Have we evolved past taste?
Have we evolved past taste? (Photo: Inga Hendrickson)

Meal Replacements Still Don’t Taste Good

The global meal-replacement market is growing at nearly 7 percent annually and expected to reach $20.6 billion by 2021. But as we hack nutrition for hyperefficiency, have we evolved past the need for deliciousness?

Have we evolved past taste?

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I appreciate a good meal, but I also consider myself a pragmatist—and for me, stopping what I’m doing every few hours to find something to eat can be terribly inconvenient. When I first read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a child, the meal-replacement gum sounded fantastic; I, too, wanted to chew my way through the three-course meal, feeling the tomato-soup starter give way to a main course of roast beef and baked potatoes (but stopping short of the doomed blueberry dessert). This seemed like a brilliant way to get the time-consuming task of eating over with so that I could go back to playing or reading—the stuff I really wanted to be doing. As an adult, I find I’m not much different: when I get into the flow with work, anything that interrupts me is a source of frustration, especially when it’s my own body.  

Meal replacement is no longer a sci-fi concept, since Soylent—named for the 1973 classic Soylent Green, where the titular product is made of people—launched the modern-day meal-in-a-bottle industry six years ago. But taste remains a limiting factor. I’d describe the best of them as not terrible. 

When I first ventured on my personal meal-replacement experiment, I was fine with this in theory. Because I just wanted to solve the problem that is lunch: that boring, inconvenient meal in the middle of the day, when I’m just looking for something to put in my stomach and don’t want to leave my desk to find it. I get cranky and anxious when I’m hungry, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve raced through emergency bags of nuts an hour before dinner, my blood sugar tanking. So when my powder meals first arrived in the mail, I measured and shook them diligently. I really wanted this to work. 

I just wanted to solve the problem that is lunch: that boring, inconvenient meal in the middle of the day, when I’m just looking for something to put in my stomach.

But it all made me wonder: Why do we eat, exactly—is it really just about nutrition? “You can basically eliminate food as we know it from your diet and just have a nutritionally complete replacement,” says Erin Brown, a registered dietitian and founder of the Food Life, a nutrition practice in Vancouver, British Columbia. While nutrients are more potent when we get them from food rather than supplements, Brown says that, strictly speaking, whether I get my protein from a steak or a powder doesn’t actually matter much to my body on a metabolic level, because the stomach and intestines simply break it down into raw building blocks for the body to use. When I asked about the purpose of taste, Brown explained that our taste buds essentially protect us from eating poison: “But if we know something isn’t poisonous, there isn’t necessarily a benefit to tasting our food outside of the pleasure.” Technically, this is true, I’m sure, but just because we can survive on bland food doesn’t mean we should.

Still, I was willing to give it a shot. For about ten days, spread across a month, I tried a different flavor of meal shake (cocoa, vanilla, berry, chai, plain) for lunch and ate a regular breakfast and dinner. I started my experiment with Huel (a portmanteau of human and fuel), before moving on to Soylent. Both brands performed more or less as promised: they left me not hungry. Not full, not sated, just an absence of appetite. And then, after what felt like a very long time of being sustained by bland liquid that treated my body like a machine, I’d find myself wandering over to the fridge at about 4:30 in the afternoon. My body wasn’t hungry, but I was desperate to experience something—a feeling, a taste—anything to break through the dullness. 

For decades, meal-replacement shakes were the domain of the sick, the elderly, and people (primarily women) looking to lose weight. The current wave began in 2013, when Soylent launched on Kickstarter, with no sad story of illness, age, or deprivation. The brand was a cool lifestyle hack, created by tech bros who wanted to disrupt the traditional meal schedule so they could spend more time working. Founder Rob Rhinehart said that the idea came when he was busy working and “didn’t have the time, energy, or motivation to eat well, but my diet was harming my health and that harmed my productivity.” 

This rebranding has caused meal replacements to become increasingly popular. Last year, Soylent launched in the UK after having raised a total of $75 million, while UK-based Huel announced a $25 million international expansion. And there are plenty of burgeoning competitors to cater to a growing and diversifying market, like Mana (featuring healthy fats from algae), MealSquares (no preservatives), and Super Body Fuel (keto compliant). This is an industry that’s only going to get bigger: the global meal-replacement market is growing at nearly 7 percent annually and expected to reach $20.6 billion by 2021. 

And this is all despite the fact that meal replacements have by no means been perfected. When I dove into the r/soylent subreddit, I found plenty of people persevering, in spite of a number of drawbacks that have nothing to do with the way it tastes. Digestive issues seem to be the most common (“transition poops” and “muddy butt”) as well as public perception (“soy boy!”) and some things (“hairy tongue”) that I recommend you don’t Google. 

When I asked around, keen to learn why people stick with the stuff, I found that people were using meal replacements for a wide range of reasons. Convenience looms large. Cathy Adams, a journalist from London, has been drinking Soylent for lunch most days during the past year. “It reduces the amount of time I have to think about food and can therefore do or think about other things,” she says. “I’ve never been much of a foodie and find thinking about what to eat for dinner and lunch boring.” Antonio Páez, a college professor from Canada, finds Soylent to be a perfectly fine dinner if he’s eating by himself. “It’s a quick meal with zero waste,” he says. And Tom Harrison, a software developer in London who has a number of unusual food intolerances (including onions, apples, and gluten), says Huel solves the food problem when there’s nothing he can eat. “Restaurant food is like a lottery—will it have something I’m allergic to?” Harrison says.

When I dove into the r/soylent subreddit, I found plenty of people persevering, in spite of a number of drawbacks that have nothing to do with the way it tastes.

People are also drawn to meal replacements because they’re presented as nutrition in its purest form—rather than making a “healthy” or “junky” food choice, this is simply food. Both Huel and Soylent claim to be nutritionally complete meals: Huel contains oats, rice, peas, coconut, sunflower oil, and flaxseed, and Soylent is primarily soy, beet sugar, and sunflower oil. (Both include added vitamins and minerals, which are mixed with the milled and dehydrated ingredients.) Especially for people who’ve experienced anxiety around eating, this takes emotion out of the equation in a way that can be freeing. Jeva Lange, a magazine critic from New York, drinks Soylent for breakfast, a meal she previously used to skip. “It’s fast and easy, it doesn’t upset my stomach, and gives me energy to think,” she says. “It’s a simple way to take care of myself, which I’m otherwise bad at.” Stephanie, a PR executive from London (who asked to be identified by her first name only), says her friends have been critical of her occasional Huel habit. But she likes how it ensures that her nutritional needs are covered while absolving her of the need to make choices. “I feel it helps with my food anxiety,” she says. “It sets me up for my day, and I avoid the panic of ‘I need to eat!’ and making quick, bad food decisions.”

Julian Hearn, founder of Huel, says the reasons for choosing a meal replacement vary widely, as it often comes down to personality. I initially assumed that these products would be mostly marketed as a way to save time, but during our call, Hearn surprised me with his pitch about nutrition and climate change: “There’s a growing trend of people looking for quality nutrition but still wanting it to be convenient,” Hearn says. “We should look at foodstuffs that provide bang for buck in terms of nutrients.” Meal replacements are usually vegan, which is arguably better for the environment. They have a shelf life of at least a year, which reduces food waste. (Not to mention how they avoid the problem of eating out-of-season fruit and vegetables, which are transported over long distances at a terrible cost to the environment.) “People are aware of the environment and climate change and are looking at ways to [lessen] their demands on the planet,” Hearn says. 

But what about the taste? “We’re all different, and it can’t agree with all people all the time,” Hearn says.

Which may explain why I still found my Huel and Soylent experiences frustrating. “Remember that these products aren’t personalized,” says Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian and founder of Real Nutrition, a private practice in New York. “You could have a really fast metabolism, or you might just miss the active eating and chewing.” 

Shapiro says she encounters a lot of people looking for quick food fixes, and she encourages them to stock up their office drawers with jerky, nuts, and dried fruits so they have healthy snacks available. “But I don’t recommend drinking your calories so you can keep your eyes on the screen, because then you don’t register your calories,” she says. “You’re thinking, Did I eat? I don’t remember eating. Nutritionally, you may have covered your bases. But emotionally, you haven’t.”

Jennifer Kaplan, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of America in Saint Helena, California, says food is an expression of culture. Historically, we ate in groups, and it can be hard to tell where nutrition ends and society begins. “Communal eating serves a purpose in terms of our social fabric, [helping us] make connections and strengthening bonds,” Kaplan says. She adds that “there’s a time and a place” for meal-replacement shakes—they’re fine if you’re going to be eating alone in your car anyway. But eating only nutritious but bland food can have a punitive effect. “Part of food is functional, and part of it is social,” she says. “They’re pretty distinct, but you need both.”

Hearn acknowledges that being full doesn’t necessarily stop every craving, as anyone who’s ever wanted ice cream after a big dinner is aware. “Huel is never going to replace a Sunday roast with family,” he says. Instead, what his company is gunning to replace is your rushed breakfast or your sad desk sandwich. And he also thinks we could stand to focus a little less on taste and look a bit more closely at how food makes our bodies feel. “Nearly every food in every supermarket is optimized for taste, not for nutrition,” he says. “Taste does give you pleasure, but there’s a massive difference between pleasure and happiness.”

In the end, I gave up on the lunch-replacement dream, because I couldn’t get over the taste—or lack of it. After a few attempts, I soon found myself skipping the powder and pulling out some basic ingredients from the fridge instead. All the meal-replacement flavor options are sweet, and I craved savory. You can doctor the plain stuff by adding things like peanut butter or miso paste, but in my view, once you start going down that road, you might as well just fry an egg. “How can it be the future of food if it doesn’t taste good?” my 13-year-old stepson asked when I explained what I was doing at the beginning of my experiment. I didn’t know how to answer that, so I e-mailed his question to Soylent. Andrew Thomas, Soylent’s vice president of brand marketing, responded by saying that the company considers “delivering an enjoyable taste experience” to be key to its success. But of course, taste is a personal preference. “Our Original flavor was designed to be subtle and neutral so people wouldn’t tire of it,” Thomas added. “There are some who are willing to sacrifice taste for function.” 

You can doctor the plain stuff by adding things like peanut butter or miso paste, but in my view, once you start going down that road you might as well just fry an egg.

If Soylent was ever meant to replace food altogether, it’s not anymore. Soylent founder Rob Rhinehart’s original blog post—which launched his product in 2013 and has since been removed—was called “How I Stopped Eating Food.” But the current powder packets feature a disclaimer: “Soylent is not intended to replace every meal, but it can replace any meal.” If I were looking to quit food altogether, I’d be a lot more worried about the nutritional contents of these products, because while they seem to contain all that humans need to live, that’s a lot of faith to put in a single startup. Especially because the science is still evolving. “We don’t know every component that’s in food, so by synthesizing it in a lab, we might be excising something that exists in regular food,” says Brown, the nutritionist. We’re only just starting to understand the impact of the human microbiome, for example, and research shows that our gut bacteria, which impacts our health and well-being in profound ways, is significantly affected by diet changes. “Making fundamental changes could have health consequences in the long term that we don’t know about,” says Brown. 

My meal-replacement foray has left me far more accepting of the fact that I need to eat right to feel good and that taking a short break to do so is just as important as ingesting calories to maintain my productivity. I’m keeping some premix vanilla Huel around for emergencies, but I’m eagerly awaiting more savory options that I’m sure will become available once they’ve cracked the recipe.

For now, I’ve created my own meal-replacement routine when I need a quick, easy lunch: two scrambled eggs, hummus on rye, a chunk of cheese, some cucumber, and black coffee. It’s something I don’t need to think about, and it seems to be exactly what my body needs. And best of all, it tastes great. 

Lead Photo: Inga Hendrickson

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