What began as the pet project of a skint software engineer in the US has snowballed into a new category worth millions. Now meal replacement solutions are arriving in the UK in their droves

There are many wonderful films about food. Big Night, Babette’s Feast, even Ratatouille. And then there is Soylent Green. Spoiler alert, this cult 1973 movie tells the story of an overpopulated New York City, where starving citizens exist on rations of plankton-based wafers – the eponymous Soylent Green – and ends with the revelation that the wafers aren’t actually made from plankton but dead people.

Not quite as mouthwatering as the legendary timpano that closes Big Night, or nearly as charming as an epicurean rodent. Yet the movie still provided the name for what many have dubbed the future of food. Created in 2013 by Rob Rhinehart, Soylent began life as 35 ingredients blended into liquid in a lighthearted attempt by the skint software engineer to feed himself with a nutritious but cheap alternative to food.

But when his blog post on the experience went viral, Rhinehart started to take it seriously, producing Soylent at scale and pitching his pioneering product at people who can’t, or simply can’t be bothered, to cook.

Soylent’s Kickstarter campaign raised $3m in 2013, followed by another $20m from VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, and in May 2017 scored $50m from GV (previously Google Ventures), making a total of $74.5m.

The company is coy about sales figures but said net revenue in Q1 of 2017 almost doubled year on year. In 2014 it was selling 300,000 units a month, today it’s reportedly shipping two million.

Read more: Five meal replacement ranges targeting the UK

The meteoric rise hasn’t been without its problems. The release of Soylent bars in 2016 saw customers struck down by vomiting and diarrhoea. Soylent investigated “aggressively” and determined the version of the powder it was producing at the time (v1.6) was to blame, thanks to the inclusion of algae-based products.

So it reformulated the recipe again (it’s now on v1.9) and normal service, and sales, resumed. As did the funding – it received that final $50m from Google in the wake of the scandal.

“I’ve been in this industry my entire career, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Soylent CEO Bryan Crowley in January, six months after he took the role (with Rhinehart becoming executive chairman after deciding to “pass the reins to a new CEO with more management and industry experience”).

“In the last year, the company has seen tremendous growth,” added Crowley. “We’re one of the fastest-growing brands on Amazon and number one in the meal replacement category.”

In January it released its first retail product, an RTD, into 7-Eleven stores in LA, to “test expansion into retail” and it “blew away our expectations. Now we are expanding with 7-Eleven and other retailers.”

Soylent has stated intentions to enter the UK too, but so far it’s yet to appear and there are a number of potential reasons why. For one there is plenty of competition already (see box, p30) including Huel, which launched in 2015.

Huel received a mixed reception when it launched. Curious reviews were less than complimentary about the concept or the taste but, like Soylent, Huel continues to grow. “It’s going very, very well,” says co-founder Julian Hearn, who started the business with £150,000. “We have had consistent growth – we’ve gone from my house to a small office to a bigger office, now this one which we’re starting to outgrow. We’ve got teams in America and Berlin and sales are very strong.”

Sales hit £750k in year one, £5.8m in year two and £14.1m last year. “This year we will do three times that. Customer numbers are in the hundreds of thousands, we have sold over 13 million meals (at around £1.33 each) in 55 countries, and we are profitable every year.”

How profitable? “Pre-tax profits are in the millions, which is unusual.”

To handle this growth, Huel hired new CEO James McMaster. “When you’re small you can fumble through but as you scale up you need someone with experience in areas like HR, finance and operations,” says Hearn.

McMaster is currently in LA, where Huel has a team of four. “People said, ‘Are you sure, America is a lot to take on, lots of people go there and fail, you’ll be diverting your attention, dealing with two big countries at once’. And all that is valid, but because we are direct to consumer it’s easier than starting a retail business. We make Huel in Canada, ship it to Texas, we have a website. So we created a US business, got our first order and it’s gone from zero in June to $500k in December. January was $1m.”

It’s rapid acceleration, but in the beginning Huel started out offering powder “because it’s so efficient. You blend different elements together and because it’s dry there is no water, so no bacteria. You don’t need to add preservatives and it has a natural shelf life. Simple as that.”

The logic of replacing cooking with swigging Huel resonates with the technologically minded – 21% of Huel consumers work in computing and IT.

Still, for “some people the powder is seen as too alternative, so we brought other products in, like the bars which you can just carry around with you.”

There is Huel granola too, in plain or “berry flavour,” says Huel’s NPD expert, Ella Gale. “The base is nice and crunchy, which gives a welcome textural change if you’re used to having shakes all the time.”

It’s “getting to a stage where there is something for everyone,” adds Hearn. “Some 50% of people eat cereal, but it hasn’t been improved for 100 years. We felt there was an opportunity to provide better nutrition in a format people are used to, and the cereals and bars will act as gateways into the Huel brand.”

Future of food one use

What goes into a meal replacement product?

The process for making a meal replacement is both simplistic and complex. The simple part comes in the manufacturing. In the case of Huel, all ingredients are measured into a blender and blitzed for 20 minutes into a fine powder. A quality check, including full sensory profiling, is next. It’s then sieved and poured into a pouch, which is weighed, sealed, batch coded and palletised ready for dispatch to the end user to shake up with cold water and drink. The powder-based product means storage is uncomplicated and shelf life long. The absence of any liquid means bacteria is not an issue.

The complexity comes from the ingredients themselves, a blend of what most would recognise as real food, like oats, plus a host of other ingredients that are less familiar.

The full list of ingredients in Huel reads oats, pea protein, flaxseed, brown rice protein, vanilla flavour system, xanthan gum and guar gum, sucralose, MCT powder and sunflower oil powder.

Then some heavy lifting is done by a blend of micronutrients, which includes potassium chloride, calcium carbonate, vitamin C, l-choline bitartrate, lutein, lycopene, vitamin E (as d-alpha tocopheryl acetate), niacin (as niacinamide), vitamin K2 (as mk-7), vitamin A (as retinol acetate), vitamin D2, pantothenic acid (as calcium-d-pantothenate), vitamin B6 (as pyridoxine hydrochloride), riboflavin, vitamin K1, chromium chloride, potassium iodide, l-methylfolate calcium, biotin, vitamin B12 (as cyanocobalamin).

Huel provides exhaustive explanations of the ingredients on its website that run to thousands of words, but in short it says Huel has “far superior nutrition compared to most conventional diets”.

Soylent is equally open, saying its formula has always been “open source” so “our community can experiment with customisation.” The majority of the powder is made up of canola oil powder, soy protein isolate is the main source of protein, and the formula is “based on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine and is regulated as a food and approved by the Food and Drug Administration.”

Still, while they can contain important nutrients, they “can’t replace a healthy diet full of whole foods,” believes Will Hawkins, nutritionist at online GP Push Doctor. “If you do plan to use meal replacements, per serving your shake should contain at least 15g of protein, at least 4g-5g fibre, less than 10g of sugar, no additives, and at least 33% of your daily vitamins & minerals.”

An RTD is on its way too. What took so long? “Because water is involved it has to go through a much stricter regulatory process and manufacturing is more complex. There are a limited number of factories that can make it, there are none in the UK.”

If moving into RTDs was a problem for Huel, perhaps a bigger one for any meal replacement is however functional, cheap or convenient, they can never replace the joys of pizza, tacos, or even a perky Caesar salad.

Not simply because of the flavours or textures either. Containing ingredients like maltodextrin, riboflavin or lycopene, can the products ever be classed as ‘food’?

Canada didn’t think so, banning Soylent last October after deciding the product failed to meet its nutritional requirements for a food product. And though Soylent and Huel provide exhaustive detail on their nutritional qualifications, with endorsements from qualified nutritionists, others believe they can never be considered a healthy substitute for the real deal (see box, right).

It’s perhaps why the original stance, that meal replacements like Soylent and Huel could replace food altogether, has softened. “People always ask if we’re trying to eliminate traditional food,” said Crowley last June. “The answer is no – we love food. It is connected to the fabric of what defines cultures and makes us human beings. What we do want to replace is those times you need food as fuel, and you either skip a meal or make an unhealthy, unsustainable or expensive choice throughout your busy week. We call these ‘food voids’ and we’re on a mission to make them obsolete.”

A delicious burger has happily filled many a void though. Don’t these products strip all pleasure away?

“The primary purpose of food is nutrition, not pleasure,” says Hearn. “If you eat purely for pleasure you won’t get the nutrients your body requires. And unfortunately the end result of too much pleasure, where everything is very sugary, is that we are getting obese. Food today is so delicious and addictive that people are overeating.”

Huel makes no claim to be delicious. Sipping on a few varieties in its testing kitchen reminds me of the milk left at the bottom of a bowl of Weetabix. “Some people say watery porridge,” says Gale.

The “best time to use Huel is during the week for breakfast and lunch,” says Hearn. “I do that five days a week then have a traditional evening meal.

“The point is there has to be a balance. I am very aware of nutrition, I wouldn’t have certain foods every day, but if I go to the cinema with my son I’m going to eat sweets and popcorn. We don’t recommend people live exclusively off Huel, even though you could. Every meal will have all 26 essential vitamins and a balance of protein, carbs, the correct fats, amino acids, all in one. We see our main competition as breakfast cereal and lunchtime sandwiches.”

Which are sensibly unhealthy targets. Cereals are regularly under fire for high levels of salt and sugar, while sandwich meals deals caused a storm in October with news they contain up to 30 teaspoons of sugar.

Besides, Huel’s founders accept even its biggest fans aren’t swapping out food entirely. “We have a number of customers who consume a 100% Huel diet, but it’s very low,” says co-founder and chief nutritionist James Collier. “It’s in the lower end of the single digits.”

If that’s low, the overall value of the category “could be massive,” says Hearn. “We all eat three, four or five times a day. This category is exploding, there are 100 brands across the world. We tried to find a parallel, so we looked at energy drinks. Twenty-five years ago there were none, now the category is worth between $30bn and $60bn a year. And energy drinks just give liquid, refreshment and a small buzz. Huel gives people complete nutrition. It’s far more valuable to the end user, so why wouldn’t it be even bigger?”

It could be. Luke Hughes, nutritionist and MD at the Origym Centre of Excellence, says “fellow professionals are too quick in shooting down meal replacement supplements. While there are definite drawbacks to repeated and persistent use of meal replacements they can be used as an effective tool for weight loss and fitness training. They are affordable, ethically sourced, vegan, gluten free and great for busy schedules.”

But never underestimate the power of gathering round a table. “Over-reliance can lead to the development of bad habits,” he says. “My issues with meal replacements don’t come from a strictly nutritional perspective, but from a social and psychological one. The social act of eating is as important as the eating itself.”

Primo, Babette and Remy the rat would agree. Clearly, meal replacements aren’t the future of food – real food is far too good for that. But it’s equally clear that meal replacements aren’t just a fad. Although any film made about them is unlikely to make your mouth water.