Energy food suppliers provide products that serve their purpose in cycling. Gels, bars, energy drinks and recovery drinks are all conveniently packaged for ease of use during exercise and do what they say on the tin: provide energy or help you recover.
However, there are a few downsides to these products. They are made to last, they contain ingredients that sound like they belong in food made for space travel. ‘E’ numbers, flavouring, preservatives etc. are contained within the product to make it taste the way you expect and also preserve it to allow it to have a long shelf life.
Basically these products are made to fit a wide variety of people, not poison you, be convenient and as cheap as possible.
As I said these products do serve a purpose, but you often hear of them causing stomach problems. In addition, they will rarely be made to fit any dietary requirements you have. If you have the time available it is just as easy to make your own food and drinks that will satisfy you and any requirements you have e.g high or low GI, low/high fat etc.
Energy foods/drinks tend to have very simple ingredients so they can be digested as easy as possible and as a result as very simple to throw together the day before a race, sportive or training.
These are some of the simplest products to replicate at home. The main ingredient contained in an energy drink that is responsible for providing energy is simple sugars (monosaccharides and disaccharides) such as fructose or sucrose. These are quickly absorbed by the body to provide energy for the muscles.
Commercial products such as powders will generally contain artificial colours, flavourings and emulsifiers to help them mix with water.
The homemade solution is very simple. Water mixed with a fruit juice of your choice in a 3:1 ratio or a ratio that satisfies your taste. Fruit juices primarily contain simple sugars but will also contain a number of vitamins or minerals that will provide additional benefits. An example of this is pineapple juice contains bromelain which is a natural anti-inflammatory that can help resolve respiratory issues.
Adding a pinch of salt can add an isotonic element that will help maintain the fluid balance in the body and prevent cramp.
Protein powders were once a by-product of the food industry. It originates from milk used for cheese. Whey that is separated from the curd in cheese making was once used for animal feed (some food science for you). However, when dried I can be sold as an easily digestible protein in powder form and used by athletes as a protein supplement.
Recovery drinks for cyclist will contain whey as well as a carbohydrate component to replenish glycogen stores and repair muscle fibres. The carbohydrate to protein ratio is generally 3-4:1. This ratio is contained in chocolate milk with the added benefits of containing a number of additional minerals and vitamins that will improve your health.
Personally I don’t really enjoy the taste of commercial energy bars. They tend to taste artificial as they are filled with artificial ingredients to make them look and taste a certain way. As homemade products aren’t made to last months they will generally taste better and the look will depend on your cooking skills.
Look up any energy bar recipe online and you will find endless amounts of ingredient options, all of which produce a bar that is far most satisfying than commercial ones.
Even at a professional level you will always see riders opting for natural/homemade options such as rice cakes in races and training.
The other benefit of this option is that it is completely customisable. Gluten free, high fat, low sugar etc. are all easily made by varying the ingredients.
Gels are one of the products that are hard to replace. They serve their purpose very well and are hard to replicate at home. The sugar and water mix often with caffeine are purpose built for giving you a kick in closing kilometres of a race.
There is one alternative available that is probably more suited to be used out training. Fruit compotes, otherwise known as baby food are simply blended fruit. As they are blened most of th fibre is removed and it allows the sugar to be broken down quickly to provide a quick hit of energy, similar to a gel.
Like I said commercial energy products serve their purpose. They are convenient and get the job done. Homemade or natural options tend to be better for your health but do require so time to put together.