For a few years now, a quiet cult has been springing up in offices all over the country, one whose only main signifier is a big plastic flask with bold letters on it. The Huel flask on desks has become just as ubiquitous as the giant Sports Direct mug. For the uninitiated, Huel is a meal-replacement programme that has been gaining ground over the last few years among a certain kind of millennial man. To make a broad, wholly inaccurate and sweeping generalisation, the kind of millennial man who wears a lot of black, watches a lot of TED Talks, has signed up for a Tough Mudder and is either a graphic designer or a web developer. His name is probably Dan. He has three tattoos, has a girlfriend but doesn’t know if he believes in marriage, and has been to Japan twice. You know. Dan. Dan the Huel Man.
There is nothing wrong with Dan the Huel Man except that he is a very specific sort of person, with fairly specific interests, and hence an even more specific need to replace one of his meals with a weird porridge shake made out of oats, flaxseed and miscellaneous minerals. I have known many Dans and, with all of them, have adopted the “great for you, but not for me” stance. Except that looks like it’s changing – Soylent, the original Silicon Valley meal-replacement regime that Huel eventually aped here in the UK, is launching here. We are on the advent of the great meal-replacement-shake wars – expect samples in the post, shopping-centre roadshows and Instagram ads of influencer mums drinking it from custom flasks. Soon, our own mums will be drinking this stuff and Dan will be quietly seething and setting price alerts for flights to Tokyo.
Now, the most important question: why? Why are more and more people willingly signing up for a programme that even its biggest fans are quick to say tastes like nothing? Is life really so depressing that we can’t put aside half an hour for a sandwich? Are we really so chained to our desks that we need to funnel grey sludge into our mouths to stay healthy?
Well, first things first: it’s a really good way of cutting down on how much meat you consume and it’s entirely vegan. The primary ingredients are soy and oats, and it contains minerals like potassium, iron and calcium. At 400 calories a go, it’s not, as I had previously thought, “SlimFast for hipsters”. It’s not a meal-replacement supplement the way SlimFast purported to be: by loading women up with sugar and including ingredients (like whey protein isolate and milk protein) that can cause diarrhoea. While Soylent also contains whey isolate, it seems to have more of the opposite effect: one blogger ate “nothing but Soylent for a week” as part of the “Soylent challenge” and complained of constipation. Having said that, stunt-testing the product by eating it exclusively doesn’t feel like a smart or fair test of it, as it’s not intended to replace food entirely. I mean, if you ate a baked potato for every meal, you probably wouldn’t shit for a week then, either.
In short: is it better than having a balanced meal? No. Is it better than ordering a Domino’s? Yes.
This is one of the big reasons why so many women remain cynical about meal replacement shakes, while men seem more interested: we’ve been burned before
“I initially started it after I moved in with my boyfriend and we just ate rubbish all the time,” says Amy, a comms director for a Blackpool events company. “I felt sluggish and horrid. My relationship with food isn't great. I'm not good at making decisions based on what will make me feel good physically, rather, 'Pizza makes me feel good for the five minutes I'm eating it.' So, I bought it with the aim that it would get some vitamins and goodness into me that my diet wasn't, and I'd hopefully start being able to mentally connect with feeling physically good, because I was consuming things that were good for me, and that would help me make better choices overall.”
Amy’s thoughts are echoed by the brand’s chief executive, Bryan Crowley, who is frank about how, yes, perhaps we should be eating our 5-a-day instead of reaching to supplements, but the simple fact is that most of us aren’t doing that, and are reaching for the vending machine instead. “Nutritionists have a tough job; their usual response is we would rather they eat fruit and veg,” Crowley says. “But we've been saying that for years and it isn't working.”
“I started drinking it for breakfast and lunch,” says Amy. “And, at first, I missed chewing more than anything – like, I really, really looked forward to my evening meal, even though I wasn't any hungrier than usual. Women tend to immediately ask if it 'works', meaning 'Have you lost any weight?', and men assume I've entered into the world of the ProteinBros and start recommending pure protein powders to inject into my eyeballs or something.”
This is one of the big reasons why so many women remain cynical about meal replacement shakes, while men seem more interested: we’ve been burned before. Most of us associate any form of mix-it-yourself sachet with crash diets, “cleansing” teas and the disgusting cabbage-soup diet that haunted our youth. They’ve become the ghosts of the eating disorders of Christmas past, so most of us approach the term “meal replacement” with a huge amount of cynicism. Men, however, don’t tend to have had such a sordid history with the term. “I use protein shakes anyway, so the idea of powdered food isn't an alien concept,” says Tom Copley, a Labour London Assembly member and LGBTQ+ activist. “In terms of my relationship with food, I think it's made me think more carefully about what I'm eating.”
While there might be many reasons to be cynical about Soylent, Huel and any other shakes that might be on the horizon, what is clear is that it’s more about convenience and health than it is about fanatical drinking and being thin. There’s no wider diet you have to subscribe to, no bleak survivalist creed or club you need to be part of. Soylent and Huel are clearly filling a very real need that exists in our society – it’s simply for busy people who don’t have time to think about lunch. There’s one thing we still have to ask ourselves, though: when did we all get too busy for lunch?