On November 2, Ari Huusela set off from Saint-Malo, France, in the transatlantic single-handed yacht race Route du Rhum, doing more or less what he’s been doing since he began sailing across oceans in 1986: monitoring the weather patterns, sleeping in 20- to 40-minute increments, and trying to survive. But one thing was different.
On board with Huusela were 40 packets of Ambronite, a drinkable meal that's the first product made from all organic ingredients to fulfill the Food and Drug Administration’s entire slate of nutrition recommendations for a single meal—recommendations in place to ensure consumers hit daily nutritional needs. At sea, free time to heat hot water for a meal is scarce, so Huusela initially planned to consume approximately two packages of Ambronite powder per day between manning the sails and avoiding storms. After all, eating can be a difficult endeavor when hurtling solo across the Atlantic on a 40-foot boat.
“Eating is not even like eating in these conditions—it’s more about getting energy for the body to be able to do the work that it has to do during sailing,” said Huusela. “We have to eat quickly, and we have to eat accurately. During these races, you’re so tired and you have so much work that it’s critical to calculate how much you’re eating.”
Much of Ambronite’s appeal lies in its convenience and nutritional value. Within five minutes, you can mix the powder with liquid and have a relatively filling, healthy meal. One Ambronite pouch contains 500 calories and 30 grams of protein, a “healthy dosage” of vitamins A, D, E, K, C, B1, B2, B3, B6, B9, B12, B7, B5, and all 14 essential minerals and fiber. Additionally, it doesn’t freeze in subzero temperatures and weighs only 117 grams, making it a good choice for adventurers and athletes looking to pack light.
Eating quickly and healthily is just what Ambronite founders had in mind when designing the product, says co-founder Simo Suoheimo. He founded Ambronite in 2013 with four friends. “We started by solving our own problem from the viewpoint of a busy professional who loves the outdoors,” said Suoheimo, whose company is based in Helsinki, Finland. “We’re active guys, and we were disappointed that we couldn’t find a complete, nourishing product that didn’t have preservatives. We wanted to develop something that would give you an option of eating healthy when and wherever you are, no matter what your situation is—whether you’re two minutes late for a meeting or climbing El Capitan.”
Having found success in Finland, the Ambronite team decided last year to go international. At the end of a two-month fundraising campaign on crowdsourcing website Indiegogo, Ambronite had raised $102,824 of its $50,000 goal and set a record for the highest-funded food project in the history of the site. To date, Ambronite has shipped some 15,000 meals to backers in more than 30 countries.
At a cursory glance, Ambronite appears to be dropping in on a market pioneered by Soylent, one of the biggest players in the drinkable-meal movement. Like Ambronite, Soylent is a powder you mix with water for quick, drinkable nourishment, and both are marketed as progressive alternatives for people without the time or wherewithal to plan healthy meals. Both companies drew attention and start-up capital via crowdfunding, and both seek to provide maximum nutrition with minimal effort—just mix, shake and drink. But the similarities end there.
For starters, the recipes of Soylent and Ambronite are dissimilar. Soylent’s vegan powder consists mainly of oat flour, rice protein, and a custom micro vitamin blend developed by founder Rob Rhinehart. Ambronite, which is named after ambrosia, the nectar of the Greek gods, contains 20 organic ingredients and is full of nuts, oats, and wild berries that have been dried and ground so that fatty acids and vitamins are not disturbed.
It is vegan, gluten-free, doesn’t contain genetically modified organisms, and it's free of artificial vitamins, minerals, flavorings, and added sugars. That all-natural, nutrient-dense recipe come at a cost: Ambronite hit a price point of between $7 and $8 per meal for crowdfunded orders, while Soylent’s mix of more common ingredients make it significantly more affordable at approximately $3 a meal. Nutritionally they vary only slightly.
Differences are also apparent in the ideologies of the founders of the respective powder-foods. Rhinehart has made no secret of the fact that he thinks shopping for, preparing, and eating food takes too much time. “Surely our minds can find more enjoyable activities than chewing,” he wrote in a blog post. Soylent, he says, is the key to freeing up extra hours and energy for pursuing our true passions (unless, of course, your passion is preparing food). In the Soylent school of thought, subsisting on such drinkable meals is not only possible but encouraged. Marketed for the busy professional, Soylent’s website opens with this tempting, tailored question: “What if you never had to worry about food again?”
Ambronite, however, was designed to be used on-the-go and intermittently, not as the foundation of a drinkable diet. “Our own philosophy is that food is one of the best things in life to enjoy, in the sense that it has so many purposes,” says Suoheimo. “But Ambronite is for the very moment when you would love to eat healthily but just don’t have the time to, and all of us have those moments.”
Detractors like Marion Nestle poo-poo drinkable meals like Soylent and Ambronite for eliminating much of the cultural and social significance behind food. Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, a former senior nutrition policy advisor in the Department of Health and Human Services, and Forbes’ second-most powerful foodie of 2014. Drinkable meals could be valuable as emergency rations, she says, but the idea of people replacing their diet with powdered food supplements? “I would be so sad for them, missing out on all the pleasure of food.”
In the Soylent-Ambronite comparison, the threat to Nestle’s love of food is Soylent. Ambronite is more in line with the type of drinkable food she can get behind—one used mainly in extreme circumstances.
On November 26, Huusela sailed into Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe. Though the route is marked as 6,500 km, Huusela had logged 8,000, zig-zagging his way through rough waters and challenging storms in search of “good wind.” Three days into the race, Huusela was hit by thunderstorms so powerful they led to smashed boats and more than 25 racers dropping out of the route. These squalls made it difficult to both sleep and eat, says Huusela, who finished ninth in his class.
“I survived without problems, but it was a hard time—actually, quite terrible to sustain the boat in those kinds of conditions,” Huusela says. “Anything can happen, and you have to act early enough and make the right decisions. Ambronite was fuel for me in those conditions. It was easy to prepare, and I didn’t feel hungry for a long time after having it. It kept me going.”