Are Sports Gels Worth It? You Might Be Better Off Eating a Potato, One Study Says

Carbohydrate Gels
New study shows consuming potatoes may be just as effective as carbohydrate gels Spencer Platt/Getty

According to a new study, consuming potatoes may be just as effective as popular carbohydrate gels for an athlete's performance.

The research was conducted by University of Illinois professor of kinesiology and community health, Nicholas Burd. "Our study aim was to expand and diversify race-fueling options for athletes and offset flavor fatigue," Burd said.

The Alliance for Potato Research & Education also supported this study.

According to, carbohydrate gels can be defined as concentrated carbohydrates and electrolytes that are designed to be quick replacements of sugars and salt that are released through long periods of exercise. The gels are designed to replenish the carbs lost when the body endures intense workouts or competitions.

Burd compiled a group of 12 participants, who were healthy and worked out heavily, to be a part of the research. Each participant was randomly given either water, a carbohydrate gel, or the same amount of carbs but from potatoes.

According to the university's website, the research measured blood glucose levels, core body temperature, exercise intensity, gastric emptying, and gastrointestinal symptoms. "The researchers also measured concentrations of lactate, a metabolic marker of intense exercise, in participants' blood."

The study looked into gastric and gastrointestinal issues due to the fact that the human body sometimes has trouble digesting high concentrations of carbohydrates.

The gels are usually taken by high-performance athletes, specifically marathon runners. During an intense workout, like a marathon, the body uses fat and carbohydrates as the two primary sources of energy.

Burd stated that the research found no difference between athletes who consumed the gels compared to the potatoes, but were greater than those who only drank water. "Both groups saw a significant boost in performance that those consuming only water did not achieve," he said.

Although the consumption of carbohydrate gels may cause stomach problems for some, the study showed that potatoes may cause even more problems. "Those consuming potatoes experienced significantly more gastrointestinal bloating, pain and flatulence than the other groups, however. This may be a result of the larger volume of potatoes needed to match the glucose provided by the gels," Burd said.

The time at which an athlete consumes the gels, or another source of carbohydrates also depends on the person. Every person's body absorbs and burns carbs at a different rate, which depends on the efficiency of the stomach.

Although there is currently not enough research on the subject combined with the differences in each person's body, the research does provide an idea of the impact carbohydrate gels has on the human body.

"All in all, our study is a proof-of-concept showing that athletes may use whole-food sources of carbohydrates as an alternative to commercial products to diversify race-fueling menus," Burd said.