Friday, December 5, 2014

Tasting Notes: Gu Salted Caramel Gel

For a flavor that I don’t even recall being an actual flavor until about 15 years ago, salted caramel has come a long way in recent times. It’s popping up everywhere—Haagen-Dazs, Starbucks, Nature Valley Granola Bars, Wal-Mart chocolate toffees, that gelato bar I went to in Ottawa last summer—and consumers can’t seem to get enough.

The combination of sweet and salty is an ancient one, but as this 2008 New York Times piece explains, its recent fame can be traced back to France, where salted caramel, like Jerry Lewis, was popular in the 1970s. Foodies in New York and San Francisco gradually caught on, and by the 1990s, salted caramel started showing up in everything from macarons to milkshakes. Next thing you know, Obama proclaimed a thing for salted caramel dark chocolates, and the once obscure combo was bound for the mainstream. 

Having conquered the realms of fine chocolates, frothy hot drinks, and gelato, salted caramel is now set to take on the world of sport gels, where, frankly, its arrival is quite welcome. It’s no secret that many of the so-called “flavours” of gel packs are lame, if not disgusting. Athlete-types have gamely slurped them back for years, but I don’t know anyone who actually like-likes the way they taste. The flavor-palate of gel products has long been fruit dominated, probably a result of the industry’s attempt to make gels seem “healthy”—or as “healthy” as envelopes of glucose-fructose can ever be.

In recent years, however, the big gel players (CLIF, Gu, Hammer, Powerbar) seem to have finally realized that fruity gels suck. So, instead, they are introducing gels with flavours borrowed from the worlds of sweets, ice cream, and Starbucks. Forget healthy. We want candy.

And Gu’s salted caramel really does taste like candy—grown up, sophisticated bonbons, or at least those Kraft caramels of my childhood. My first taste was a revelation: the gel world will never be the same. 

In fact, the only problem with Gu’s salted caramel gel is that it might be too sweet. There’s a sharpness, an intensity about the flavour that makes my ears hurt. If you’ve got a low bliss point for sweetness, then be careful with this stuff. It’s high-test.

But the taste is only one part of what makes this gel cool. In a genius piece of marketing, Gu has adorned the package with a product mascot, a goofily charming yeti. Why a yeti?  Who knows? Maybe flavours have spirit animals. In any event, the yeti-factor introduces a couple of interesting marketing elements.

First, salted caramel Gu becomes, in essence, the first sport gel I know of marketed as a winter product. Some of Gu’s promotional material even suggests that salted caramel Gu is “a favorite for the holidays.” (It really does taste better when it’s cold, the thicker consistency reminiscent of an ice-cream caramel swirl.) If this works, we could see a whole wave of seasonal gel flavours: candy cane gels, Cadbury Easter egg gels, pumpkin spice latte gels.

Second, the yeti seems to be creating a unique brand identity, one that channels the spirit of Harry and the Hendersons and the Abominable Snowman from the animated Rudolph. What winter athlete-type wouldn’t admit to having a mischievous inner-yeti that loves to frolic in the wintry elements? I can see the yeti becoming a whole cult thing. Look at it.

The flavour landscape is riddled with the corpses of so many flashes-in-the-palate. Chipotle, anyone? Fruit beer? Many supposedly hip flavours turn out to be trifles, unable to last more than a season or two. So has Gu’s yeti got legs? We’ll see.

I suspect we’re in for a whole new wave of grown-up gel flavours inspired by the Starbucks enterprise. Just the other day I noticed that Gu has a new Caramel Macchiato gel. Now that the industry has dropped the charade of “healthy” gels, it’s just a matter of time before we see more of the decadent flavours of foodie culture in those little envelopes. Smores? Guiness? Maple-bacon?

I can’t wait to see the spirit animal for red-velvet-cake-with-white-chocolate-icing. 


  1. "Has the yeti got legs?" you ask. Just look at those big hairy tree trunks the mascot is sporting. I think salted caramel Gu is definitely here to stay.

    By the way, I can't read the word "yeti" without thinking of the time I used that lovely word in a scrabble match. The person I was playing with had grown up in Canada, worked long stints up north as a tree planter, and was an avid reader. With no dictionary handy, though, I could not persuade him to accept this most-frolicsome four-letter word--which has long been a favourite of mine. Just saying "yeti" makes me feel like heading out into the snow.


Speak up!