What the heck is Huel? It's a health food craze, a convenience product and a clever portmanteau of 'human fuel', but what is Huel and why on earth are a lot of people guzzling the stuff?
Julian Hearn, the co-founder of the latest food supplement craze Huel, wants you to know that his latest product isn't a protein shake to be gulped down after a gym session.
"Huel is a nutritionally complete, convenient, affordable and 100% vegan solution for the time poor,” he says. "One in four British adults today are obese, which all comes down to our easy access to unhealthy convenience food.
That's where Huel comes in, as it has been formulated to contain exactly the right amount of carbs, proteins, healthy fats and vitamins that one would expect to find in a well rounded, balanced and healthy meal.
Except here it comes in powdered form and all you have to do is mix it with the correct quantity of water, add a little flavouring if you want, and gulp down.
"Humans and their ancestors have, for most of our history anyway, not had a consistent source of food," continues Julian. "But today, instead of eating only what we can find, we now eat what we want, when we want, with the only limiting factors being time and money."
Maximum convenience and flavour, sure, but without the balanced and calorifically limited nature of the diet our caveman ancestors ate. Huel aims to restore the nutritional balance, and keep the convenience. It does kind of lose the flavour along the way, but we'll come to that later…
What actually is Huel?
Huel achieves its claimed balance of proteins, carbs, and fats required on a daily basis, plus at least 100 per cent of the European Union's 'daily recommended amounts' of all 26 essential vitamins and minerals, through a blend of oats, brown rice protein, pea protein, flaxseed, sunflower and medium chain triglycerides (MCTs) from coconuts.
All the ingredients are 'ethically sourced', it's 100 per cent vegan friendly and as a result, Huel has sold over 15 + million meals worldwide since it launched in 2015 and turned over £14 million, making it one very profitable success story.
Julian formerly founded health and fitness company Bodyhack. For Huel he teamed up with registered nutritionist James Collier to create the perfect liquid lunch.
"I was getting exactly the right amount of protein and carbs and fat from my regular diet, so it made me think 'why couldn’t we put all the macronutrients you need in one single product?'” he says.
So Collier, who has over 25 years experience working in nutrition and dietetics, including seven years as a clinical dietician in the NHS, took to his spread sheet to formulate the perfect, erm, formula.
The result was initially a powder but there's now a whole range of Huel products. These range from energy bar type things, to granola; the breakfast of champions. There's also ready-mixed Huel, but it is currently neither cheap, nor widely available.
How do you consume Huel?
It's easy to see why people confuse Huel with protein powders, which are designed to aid muscle growth and repair in those regularly hitting the gym or partaking in intense activity. That's because it is packaged just like them.
The powder comes in re-sealable bags (like a protein powder) and users mix five parts water to one part Huel (much like a protein powder).
There's also Huel Granola and a Huel bar for those that want a quick and easy snack when on the move, rather than transporting a shaker containing a grey, gloopy sludge.
Huel fans seem to fall into a couple of camps: those that are happy chugging a plain and pretty tasteless shake, knowing it will provide all the nutrition they will need, and those that like to replicate the pleasure of a tasty lunch or breakfast by making it actually taste of something.
To service that market, Huel offers a wide range of 'flavour boost' powders – everything from Mocha to Mint Chocolate – to liven things up. There are numerous forums and discussion boards where Huel fans share recipes and bakes that use the stuff as a key ingredient.
What does Huel taste like?
Huel powder is available in a number of flavours: Original, which features a hint of vanilla, a new and improved Vanilla, which is slightly sweeter and more vanilla-y, Unflavoured (self-explanatory) and the latest Coffee flavour.
Anyone used to guzzling protein shakes will be aware of the chemical aftertaste that blights many powdered supplements and it is definitely present in Huel.
In addition to this, there's also a 'nuts and seeds' background flavour that lingers on the palate as if you've gobbled down an extra large bag of bird food.
Messing up the mix can be rather unrewarding, as the shake becomes thick and gloopy if not enough water is added, and a standard beaker shaker isn't powerful enough to iron out the larger lumps and bumps.
Many Huel users have complained that the 'new and improved' Vanilla flavour is too sweet and slightly sickly, and I'd agree. That's probably why the British company still offers the original vanilla, alongside a completely unflavoured and unsweetened version.
Adding some of the 'flavour boost' products really does help mask some of the previously mentioned unpleasantness, particularly the Cacao and Mocha flavourings. The Matcha is just weird IMO, but each to their own.
Adding a shot of actual good coffee to the vanilla powder and blending over ice results in a pretty solid impression of a Frappuccino, while Huel suggests blending with berries and other fruits.
It's possible to get creative and come up with something that's actually enjoyable to consume, but users are limited to sweet and sickly tastes that will surely soon become a turn-off for most people if you're thinking of replacing multiple meals with Huel.
There is also a new granola cereal, which seems fine at first, though the overpowering taste of flax seeds makes the last few slurps fairly unpleasant.
Finally, a chocolate orange flavour snack bar is also offered for those who need a quick Huel hit. It is actually pretty pleasant as protein bars go – which is to say, not all that pleasant, but bearable – but the texture is plain odd. It's dry, crumbly and seems to absorb saliva, leaving your mouth feeling like the inside of a cement mixer.
These bars also pack 11.2g of sugar, which is a lot. By contrast the new Vanilla shake, despite its sickly taste, actually features just 1.2g of the sweet stuff.
Why are users hooked on Huel?
From the Helvetica-heavy, basic-as-a-statement branding to the free T-shirt with the first order, Huel is a classic cult product. You'll find some ridiculously engaged customers regularly posting on the Huel message boards; it's like Tesla fanboy-level enthusiasm, but in shake form.
There are probably a host of reasons why so many are using and/or talking about Huel but it all seems to boil down to the convenience factor.
Research by the company suggests six out of ten Brits now describe themselves as being too busy to cook, whilst almost three quarters admit to skipping meals due to time constraints.
For those who see breakfast as a hastily grabbed cereal bar and a cup of coffee, Huel is a much more nutritionally balanced and convenient solution.
Alternatively, those who spend upwards of £10 on an unsatisfying sandwich and a packet of crisps from a high street chain out of sheer necessity have found Huel to be a cheaper and easier proposition.
A bag of Huel powder retails at £45, which translates to £1.61 per 'meal'.
Huel: what's the catch?
Most users I've spoken to seemed to be generally happy with the product and appeared to enjoy a largely positive experience, but they all also factored in at least one traditional meal per day – ie: something recognisable as actual food.
Gripes tend to come from those who try to replace every meal with the liquid concoction, which tends to lead to disappointment, some bloating and flatulence. Also, of course, cooking and sharing a meal with our fellow humans is an important social element of our day and taking that away completely isn't ideal.
Some posts on Huel's own forum have reported cases of acne and other skin conditions after switching to the liquid nutrition, though the reasons for the unpleasant reaction have not been confirmed, only speculated, and it is impossible to rule out other factors from a more extreme fitness-related lifestyle being responsible.
As I mentioned before, the texture is important, with the correct ratio of water to powder being vital if you don't like consuming a vat of lumpy wallpaper paste. The taste is also divisive.
Finally, understanding nutrition and the amount of calories a human needs in a single day is important and something that is highlighted extensively across the Huel web pages.
Too little and you'll notice the weight drop off. Too much and you might actually see your waistline unexpectedly expand. There's about 150 calories in a scoop of Huel powder (it varies slightly by flavour), and you would tend use between one and three scoops in each shake.
Having a 3-scoop shake twice per day and a 4-scoop shake also twice per day, would provide just over 2000 calories, and all of your nutritional requirements, worked out according to the EU's daily intake recommendations.
This amount of Huel would, in fact, provide considerably more than the recommended daily amount for certain nutrients, including protein, Vitamins C and D, and several minerals. Conversely, it would provide below the recommended maximum daily intake of saturated fat and carbohydrates, and way below the recommended maximum quantity of sugars.
I think it's fair to say, then, that Huel is aimed primarily at gym goers and other people who exercise regularly. Having tasted the stuff, I don't think anyone who possesses taste buds is going to exist solely on Huel for an extended period, but it is theoretically possible.
What do Huel users say?
• Lucy Cheeseman, 33, Communications Consultant, Oxford
"Colleagues at work turned me on to Huel when they explained to me that it was a 'complete meal replacement'. I admit, it did sound a bit scary at first but I've been using it for six months and it's great.
"I’ve always been guilty of skipping lunch due to my hectic work schedule and I regularly train for marathons, so finding a quick and easy shake that would support my exercise regime was ideal.
"I can burn up to 1,200 calories on a 10-mile training run and, as someone who is naturally slim, I need to make sure I maintain a healthy weight
"It tasted better than other protein shakes I've tried and it's really easy to live with. I don't think it will completely replace a nice meal but it fits around my hectic life and supports my training".
• Ryan England, 30, IT Entrepreneur, Bournemouth
"I'm a vegetarian, which means I'm also guilty of not being a particularly healthy eater. I eat a lot of cheese and meat substitutes that can be high in carbs.
"Also, with running a business, I go through peaks and troughs in terms of energy and fatigue. So I was looking for a way to even that out without resorting to coffee.
"Now, I drink two Huel shakes a day - one in the early morning and one around mid-morning - then I'll have a snack in the afternoon, so I'm effectively replacing two meals with liquid.
"There has been a bit of bloating, especially if I try and consume too much in a short space of time, but I've found my mood and general energy levels are more stable throughout the day.
"It won't be for everyone and I’ve always said, for me, food is a necessity rather than a luxury, and if I could take a pill that sorted my hunger, I would".
• Basil Kronfli, Video Producer and Vegan Instagram Personality (vegan.basil), London
"I've used Huel for around three months purely as a substitute for one meal per day. I'm vegan, it's vegan and it ensures I get all my key nutrients, same as a normal, balanced meal would deliver.
"On top of that, I like the way it saves me around £7.50 a day on meals and around 20 single-use plastics a week. It also keeps for a long time, so it reduces food wastage.
"I've always used protein powders and continue to supplement Huel with a brown rice protein post-workout, so it wasn't a weird concept for me to get my head around, but I do like how the ingredients are comparatively natural compared to most other fitness supplements.
"Above all else, it's easy and convenient and seems to break down slowly in the stomach, meaning it keeps me feeling fuller for longer and not thinking about snacking."