Updated: Aug 26, 2019
Authored by Kane Bastick
The idea of simply drinking all the nutrients required for sustenance and function has been portrayed countlessly dystopian movies, but the concept is now reality. With less than 2 minutes of prep and without the grease or calories of regular fast food, the popularity of nutritionally complete food has grown exponentially. Pesky millennials working in London or Silicon Valley can now simply guzzle their dinners, never leaving their desks.
But just how complete is nutritionally complete food, and is it an oversimplification of what the human body truly needs? One leading brand, Huel®, offers consumers a rather helpful breakdown of just about everything it contains in a somewhat synthetic looking bag of what can only be described as ‘powdered beige’. In the spirit of science I tried it so you don’t have to.
Before I began my liquid adventure, I spoke to Dr Peter Chivers from the Durham Biosciences department. ‘The gut microbiome is an incredibly complex system that we still are yet to understand, [but we know that] nutrients alone cannot deliver nutrition. How vitamins, minerals and ions are delivered and in what form can also determine true nutritional value. Think of Pop-Eye’s can of spinach, makes him strong with all that iron, right? Not exactly. Spinach has various health benefits but the iron within the leaves is in the presence of oxalic acid, forming an inaccessible form of iron known as ferrous oxalate. If you want a good iron source, eat a food that also contains vitamin A, which mobilises iron for absorption in the gut. Huel® can only boast high nutritional value if all the nutrients present in the powder are fully bioavailable. The lack of consideration for these gut flora, normally strengthened by probiotic foods such as natural yogurt and legumes, may limit the true level of nutrition that Huel® can realistically provide.
One thing you can quickly see when looking at a bag of Huel® is the astronomical excess that some vitamins and metal ions are in with respect to normal RDIs. Long term metabolite overload in the human body could lead to molecular changes at the genetic level; zinc ions are sensed by broad classes of regulatory proteins that control gene expression. In the best-case scenario, these excess metals are just lost in the urine, but how can a single product provide every user with adequate nutrition? Some people may benefit from this boost in zinc, such as those with sickle cell or chronic liver and kidney diseases, while others who may suffer from diseases that affect copper or iron absorption require a diet with lower amounts of zinc to prevent metal competition or displacement.
My Huel® Journey
I slowly introduced Huel® into my diet - recommended to prevent your bowels screaming at you - with a one scoop (1 scp) snack, then eventually as a 2 scp lunch and 3 scp dinner, following either a 2 scp breakfast or a fruit smoothie.
Taste – 4/10 without flavouring, up to 9/10 with
Probably the factor you most want to know about, vanilla Huel® on its own kind of tastes like liquid biscuit but very ‘meh’, especially since it literally looks like gruel. There are 11 flavour boosts available, and some are pretty tasty. Drinking my rhubarb and custard shake at lunch was refreshing, and the chocolate one was perfect after a gym session. Personally, I think the pineapple and coconut tastes exactly like Pina Colada, but I was boring and avoided the rum.
Most servings recommend 3 scps of Huel® in 500 ml of water, but I was finding myself full way before that – without the unwanted bloating feeling. I would quite regularly split my shake over two smaller meals which helped me to lose some weight too. My stomach didn’t really react to being put on it, but I really felt it when I ate normal food again.
When I started this adventure, my mother was very concerned I’d have to turn down any dinner invitations (many, of course) in the name of Huel®. You can’t just rock up to a mates’ house with your bag of Huel®. First, you may as well write dick on your forehead, but second the bags are incredibly impractical. Weighing in at 2.75 kg, your only real option for travelling with Huel® is to dose it out into Tupperware and not risk it tipping everywhere in your bag. They need to up their shaker game too, the fun pop-off top means you get to play Russian roulette with beige goo hitting your eye every meal. That all said, I found Huel® to be useful at lunchtimes when working or just nursing on during lectures. Moreover, I saved £13.35 during the week rather than going for the Billy B meal *cough* deal (1 Huel® lunch ~ £1.33).
In the spirit of not painting all meal substitutes with the same brush I decided to try Saturo; like Huel®, it also uses the term ‘nutritionally complete’, but is ready mixed into 330 ml & 500 ml bottles. I had the original and cacao flavours and bought some of their bars too.
What is nice about Saturo is that you are far less likely to end up with clumps and lumps like I often suffered with the Huel® powder (not to mention it making my kitchen look like a cocaine den). Taste though - not to be desired in the slightest. The original flavour tasted like sour milk, and the cacao like cacao-flavoured slightly less sour milk. I lasted 3 days doing Saturo alone and used my remaining original flavoured bottles as a milk substitute to go with fruit smoothies to make them palatable.
So apart from the initial task of carrying your 6+ kg delivery box into your kitchen, I found Saturo to be way more practical than Huel®. It takes up less space in your bag than a water bottle or shaker without running the risk of leaking. However, I only gave 7/10 because Saturo is not cheap (£2.75 / 300 ml bottle) making it very tempting to just buy a sandwich instead.
The ‘Huel® crazies’
After trying both shakes, I went back to Huel® for a while and used it intermittently with solid food. There is something to be said about how these shakes change you psychologically, I became unable to cook with normal food! I describe myself as a decent cook, but as I became disconnected with actual ingredients as I found it very difficult to pick out meals from items in a shop, I was left in a weird beige-filled haze. Regardless of how full Huel® or anything similar affects you, the fact it is just a constant stream of liquid can arguably drive you insane. I went on random binges of chocolate just because I wanted to bite into something, which is a little counterintuitive since I was using Huel® for – in part – for my health. Maybe you just need to be a certain type of person to make the move to Huel® permanently, but I don’t believe that. Also, nobody has done any long-term research on these products to really know how they affect metabolism and overall nutrition, but my guess would be that you can get away with eating the same thing humans have eaten for centuries for the moment. If you use it as breakfast, lunch or an occasional quick meal, it can be a quick and cheap option without breaking the diet. Beyond that though, just make yourself a big bowl of pasta and eat your greens like your mum tells you to.
Many thanks to Saturo foods who provided a 50% discount for this trial, and Dr Peter Chivers for being my think tank. His opinion is not a reflection of the Department of Biosciences nor Durham University. Huel® were contacted for further information and product discount but were unavailable.