When it comes to food, complaints about price, accessibility, variety and taste are all very common, but it is not a common experience to hear someone bemoan the tastiness of their meal. No one complains about food being too delicious. But for Huel Co-Founder Julian Hearn, deliciousness is exactly the problem.
“As a population we have made food so delicious that we crave it, get addicted to it, and over-consume it,” he says.
And that addiction has created staggeringly negative externalities around the world. Obesity has become a global phenomenon and tripled between 1975 and 2016. According to the World Health Organization, there are 1.9 billion overweight adults worldwide, and 650 million who are obese (13 percent of the human population total). And with obesity comes its common associated health risk factors: diabetes, musculoskeletal damage, cardiac disease and cancer are some of the risks listed by the WHO.
Food can taste good, according to Hearn, but that is not its purpose. Food, he noted in an interview, is first and foremost fuel, nutrition and the stuff that keeps us alive. Optimizing for flavor has led human beings to choose foods for the wrong reasons — and so food as we eat it isn’t living up to its potential.
Huel — a portmanteau of “food” and “fuel” — is the product Hearn and his co-founder, nutritionist James Collier, created to solve the problem, by putting us all on a liquid diet that contains optimal nutrition.
Founded with an investment of £220,000 ($280,0000) made by Hearn via the sale of his affiliate marketing business, Huel is a meal replacement program that offers customers nutritionally balanced, vegan “meals” that can be consumed in shake form, on the go, by busy people. The choice ingredients for the the human fuel are oats, pea protein, flaxseed, brown rice protein, a custom blend of vitamins and minerals and vanilla flavor. Despite Hearn’s suspicion of tastiness as a concept, Huel also offers optional flavor boosts such as strawberry, banana, chocolate, cappuccino and chocolate mint.
The Huel product comes in powdered form and after mixing with water (or rice/soy/almond/flax/oat milk), the company claims the user has been served a full balanced serving of nutrition, and if a customer were to replace all their meals with Huel contains all the proteins, carbohydrates and fats a person needs on a daily basis.
Since its founding three years ago, the firm has also launched a line of snack bars and cereals — a concession to the reality that however nutritious or well balanced a shake product may be, very few people are willing to give up eating solid food wholesale.
But, as the firm has learned in its fast growth first three years, it seems many people are interested in at least subbing out some of their food for Huel. In 2017, Huel reached £14.1 million ($17.82 million) in revenue, and is on track for a 220 percent increase in global turnover this year revenue to £45 million ($57.27). The U.S. has been a major driver of that growth, after launching stateside in 2017, Huel has marked over $10 million in sales by the end of its first year.
The product, admittedly, is not for everyone — a fact its co-founder acknowledged and its reviews confirm. Unlike its U.S.-based rival Soylent, which generally gets fairly high marks for flavor, Huel does not. Or at least, it does not when users make it the recommended way — by mixing it with water.
“Still, if you mix it with water only — which is the recommended way — it tastes pretty horrible. I tried, boy did I try, but I couldn’t finish a single drink,” noted one Wired reviewer.
Using a different liquid, such as plant-based milk, dramatically improves things, according to reports, but the problem with the product seems to be fatigue.
“After a few weeks of regular Soylent or Huel intake, I just couldn’t take it anymore. With that I was definitely not alone,” the reviewer confessed. “Forums discussing meal replacement drinks are dotted with people complaining of similar maladies. It’s especially true for Huel, which — unlike Soylent — didn’t taste for me like a milkshake, but rather like drinking a cold, very liquid porridge.”
Addiction to good and varied taste, as it turns out, is a pretty persistent one.
But in a world where over a third of the population is overweight or obese, Hearn sees a need for a solution. And, given the growing number of enthused “Hueleans” (what they call their online fan community), there are perhaps more people than one might expect who are willing to turn a bit more of their food directly into fuel.