In the 1973 film Soylent Green, "food" is delivered in the form of a wafer made of human flesh. In The Matrix, it's a nameless beige slop that provides everything the body needs. Now, products such as Huel, Ambronite and Soylent – appetisingly named after those flesh wafers – promise to deliver something similar in the form of drinkable powders that can provide all your nutritional needs.
I first encountered meal powders a few years ago. Huel's very patient social media team were responding to a barrage of Facebook comments tearing the shit out of meal replacement and the product's unappealing namesake portmanteau of "human" and "fuel". But the company must have done something right: it launched in the US in 2017 and had hit £45 million turnover by the end of last year. It's still the butt of meme jokes, but the meal replacement industry is growing fast and expanding beyond its traditional customer base of bicep boys.
With these powdered-meal evangelists talking up the benefits of meal replacement – you save time, you save money, you save a huge amount of fridge space – I decide to give it a go myself, to see how I feel after a full week of swapping tasty solid sustenance for nutrient-rich shakes.
My first "meal" is a mixture of mint chocolate-flavoured Huel and milk, which costs around £1.50 per serving. They suggest mixing it with ice, and I can see why – the powder is very grainy and doesn't dissolve particularly well, but ice helps break the powder down in the dedicated Huel shaker, and the coolness helps the sandy sludge go down. It tastes alright, but the texture is unpleasant. I feel a bit bloated afterwards and realise I've downed 650 calories in little more than a minute, so I make a mental note not to drink it so fast next time. This might be the future, but my stomach is clearly stuck in the past.
On the first evening of my new diet I'm working a night shift at a newspaper, so I take a bottle of ready-made berry Huel with me as it seems like it'll be easier (and less embarrassing) than taking the powder and a shaker. Unfortunately, the bottle goes warm in my bag and the thick gelatinous liquid is incredibly hard to stomach – the saccharine berry flavour is deeply unpleasant at room temperature. I can't finish it and lose my appetite, which is lucky, as it means I don't have to consume anything again until the next day.
Huel is marketed not as a traditional meal replacement – which the company says are usually weight loss products – but as a nutritionally complete meal in itself. Although it doesn't encourage people to live off of it solely, nor does it discourage it. All it advises is that newcomers gradually build up their intake to allow the body to adjust to a new diet. I don't have time for that, so I just aim to consume around 2,000 calories of the powder per day and hope for the best.
This doesn't have any noticeable effect on my body, and it keeps me surprisingly full after drinking it; the sharp transition away from solid food isn't as bad as I was anticipating. After a couple of days, though, I start getting really bored of living off of what are essentially savoury chocolate milkshakes. For a bit of variation I start on Soylent's cacao flavour powder – which is similar to Huel, but less grainy – and I immediately begin to miss real food.
A spokesperson from Soylent said: "Many people often compare Soylent to unprocessed or 'whole foods,' which we believe is the wrong way to think about how our products are used. If you have time to make yourself a complete, nutritious meal out of whole foods, then we support that. The problem is that too many consumers find themselves skipping meals, especially breakfast, because of their hectic, on-the-go lifestyle. When they find themselves experiencing these 'food voids', Soylent can play an important role in providing them nutrition they would otherwise miss out on."
On my third night, after going for a run, I make an extra big portion of Huel to replace the calories I burnt. There's too much powder and it doesn’t dissolve properly, leaving a brown mulchy sludge at the bottom of the shaker. I open the lid and slowly pour it into my mouth. I'm hungry, and there's something comforting about chewing on the sediment after 72 hours without solid food.
The next day I drink alcohol for the first time on my new no-food diet, and I'm apprehensive. Although I'm consuming enough calories, it feels weird to go drinking without anything in my stomach. I have a couple of pints and feel alright, but suddenly have the urge to shit. I go and… it's still solid. Result!
Before embarking on my milkshake mission I spoke to three nutritionists about my plans to leave food behind, and none of them thought it would be a good idea. Daniel O'Shaughnessy – aka The Naked Nutritionist – told me that while the products say they are nutritionally complete, the vitamins and minerals they contain can be inactive, synthetic forms.
"In Soylent there are a lot of processed oils, additives and its 'proudly' genetically-modified soy, which is controversial," he says, adding that meal powders don't always factor in that people often need more than the recommended daily amounts of certain vitamins and minerals.
In response, a Soylent spokesperson said: "Regarding the GMO/Non-GMO debate, our take is this: at Soylent we are pro-science, and to-date, the science supports that the soy protein we use in our products is safe for human consumption."
On the face of it, ingredients like pea protein – one of Huel's main ingredients – sound natural and healthy, but it doesn't take long for me to start thinking about what lengths they had to go to to extract protein from the tiny vegetable and turn it into powder.
Felice Jacka, Professor of Nutritional and Epidemiological Psychiatry at Deakin University, says she believes that processed foods have a different impact on health to foods in their whole state, regardless of whether their nutrient content is the same. She does however concede that average diets in the West are so bad that even meal powders can be superior to the diets of people who live off of nutritionally-poor processed food.
James Collier, co-founder and head of nutrition at Huel, said in an email: "The processing in Huel, whilst really minimal, is both necessary and advantageous. Not all food processing is bad and, unless your food is consumed raw and fresh, then your food is processed in some way […] The vitamins and minerals that are not provided from the main ingredients [in Huel] are added from a range of sources, many of them natural."
Laura Thomas, author of Just Eat It, views things slightly differently to the other nutritionists. "Choices are totally personal, and I'm not the food police," she tells me. Instead, she is interested in the motivations behind food choices and why people are turning to meal replacements. "Are you too busy to cook or go out for a meal? To me, that's perhaps a sign you're chronically oversubscribed. Or have you heard that you can bio-hack your way to immortality? Then perhaps we should do some myth busting around bro science."
For Jack*, Huel offered a way to cope with the symptoms of his depression. It started during his late teens, but the 22-year-old student has really felt the effects of mental illness in the last few months, to the point where, during bad episodes, he can't find enjoyment in anything, including food. "If I think about eating it'll actually make me feel kind of ill," he says. "I genuinely don't want to."
Already thin, he noticed himself getting skinnier, so he started drinking Huel. "When I fell into these sort of depressive episodes I could just pour this powder into a cup, add some water and down it," he says.
He's been feeling a bit better lately, and while he doesn't put his improved mental health completely down to Huel – which he was consuming once or twice a day to boost his calorie intake – he does think having something quick and easy to turn to when he was feeling despondent helped. "I was sceptical at first, just because of the idea of it essentially being late stage capitalist nutrient paste," he tells me. "There's something sort of dystopian about it, but to be fair it has been useful."
It is also impossible to ignore that meal powder's popularity has grown hand-in-hand with the prevalence of hyper-aspirational fitness culture. While I've never felt much pressure to get ripped – I'm 11 stone of utterly mediocre white bloke – there are undeniably growing pressures on young men to look a certain way.
"Anecdotally, we have seen more men in clinic in recent months than ever before, and it fits with uptick in steroid use, the keto diet and other dude diets," Laura tells me. She says that while men aren't the only people turning to these new forms of meal replacement – about 70 percent of Huel's customers are male – their popularity is a symptom of diet culture targeting men more and more.
I spend the rest of the week stubbornly determined to make it through. I can't stop thinking about eating real food, which isn't really the meal powder's fault – my diet is self-imposed, after all.
I do develop a taste for mint chocolate Huel – a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, I think, as everyone else I know who has tried it thinks it's rank. Drinking readymade mocha Soylent in the mornings is convenient, but before I'd just eat porridge and drink coffee for breakfast, so it doesn't feel that different. In fact, that's one thing that really sticks with me. Considering this stuff is sold as the future of food, I can’t help but think it doesn’t feel very futuristic. I didn't expect that leaving food behind would mean downing so many litres of milk, but there we are. I moved beyond food and started living off of jumped-up baby formula instead.
"It seems like a simple solution to a complicated problem," says Laura. "But my fear is that it acts as more of a band-aid than a true resolution."
*Jack's name was changed
This article was updated for clarity on July 20, 2022.