The call came while Nyree Dardarian was driving. The Philadelphia Union forgot to take along Dragon Gels, their favorite sports energy snack, on their 2016 road trip to play the Seattle Sounders.
The players needed a substitute, and they needed it fast, said Garrison Draper, performance director for the Union. So he called Dardarian, who directs Drexel University’s Center for Nutrition & Performance, where a team of staff and students developed Dragon Gels, an energy boost in a soft, sweet square.
Dardarian dashed into a nearby Wawa, raced to the candy aisle, and began looking at nutrition labels for anything that would match the carbohydrate content in the gels, which measure about one inch square and a half-inch thick.
The closest match she could find was Swedish Fish, the popular, chewy fish-shaped candy. But it would take 15 of them to equal one Dragon Gel.
Still, crisis averted.
“Everyone is trying to find an edge,” said Dardarian, who helped create the 1.5 ounce gummy squares used by most of Drexel’s Division 1 athletes as well as players on the Flyers and U.S. Squash teams. “Nutrition is one piece of high performance.”
Used by athletes from professionals to weekend warriors, sports bars and drinks are becoming increasingly more popular. In the United States, the market accounted for more than $28 billion in 2016 and is expected to reach $45 billion by 2022, according to forecasters.
The story of Dragon Gels, named after Drexel’s mascot, is reminiscent of the creation of Gatorade, developed in 1965 at the University of Florida to help football players stay hydrated.
At Drexel, it all started in 2011, when members of the men’s soccer team told CNP students and staff that they would take a squirt of honey at halftime for an added boost of energy, said Dardarian, who also is an assistant clinical professor in the College of Nursing and Health Professions.
Dardarian and her crew of nutrition interns went to a game and retrieved the container after the team used it. They measured how much honey remained and divided that amount by the number of players to calculate the average carbohydrates each player ingested. The nutritionists determined it was about 10 grams — far less than they needed.
When carbohydrates are consumed, they are broken down into sugar molecules that are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. In about 45 minutes of active play, many athletes can deplete their reserves of glycogen.
So Dardarian and her team began developing a carbohydrate-rich snack to help replenish glycogen stores. They also wanted their snack to be easy to chew, convenient to package, and contain just the right amount of sweetness so athletes would like it.
The group looked at old science, new science, and products already on the market. They created different consistencies and flavors and tested their results on the coaches and athletes.
In the trial-and-error phase, they learned that their lemon-flavored gel was a bust. But blue raspberry was a hit.
By 2014, the gel formula was ready for a tryout.
Dragon Gels pack 36 grams of carbohydrates and one gram of protein into each 149-calorie snack. They are made with gelatin, filtered water, fructose, glucose, blue sugar-like powder that contains the berry flavoring, and a few “secret ingredients.”
“Sugar is the most efficient energy source for the body,” said Dardarian. It is the quickest way to maintain energy and the most efficient way to get that energy into the bloodstream. The only nutrient that crosses the blood-brain barrier, which prevents certain substances in blood from entering the brain, is carbohydrates, she added.
“It’s a snack, not a supplement,” Dardarian said.
She noted that the gels were formulated for professional, college or endurance athletes who need about 4,000 calories a day due to vigorous exercise and who deplete their calories at a faster rate. The weekend athlete out for a run, bike or swim doesn’t need all the carbohydrates in the Dragon Gels.
“They can eat a banana,” Dardarian said.
How much replenishment athletes require during competition depends on the sport, intensity and how much they play, said Andrea Irvine, 38, a sports dietitian with the school’s department of athletics. The nutritionists work with athletes to recommend how much of a gel they need to consume during practice or competition — some need only a bite while others finish a whole square, she said.
Today, students make about 300 to 500 gels a week, depending on the demand from the teams. It takes about 20 minutes to mix up a batch of the sticky blue liquid for 36 squares in the pristine CNP Metabolic Lab Kitchen. The cost is about 33 cents a square to make and package.
Graduate student Kira Sy, 25, loves making the gels and used one when she ran a half-marathon.
“It is the most magical thing,” she said. “I felt great the entire time.”
Sy would like to experiment with more flavors, including a strawberry or sour watermelon to give athletes more choices, but only if they fit well with the formula.
“We need to look at the nutrient level of the [sour] coating,” she said.
In 2015, the gels were introduced to the Philadelphia Union.
When Captain Alejandro Bedoya first tried them, he was a bit skeptical, but he found they worked better than the powdered sports drink that left him with an unsettled stomach during games.
“They are not heavy on my stomach,” said Bedoya, a midfielder, who compared the gels to sugar-coated Lifesavers Gummies. “I tend to take them at halftime to give me that extra energy and I feel like that has helped me.”
Since incorporating the gels into his nutrition plan, Bedoya said, he can’t remember the last time his muscles cramped during a game.
For Drexel’s tennis players, “it took some time for them to buy in,” said Mehdi Rhazali, head coach for both the men’s and women’s teams. Now, the athletes request the gels at matches, practices, and while strength training, he said.
The gels are always taken with water, which will improve the carbohydrate delivery to the body’s cells, he said.
Rhazali said that if the competitors were equally matched for both talent and fitness, the gels could provide the winning edge.
“That is where these type of things come in,” he said. “This is a bonus.”
The gels, which are just one element of CNP’s sports nutrition services package offered to professional and university teams, are not available for sale to the public and there are no plans to market the snack outside the college, Dardarian said.
They plan to continue to improve the gels and possibly develop some additional flavors, but for now they have a solid field-tested product, she added.
“It tastes good,” Dardarian said. “It’s ours.”