Protein shakes, super-charged juices, whatever you want to call them, meal replacement products offer a supposedly nutritionally complete meal in liquid form, whilst removing the time it takes to prepare, cook and eat a meal.
In an age when almost 20% of deaths are attributed to unhealthy diets, and knowledge of how (and willingness) to cook healthy and nutritious food is diminishing, it is no wonder that the demand for - and normalisation of - meal replacement products is increasing. Companies like Huel and Soylent market their products to young, ambitious and professional people. In the midst of confusion over diets and good fats versus bad fats, these new silicon-valley-esque start-ups try to prove that science and the environment can find solutions to a growing food and health crisis.
Huel (“human fuel”) describes its product as 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’s only when you dig a little harder that you find the ingredients list, which reads like a chemical formula. Soylent (ironically named after the dystopian film Soylent Green where all the food turns out to be liquidised humans) markets its products in a similarly scientific format, with ‘20 grams of protein (soy protein isolate), slow-burning carbs (disaccharide synthesized from beets), 21 grams of fats (high oleic sunflower oil) and 26 vitamins + minerals.’ Soylent states that its products should be used whenever the consumer experiences a “food void”, meaning a time when you may have chosen, or felt compelled, to miss a meal or compromise on nutrition.
Good food or just good marketing?
Interviewed by Carole Cadwalladr for an article for The Guardian on Huel, Joanna Blythman noted how “there are these very intense chemical sweeteners in there. There’s sucralose; that’s something like 200 times sweeter than sugar. And then there’s ‘pea protein’… You’re treating peas with a number of complex, chemical reactions to extract some sort of beige powder.” Whilst those of us with degrees in micronutrition may be able to understand some of the highly complex ingredients, and decode the marketing claims, many an average shopper will take claims such as ‘vegan’ and ‘sustainable’ at face value.
Claims made by some of the meal replacement products include being better for the planet, on account of producing next to no food waste and being plant based. Whilst the companies might be able to substantiate these claims, people who are in dire need of healthy, easy and affordable food are not the target market. They are promoted to people who find themselves having a different kind of ‘food void’. Those who are concerned with their physical image, prioritise their career over finding the time to enjoy cooking and eating, maybe seeking shortcuts to looking after their health, and have a good disposable income.
Whilst cheap food is often a key factor in ensuring political stability, I don’t believe that handing out grey sludge that claims to tackle malnutrition is the answer. What about the simple joy that people receive from eating? Commensality, or eating together, is a key component of happiness. To be in a position of limited food access and to be reduced to relying on a drink or bar that more or less fulfils a biological need, but negates the need to chew and tastes, quite frankly, bland is a belittling, clinical approach.
Instead, as food waste is generated at alarming rates, enough to feed the entire world, we should look at how our food is produced and distributed, and work to ensure that time taken to cook and enjoy natural and whole food is a priority, not a luxury.