, or such grab-and-go foods as bananas or bagels, but that little packet on your fuel belt gives you a smaller amount in a form that takes effect much faster. So, to goo or not to goo? At the end of the day, such questions are all about what it takes to get you across your own personal finish line.