Engineered Sports Foods: A Primer
By Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD
Remember water, bananas and defizzed Coke-the original sports fuels? Maybe not. They've been buried by a multitude of engineered sports foods and fluids created by the $2+ billion sports fuel industry! Since the 1970's, when Gatorade was introduced, this business has mushroomed and continues to expand. PowerBar's debut in the 1980's and GU's debut in the 1990's bolstered the commercial sports food scene. Since then, a multitude of companies have jumped on the bandwagon to create niche fuels that appeal to a variety of athletes. There's a product for every dietary need-gluten-free, vegan, kosher, lactose-free, fructose-free …the list goes on.
If you have ever felt confused by the plethora of commercial sports fuels from which to choose, you are not alone. Runners, cyclists and other athletes inevitably ask me "What's the best energy bar? gel? sports drink?" I only wish I had the right answer! The best choice for one person may be lackluster for another. You simply need to experiment to determine which products are best for your body.
In general, commercial sports foods tend to be more about convenience than necessity. They can make fueling easier, and offer more benefits than you'd get from just plain water. If you are on a budget, take note: A daily quart of sports drink @ $1.59 adds up to more than $570 a year. An equal number of calories from diluted, defizzed Coke might cost only 40¢ a day, $150 a year. (OK, add a pinch of salt, if desired…)
Certainly, there is a time and place for engineered sports fuels, particularly if you are a high-level endurance athlete who exercises intensely. But throughout the day, you should maintain a foundation of wholesome foods in the midst of the engineered choices. That is, you need not drink a sports drink at lunch, nor eat Jelly Belly Sports Beans for an afternoon snack. Be sure you add a few apple cores and banana peels to the litter from engineered sports food wrappers!
Below is a comprehensive (but unlikely complete) list of various types of assorted sports fuels and foods. Perhaps it will help you untangle the jungle of choices. Don't be swayed by a product's name; it might be more powerful than the sports food itself…
All natural without dye/food coloring:
Added "buffers": Cytomax, Perpetuem, Revenge Sport
Extra carbs: Carbo-Pro
Added protein (May reduce post-exercise muscle soreness);
Extra sodium: PowerBar Gel, Crank Sports e-Gel, ProBoom
Added protein: Accel Gel, Endless edge, ProBoom
Added caffeine: GU Espresso Love, Clif Shot Mocha, Cola and Strawberry; Carb-BOOM Chocolate Cherry, Hammer Gel Espresso, PowerBar Gel Double Latte, Tangerine, Chocolate, Green Apple and Strawberry-banana; Honey Stinger Ginsting and Strawberry
Added extras: EAS Energy Gel (taurine)
RECOVERY DRINKS (Carbs with a little protein)
ENERGY DRINKS: (Concentrated sugar, often with added caffeine):
ENERGY BARS (should be eaten for extra energy, not for a meal replacement):
Women's bars (fewer calories; soy, calcium, iron and folic acid):
40-30-30 Bars: Balance Bar, ZonePerfect
Kosher: Pure Fit, Lara Bar, Extend Bar
Dairy-free: Clif Nectar, Pure Fit, Perfect 10, Lara Bar, Clif Builder's Bar
Gluten-free: Perfect 10, Elev8Me, Hammer Bar, Clif Nectar, EnvirKids Rice Cereal Bar; Omega Smart Bars, Odwalla Bar, Clif Builder's Bar, Extend Bar, Bumble Bar
Vitamin & protein-pumped candy bar: Marathon Bar; Detour Bar
Recovery bar (4:1 carb:pro ratio): PowerBar Performance
PROTEIN BARS (Your choice of soy, whey, egg, or blended protein source):
MEAL REPLACMENT BARS (offers 10-15 g protein, fiber, some fat, vitamins, minerals-but not really enough calories for a whole meal):
Nancy Clark, MS, RD, CSSD (Board Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics) counsels active people in her private practice at Healthworks, the premier fitness center in Chestnut Hill MA (617-383-6100). Her Sports Nutrition Guidebook, Food Guide for Marathoners and Cyclist's Food Guide are available at www.nancyclarkrd.com. See also www.sportsnutritionworkshop.com for information on her workshops.
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