Meal replacement products like Soylent and Huel have gained a loyal following. But are these all-in-one powders and shakes really a more optimal way to get your nutrition?
“My boyfriend is obsessed with these meal replacement shakes by Huel. He has anywhere from 1 to 3 a day because he hates cooking, and he and his friends even plan to do an entire week of consuming nothing but Huel. How often should we be consuming meal replacement shakes, and can it truly provide all of the nutrients we need?”
Years ago, my friend Chris told me he wished that someone would invent People Chow—some sort of food product that would supply all his nutritional needs without him having to make any decisions. He said he didn’t need variety. He didn’t need culinary excitement. As long as it didn’t taste terrible, he could happily eat the same thing for every meal, and he'd be glad never to have to think about it again.
Since then, several companies have tried to make the equivalent of People Chow. Soylent (named after a cult-classic dystopian fantasy film) was an early entry into this market, with an all-in-one powder that you mix with water or another liquid, and that would theoretically meet all of your nutrient needs.
Theoretically, you could consume nothing but Soylent or Huel for weeks or months.
Soylent caught on so quickly that early in the company’s history, they were unable to manufacture it fast enough to meet demand. That demand gave rise to a robust DIY community that share recipes for homemade Soylent Green-type formulas.
Huel is another rising brand of all-in-one nutrition product solutions and the one that Emily’s boyfriend is currently obsessed with.
Theoretically, you could consume nothing but Soylent or Huel for weeks or months. Online, you’ll find a bunch of bloggers, biohackers, and journalists doing exactly that and reporting on their experiences. To my knowledge, all of them have survived their experiments without undue harm. But this is not just about mere survival. These products claim to be so nutritionally complete and optimized that they represent an improvement over the imperfect and imbalanced diet that many of us eat.
Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of all-in-one meal replacement powders and shakes and then we’ll do a side by side comparison of Soylent and Huel.
Pros of meal replacement formulas
Balanced and complete nutrition
If you consume 2000 calories worth (about five shakes), it will supply 100% of the 27 vitamins and minerals considered to be “essential.” Depending on your baseline, this could be a big upgrade.
Calorie and portion controlled
Many people find this to be an effective way of limiting their calorie intake. You simply figure out how many calories you need per meal, snack, or day. Then you translate that into a certain number of scoops. Done.
When you add up the amount of time that most of us spend deciding what to eat, buying food, preparing it, and cleaning up, it turns out to be a significant portion of every day and week. With a meal replacement powder, you buy your powder online with a couple of clicks, you spend at most ten minutes a day blending or shaking, and you have nothing more than a blender, bottle, or glass to clean up.
As a society, we throw away about a third of the food we produce. Not only is this a waste of money and other resources, but it also contributes significantly to greenhouse gasses and global warming. Meal replacement powders are shelf-stable, require no refrigeration, and create very little packaging waste, especially if you buy the powders instead of the ready-to-drink products.
As a society, we throw away about a third of the food we produce.
RELATED: 9 Tips for Reducing Food Waste
Cons of Meal Replacement Shakes
Even if you like the taste of these shakes, drinking a shake several times a day as your sole or primary source of food and nutrition gets really monotonous. Obviously, everyone will have a different threshold for this. My friend Chris, for example, claims that it wouldn’t bother him to eat the same thing for every meal.
Everything is sweet
Another drawback of meal replacement shakes is that every meal is essentially a dessert. Not only would I miss having a broader range of tastes, but I think this a great way to cultivate an unwanted sweet tooth. In my work as a nutrition coach, I’ve observed that those who consume a lot of sweetened or artificially sweetened beverages often find whole foods like fresh fruits and vegetables unpalatable until they wean themselves off of the sweet stuff.
Artificial sweeteners can alter the composition of the gut microbiome in ways that predispose you toward weight gain.
To limit the amount of added sugar, most of these meal replacement formulas use artificial sweeteners. But artificial sweeteners have drawbacks of their own, especially when you consume them all day, every day. For one thing, they can alter the composition of the gut microbiome in ways that predispose you toward weight gain.
Chewing is important
There are times, such as after dental surgery, when a liquid diet is necessary. But our jaws are made for chewing. When we don’t use them, it can create dental and other health issues. I just read a fascinating book titled Jaws, by orthodontist Sandra Kahn and evolutionary biologist Paul Ehrlich. They argue that eating all or mostly soft, mushy foods from an early age leads to malformation and misalignment of the teeth, bones, and muscles in the head and neck, leading to constricted airways, poor sleep quality, and increased risk of death. It’s a real page-turner!
Chewing also releases hormones that reduce appetite. You're likely to feel more satisfied for longer after eating solid food than you would after consuming the same foods in liquid form. If you’re on a calorie-restricted diet, you’re likely to experience some degree of hunger. And if you’re getting most of those calories from liquid meals, it could make a hard thing even harder.
On the websites for these products, you’ll see pictures of fresh soybeans, whole oats, sunflowers, and other wholesome-looking things. But keep in mind that even Cheetos start as an ear of corn and a sunflower seed. These powders are not whole foods. They are isolates, extracts, fractions of whole foods, mixed with various gels, gums, natural and artificial flavors, synthetic sweeteners, and nutrients.
These powders are isolates, extracts, fractions of whole foods, mixed with various gels, gums, natural and artificial flavors, synthetic sweeteners, and nutrients.
There’s more to nutrition than just 26 "essential" vitamins and minerals
These products take a very reductionist approach to nutrition, boiling everything down to a few dozen nutrients. But this does not begin to capture the benefits of a varied diet of whole foods. An orange provides more than vitamin C, for example. It provides flavonoids like quercetin and hesperetin, valuable nutrients that you won’t find in these powders.
Huel versus Soylent
Both Huel and Soylent offer a suite of products including powders, ready-to-drink, different flavors, and so on. I compared the Huel Vanilla Powder to the Soylent Original Powder.
Both contain 400 calories per serving. If you were living on nothing but these drinks, you’d need 4-8 of them a day, depending on your size.
Both contain 400 calories per serving. If you were living on nothing but these drinks, you’d need 4-8 of them a day, depending on your size. Both are appropriate for vegans; Soylent uses soy protein, and Huel uses pea and rice protein. Both also use sucralose, or Splenda.
Both products contain a reasonable balance of carbohydrate, protein, and fat, and both deliver all of the vitamins and minerals considered to be essential. In my opinion, Huel has a slight edge—at least on paper. It’s higher in protein, fiber, and omega-3s. It’s lower in added sugars, and at about $2 per meal, it’s about 30% cheaper than Soylent.
|Soylent Original Powder||Huel Vanilla Powder|
|Fiber||6 g||9 g|
|Added sugars||15 g||1 g|
|Omega 3||500 mg||3200 mg|
|Fat sources||Canola||Sunflower, coconut, flax|
|Protein source||Soy||Peas, rice|
My Personal Take
First a disclaimer: food is not simply fuel for me. I enjoy cooking and eating a variety of different foods. I feel more satisfied when I chew my food rather than drink it. At best, I could see this as an occasional meal replacement. But the flavored and sweetened powders and pre-made drinks all taste terrible to me. As someone who tries to limit added sugars, I find most commercially sweetened foods to be too sweet for my taste. And because I generally do not consume artificial sweeteners, I find their hyper-sweetness particularly off-putting.
If I were going to use a product like this, I’d choose the unsweetened and unflavored variety and add fresh fruit.
If I were going to use a product like this, I’d choose the unsweetened and unflavored variety and add fresh fruit. This adds steps and ingredients that, for some, might defeat the purpose. And once I’ve got the blender out, it’s just as easy to use plain whey powder for protein and add a tablespoon or two of flaxseeds for fiber and fat. A daily multivitamin would supply the rest of the nutrients included in these products. But, in my opinion, eating a variety of whole foods is a far superior way to cover those bases.
The Bottom Line
A diet of nothing but meal replacement shakes will meet your most important nutritional needs. If your current diet is inferior, that might be more balanced and nutritious than what you’re eating now. But these powders don’t supply all of the nutrients and benefits available from whole foods.