Alternative Energy: Do Energy Gels and Supplements Really Work?
Pages in this Story:
- A Growing Demand for Sports Nutrition and Energy Supplements
- The Real Deal on Energy Supplements
- Shake It Up: Protein Shakes and Postexercise Supplements
- Anatomy of an Energy Gel: What's Really in It?
A Growing Demand for Sports Nutrition and Energy Supplements
Thirty-year-old Patricia Murphy stumbles bleary-eyed into her kitchen at 5:30 in the morning. The Boston attorney groggily opens a cabinet and reaches for an arsenal of supplements lining the bottom shelf: four large canisters of protein powder, a small tub of green granules, individual packets of recovery drink concentrate, and a large pill bottle holding wafer snacks that regulate blood sugar. Reaching past the fruit basket -- empty of produce but brimming with Hammer Gels, Clif Shot Bloks, Sport Beans, and PowerBars -- Patricia grabs her Isagenix protein additive and mixes herself a shake, which she drinks on her way to the Sports Club/LA, where she'll work out for the next hour.
"I always thought you could get your nutrition from food," Patty says, sipping from her bottle. That changed a couple of years back when she joined a recreational triathlon group. The training was fun -- and physically taxing. To keep her energy up, one of the coaches suggested she try sports nutrition supplements. It started with electrolyte and recovery drinks for long, hot bike rides. "I was reluctant at first -- I didn't trust anything made out of powder from a can," she says. "I'd rather go home and cook a meal." But like many women pressed for time, Patty quickly saw the appeal. Plus, her training buddies raved about these products as being essential to their workouts, and soon having her own stash of sports nutrition snacks felt as important as wearing high-performance fitness gear.
Since sampling her teammates' GU Energy Gels and Hammer recovery drinks two years ago, Patty has become a convert. "I can definitely tell the difference," she says. "I feel better the next day; I'm less sore, less achy, and I have more energy." Still, she doesn't really understand the science behind the supplements. "But I trust my coach and my teammates," she says.
Word of mouth is a powerful tool, and it's been vital in growing the interest among everyday exercisers, especially women, who go to their local health stores looking for a performance edge. In the past few years the mainstreaming of sports nutrition products has transformed a once-niche market into a $25 billion industry -- one that's grown more than 10 percent since 2006, according to experts at the Nutrition Business Journal.
But just how well do these sports nutrition supplements work? Critics say their popularity is due to whizbang marketing and, in some cases, empty-promise hype. Loosely regulated by the FDA, they leave much of the nutritional navigating up to the consumer. "A company can put a garbage product out on the shelves without a drop of science behind it, but use the most buzzwords -- doctor recommended, clinically proven, 30 pounds in 30 days -- and that's often the one that sells the most," says Will Brink, author of Fat Loss Revealed, who has been reporting on the supplement industry for two decades. "It's problematic because it overshadows those companies that do actually pay for sound research."
And some businesses are doing just that, trying to distinguish themselves in a crowded marketplace by publishing study findings in reputable medical journals and removing any stigma that consumers, women in particular, might associate with an industry once considered the realm of bodybuilders. At the same time, marketers are shifting the language from big and buff to strong and healthy.
The message is working for companies such as General Nutrition Centers (GNC), whose 2009 second-quarter consolidated earnings of $432.4 million represented more than a 2 percent increase from the same quarter the previous year, even in the down economy. Part of this growth can be attributed to GNC's effort to make its products more female-friendly. Realizing that women are an increasingly big part of its customer base these days, the mall stalwart has launched a new line of products, GNC Wellbeing, which includes everything from protein powder to vitamin-infused water mix, specifically for female exercisers. "Women are more interested in nutritional supplements than ever before. They're much more aware of their potential benefits," explains Beth Kaplan, the president and chief merchandising and marketing officer of GNC. "Still, what we were hearing was, 'I really don't know where to start; I need a one-source solution for my nutritional needs.' So we developed supplements for women that are easy to understand." Whether you're exercising to shed pounds or training for your first 5K, GNC's new line can give you an edge, Kaplan says. Women such as Patty's triathlon coach, Ali Winslow, see a real benefit from this trend. Winslow, who has an MS in nutritional anthropology from the University of Pennsylvania, believes there isn't enough data about women who are endurance athletes.
"I started out doing diet and supplement research at MIT, which included examining different nutritional bars and shakes that were mainly marketed to male athletes. At the time I thought, 'Oh I don't need those things,'" says Winslow, owner and head coach of Boston Performance Coaching. "But as I ramped up my own training as an athlete, and as a coach, I found there was no easy way for me to get the correct nutrition pre- and postworkout, especially in the right order and right amounts, and I wasn't able to perform and recover at my best."
And so, just as skintight, featherweight performance fabrics have given old-fashioned suits the shrug-off among swimmers looking to set a personal record in the pool, so too has lab-engineered foodstuff given bananas and granola bars the boot. Even weekend warriors want in -- there has been such an increase in interest in sports nutrition these days that coaches like Winslow are hiring full-time dietitians to advise their recreational teams. "It can be confusing," Winslow admits. "There are so many products and companies out there to choose from, it can be a full-time job deciphering which is best."
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