Bars vs Gels vs Drinks

sports food

It is important to consider the purpose of these products. Typically, the main purpose is to provide a convenient source of carbohydrate. During exercise, muscles must have carbohydrate available to work at its best capacity. When exercising for longer than around 60-90 minutes, carbohydrate stores require topping up to maintain high intensity.

In addition to being a convenient and compact form of carbohydrate, another advantage of specialised sports foods is that they can also provide other elements such as sodium, caffeine, possibly protein and can be formulated to provide ‘multiple transportable carbohydrates’ in the right ratio to allow for higher hourly carbohydrate intakes with reduced risk of gastrointestinal distress.

Sports foods are different to standard snack foods and fall into their own category of the Australian Food Standards Code. This allows for greater additions of ingredients such as vitamins, minerals or specific amino acids compared to other foods, but this also means they must contain a label declaring ‘Not suitable for children under 15 years of age or pregnant women: Should only be used under medical or dietetic supervision’. This does not mean all sports foods are unsafe for pregnancy or children, but it is wise to check with Accredited Sports Dietitian.

Is there a single best choice? No, it all depends on preference and individual needs. Can you pay too much for unnecessary additions, marketing and claims… possibly yes…read on….

Sports Drinks

Sports drinks are a carbohydrate and sodium containing beverages (sometimes with other additions like protein or magnesium) that should not be confused with ‘energy drinks’, which are highly caffeinated drinks usually without significant sodium content. Sports Drinks have been used in research for years and when compared to plain water they have consistently shown to; enhance performance over a variety of distances, encourage fluid intake and promote better fluid retention. Overall, they are a convenient way to address fluid fuel and electrolyte needs in one product.

Look for carbohydrate content between 4-8%, higher concentrations can be achieved with a concentrated mix or additional carbohydrate solution in a ratio of 2:1, glucose to fructose.

Some sports drinks have only low to moderate sodium content, but the best option is to look for a sodium content around 50mg/100ml.

Reasons and situations for use:

  • Easily manipulated to suit requirements eg diluted, extra sodium and/or carbohydrate;
  • Can be bought in bulk powder form to decrease cost per serve or make travelling with ;product more convenient
  • Useful addition to carbohydrate loading plans to boost carbohydrate intake without feeling; too full
  • Convenient ‘all in one option’ when fluid and fuel must be carried.

Watch out for:

  • Carbohydrate content can vary, check labels carefully to match with your nutrition plan;
  • Carbohydrate is not always required during exercise and overconsumption of sports drink; may lead to unnecessary excess daily energy intake;
  • Warm sports drinks can be quite unpalatable so if your drink is going to sit around in the sun for hours consider taking an esky/cooler bag or freezing your bottle and letting it defrost over the day;
  • Sports drinks can damage teeth, consider dental hygiene;
  • Claims that addition of minerals such as magnesium and/or trace amounts of amino acids will greatly enhance performance of the drink, there is limited evidence for this.

Sports Gels

Sports gels are a popular choice amongst triathletes, cyclists and runners. They are a sweet, gooey, convenient source of concentrated carbohydrate, usually in a single serve pack. Most gels provide between 20-30g of carbohydrate, and usually contain sodium with no fat or protein. Many gels have a mixture of glucose and fructose to help intestinal absorption of higher intakes of carbohydrate, but take care if you have fructose intolerance. Gels may contain caffeine in amounts varying between 8-80mg per serve. Sports gels come in a huge range of flavours.

Reasons and situations for use:

  • Easily be taped to bike frames or running belts, lightweight, compact and very portable;
  • Quite durable, won’t get squashed or go soggy like a sandwich might;
  • Can be a convenient source of caffeine during events but check the label carefully as content can vary significantly;
  • Useful source of carbohydrate when fluid is provided on route.

What to watch out for:

  • If you tasted a gel sample and thought it was ok, don’t assume that you will feel the same on your eighth gel of a race. Gels are very sweet and ‘flavour fatigue’ is common – consider packing a range of flavours to avoid this;
  • Don’t forget hydration, relying on gels does not address fluid needs and consuming gels without fluid increases the risk of diarrhoea or cramping
  • Empty gel packets can be a sticky mess but please don’t litter

Sports Bars

Sports bars are energy dense bars containing carbohydrate and varying amounts of protein, fat and micronutrients. Compared to gels and drinks, they have the greatest variation of ingredients and nutritional content. Different bars have different benefits for use before, during or after exercise so check labels carefully. Many bars include protein. This will not necessarily drive performance during an event if carbohydrate needs are adequate, but it can help start the recovery process early. Including protein containing bars during exercise could be a useful option particularly through heaving training weeks.

Some bars contain wholegrains and provide fibre making them more appropriate for everyday use but may not be as appropriate during high intensity events if you frequently experience gastrointestinal upset.

Reasons and situations to use:

  • Sports bars can be more filling and substantial, ideal for longer events and training days when hunger is an issue;
  • Convenient, non-perishable and portable option as a replacement to other foods when away from home with limited access to ‘real foods’;
  • Energy dense option to add to meal plans during busy days away from home when energy needs are high;
  • Bars containing protein make a convenient recovery choice when other food is not available.

What to watch out for: 

  • In the colder weather, some sports bars may go hard, making it difficult to chew and can even be inedible (keep bars close to your body in cold weather to help keep them soft). In the heat, others can melt and be a sticky mess;
  • Bars require more chewing and time than gels or sports drink so if the event is short and fast and/or has lots of technical elements, bars may not be the best choice;
  • High energy bars need to be matched to high energy needs or they can quickly become an expensive source of excess energy;
  • Higher fat or fibre bars may delay gastric emptying, making carbohydrate less easily available and may increase risk of stomach discomfort or cramping.

Article written by Accredited Sports Dietitian Tanya Lewis