Monday, 10 September 2018

A week of liquid lunches: a Huel experiment...

There's been a recent proliferation of what I am calling "deliverable nutrition" - that is, products that offer meals actively coded as nutritious, but which are quick and convenient to prepare. It's a direct response to concerns about the heavily processed foods in which sugar is commonly implicated, and which are widely understood as nutritionally poor and health damaging. I'm including products such as meal kits (e.g. Gousto, HelloFresh), chilled, freezable, freshly made 'ready meals' (e.g. Allplants) and meal replacement shakes (e.g. Huel). These products and services are characterised not only by claims to being nutritionally positive, but also convenient, environmentally responsible, low-waste and economical, while providing 'real food', which is 'fast' but not 'junk'. They differ in cost, the preparatory work demanded of the consumer and in what constitutes a 'meal', both materially and as an event. Products are increasingly being tailored to specific dietary preferences, such as gluten free, vegan and low carb, and customers are invited to subscribe in order to minimise costs and to secure brand loyalty. They are not marketed directly as weight loss products, although the shadow of obesity is ever present.

As I start to think about these, I decided that I should try some of them out before working on them further. I'm slightly limited by the fact that I am a vegan, which not all services cater to comprehensively, but I decided to start out with the one that I was most sceptical about, since it is the one most obviously distanced from recognisable food: Huel. According to the website, Huel (a contraction of Human Fuel) is "a nutritionally complete powdered food that contains all the proteins, carbs and fats you need, plus at least 100% of the European Union's 'Daily Recommended Amounts' of all 26 essential vitamins and minerals". It is, according to the website, "the future of food" - an answer to the problems of poor nutrition, food waste and obesity that are seen as characterising contemporary society. The blurb on the website looks back nostalgically to a pre-agricultural revolution past where hunter-gatherers ate from nutritional necessity and were in constant motion - a life that eventually gave way to the constant availability of processed foods and inactivity. In line with every food revolution / anti-obesity intervention, they demand that "Something must be done" about the current parlous state of population health and (over-)consumption, and Huel presents itself as one answer. It is entirely vegan, and is made from a blend of oats, pea protein, flaxseed, brown rice protein, medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) from coconut and sunflower oil, a bespoke vitamin and mineral blend and a sweetener. It comes in five flavours (vanilla, berry, original, coffee and unflavoured / unsweetened), plus there is a range of powdered 'flavour boosts' including mint chocolate, banana, pineapple and coconut, chocolate and more. At its most economical (by buying on subscription in bulk), it comes in at £1.33 per meal; the starter pack of two bags of Huel powder plus a branded T-shirt, shaker and plastic scoops works out at £1.45 per meal (@28 meals for the two bags).

Huel was an obvious choice for me because it is vegan, and I ordered a starter pack, selecting one original (vanilla) flavoured bag and, knowing that I'm not keen on heavily sweetened shakes, one unsweetened / unflavoured.

The design is minimalist, in line with its mission to simplify good nutrition, and the product has a shelf life of a year in its easily resealable bags. The website recommends consuming 2 Huel meals a day, focusing on breakfast and lunch, given that these are the meals most people will be more likely to eat on the go, followed by a balanced third meal. But they emphasise flexibility here - that some will just want one Huel meal a day; that others will need more than three meals (e.g. people who are physically active or trying to bulk up); or that some will want to have an additional small snack meal (one scoop, rather than the prescribed three for a full meal), which we are told equates calorifically to a bag of crisps. The basic method of preparation is three scoops of Huel mixed with water and then shaken vigorously to blend. You can add in flavour boosters, and they also suggest adding some ice-cubes. Additionally, they suggest that the powder can be used like flour for baking, and there is also a range of branded bars and granola, which I didn't try. 

For my first Huel meal, I tried 3 scoops of original vanilla with water and shook it up in the branded shaker, but this was not a success for me - it was too grainy, and the oaty taste was unpalatable. I went back to the website and social media pages and found lots of suggestions from fellow "Huelers" about how to customise the product to taste, so I tried again. This time, I added in a frozen banana, some frozen berries and almond milk instead of water, and whizzed it up in a high speed blender. Much better. This was much creamier with a livelier taste, although the additions would add to the calorie counts (if you care about such things), and to the cost per meal. (I was frustrated at first that they don't do taster packs and make you buy two whole bags from the get go, but I started to see why - you have to experiment to find what works. Otherwise, I would definitely have stopped after that first try). I decided to go with the recommended plan of 2 Huel meals a day for my trial week, and began to experiment with the taster box of flavour boosters that I had also purchased with my starter pack, always blended with a frozen banana and almond milk as a base, and depending on the flavour, sometimes other frozen fruits. My favourite by far was the mint chocolate, which is delicious; this was always my favourite ice-cream flavour and one of my biggest losses since becoming vegan, so this was a lovely surprise. I had an unfortunate encounter with the mocha flavour, which is very tasty, but contains caffeine. If I'd thought about it, I should have known, but since the package only referred to 'flavourings', I casually assumed that it was caffeine free; I don't consume any caffeine normally, so was treated to an afternoon of a racing heart and headaches. My mistake, although it could probably do with being stated directly on the package. 

I never managed to get on with it just shaken up with water or almond milk, which limits its portability and convenience and requires some planning ahead for consuming out and about, but with a frozen banana, some flavouring and a blender, I found it easy and palatable. And it is surprisingly filling, keeping blood sugar levels very stable and eliminating the between-meal munchies. However, because of injury, beyond a bit of running and Pilates, I'm not doing anything like my usual training and my appetite is pretty low, so I would probably have needed more Huel meals, or regular food, otherwise. There are lots of warnings online about potential digestive disruptions after switching to Huel - depending on how high in fibre your previous diet was, its high fibre content can be a bit of a shock to the system - but as someone who eats a primarily whole foods, plant-based diet, this wasn't an issue for me. I felt well nourished and energised, and while I am slightly sceptical about claims to 'complete nutrition' that can't really take into account individual needs and which presume a certainty of nutritional knowledge that isn't really supported by the history and present of nutritional science, I really felt like I was 'eating' well and getting what I needed to go about my daily business. Nutritionally speaking, I'd feel fairly confident about consuming this on a longer term basis. The website states very clearly that this is not a weight loss product, but many "Huelers" are clearly using it as such, and the forums and social media are full of triumphant reports of pounds lost (with the occasional person using it to bulk up). As a point of principle, I do not weigh myself and so don't have any idea whether it affected my weight, and a single week wouldn't tell us anything useful on that front anyway. 

So what is my verdict? It is highly palatable (in my case, when blended with frozen fruit and flavour boosters), nutritionally effective and very time-efficient. It is very effective in producing satiety, and if you're in a rush, it's a much better solution than scouring the sandwich section of the supermarket for something vegan that will probably only fill you up for a couple of hours. It would also be a good back-up for long train and car journeys, when it can be difficult to find any decent vegan food on the go. It's reasonably economical, although these things are all relative, and it would still be well out of reach for the many people currently living on devastatingly curtailed benefits and low wages in this country. And it has the benefits of considerable adaptability of taste and texture, which fends off the boredom (to some extent) that accompanies many meal replacement products. So in many ways, it gets a thumbs up from me. 

But...and it's a big but... while I think it's a good product, I just couldn't get fully on board with the concept and I really started to miss actual food that you have to chew. There's something quite infantile about consuming shakes, especially given that they're mostly some version of sweet. I found the shaker too alienating and had each meal out of a glass instead, which helped; I even tried making it up very thick so that I had to eat it with a spoon like melting ice-cream (a mint chocolate winner). But while it meets nutritional needs, it strips away all the other meanings and functions of food, and the decisions that come with it. Of course, this is exactly the appeal of meal replacement shakes for many, and especially those for whom the management of food is an exhausting emotional and / or practical struggle - it takes food and food decisions off the table. But I want my meals to be more than fuel, and I missed the 'foodness' of food too much for it to be a workable long-term solution for me. I did my trial while my partner was away for the week, but I couldn't imagine us sitting down to a couple of glasses of Huel together, and I found my half-empty fridge depressing; I missed the process of rummaging around and pulling out ingredients to prepare my meals (although I accept that this too is a privilege of time and resources), or opening up my lunchbox at work to a heap of delicious leftovers from the previous night's dinner. And I really missed savoury food; by the time I got to my evening meal, I was desperate for foods of different textures and tastes. If powdered nutrition really is the future of food, I worry about the direction we're heading; perhaps instead we should be talking about the financial and time pressures of everyday life and work that make sitting down to a freshly prepared meal impossible and that make shaking up a liquid lunch a plausible long-term solution. 

Having said that, I will be keeping Huel at the ready in my cupboard, especially for office days, when I often have to leave the house too early to be able to stomach breakfast and end up eating toast at the office, which leaves me peckish again by 10.30. I love that it's vegan, and think that a lot of time and energy has gone into making an adaptable, tasty product; they also have excellent customer service and easy and prompt delivery. It was a fun experiment, but I have to say that I'm glad it's over; it turns  out that I just like food too much to be a dedicated "Hueler". 

More deliverable nutrition experiments to follow. 

No comments:

Post a Comment