A Michelin Chef Tried Powdered Meals and It Didn’t Go Well

(Bloomberg) -- For several years now, scientists have been warning that humans risk environmental catastrophe unless they eat less meat. Earlier this month, the United Nations issued the latest in a series of grim reports on climate change predicting that, along with rising seas and temperatures, there will be less arable land to feed an expanding global population. 

Depressing news to be sure, but marketing gold if you’re a meal-replacement company like Soylent Co. or Huel Ltd., foodtech companies that sell protein shakes. 

Drinking your lunch isn’t for everyone, and both companies are appealing to consumers’ growing concern about agricultural degradation. “We are in the middle of a food crisis,” Huel proclaims on its website. Soylent says its plant-based meals require less water and produce less CO2 than livestock and are better for the planet.

Such appeals have a growing constituency. WeWork Cos. in July informed its 6,000 employees that they could no longer expense meals that contain meat and that the company won’t pay for beef, poultry or pork at its events.

“Huel’s vegan, so it’s better for the environment,” says company co-founder Julian Hearn. “I’m not a vegan myself, but I do know we should all eat less meat than we currently do.”

A Michelin Chef Tried Powdered Meals and It Didn’t Go Well

Richard Corrigan, a Michelin-starred British chef, performed a taste test on Huel, Soylent and rival Saturo for Bloomberg. He describes Huel’s taste as “quite acceptable” and “not necessarily nasty,” and says that if you take the best of the products and add them to a fruit puree, “you’d end up with a quite interesting ‘fully loaded’ meal.” He isn’t much more complimentary about Soylent or Saturo. 

Corrigan argues that most people consider eating a convivial social activity—“sitting, sharing, or cracking open a bottle wine.”  When it comes to meal replacement nourishment, he says, “I’ll never be a part of it.”

Huel and Soylent are aware that the basic unmodified flavors and consistencies of their drinks are not to everyone’s taste. Huel sells a range of flavoring powders that can be added to a drink, including chocolate, banana, matcha and toffee. A recipe guide includes instructions for sweet potato brownies and an ice-cream smoothie. Soylent’s pre-mixed drinks come in cacao, strawberry, vanilla varieties, and the company has been selling a caffeinated coffee flavor since 2016.

A Michelin Chef Tried Powdered Meals and It Didn’t Go Well

San Francisco’s Soylent started out touting its products to techie ascetics loath to waste time preparing meals. Huel, which is based in Buckinghamshire, has had a similar pitch. Both sell their own iteration of a protein-rich powder, which is mixed with water to produce a drink. Huel’s ingredients include oats, pea protein and flax seeds; Soylent favors protein drawn from soybeans and fats from sunflower oil. Both incorporate a laundry list of added vitamins and minerals.

So far these meal replacements are niche products, and both companies are attempting to go mainstream. Last year, Soylent began selling bottled drinks at 7-Eleven, Walmart and Amazon. Huel is also preparing to introduce a ready-to-drink version and push into main street stores. Hearn says the discussion with potential retailers “will be a lot easier” because Soylent has already gotten them used to the category. 

If all else fails, there’s one corner of the market that can probably be relied upon to stockpile replacement meals: those preparing for a global nuclear apocalypse. “We do have preppers buying it,” Hearn says.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.