I’m committed to living the next 90ish years of my life without an iota of help from the wellness industry, because much like Pampered Chef and Disney, I believe the whole damn thing is a cult. I’ve given spinning classes, detox diets, and jade eggs plenty of fair chances, and all I’ve discovered is that wellness apparently requires not only time and commitment, but also tens of thousands of dollars. Since then I’ve done all I can to ignore the wellness industrial complex, because the road from “free samples” to “power of attorney” is a slippery one, awash in collagen tea and essential oils.
It was because of my willful ignorance that I had never heard of Huel—a globally popular plant-based meal replacement product that’s existed since 2015—until about one month ago, when I found myself face-to-face with a diabolical PR email that roped me in before I realized what was happening, assailing me with a sales hook I had not thought to build defenses for:
With the global population predicted to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, our current food production methods are often outdated and unsustainable, not to mention unethical. We throw away 30% of the food we produce, we use meat and animal products as our main source of protein, and we create too much packaging waste. In short, we need a food that prioritizes nutrition, does not generate lots of waste, and has minimal impact on the environment. Huel is a solution to those problems.
Five years ago I would have laughed at a statement like this before making an obligatory Soylent Green joke. Then again, five years ago, I would have laughed if somebody told me the next president of the United States was going to be a mentally unstable game show host. If science fiction has taught us anything, it’s that once the world is done devolving into a dystopia, there will only be two foods available: protein bars and dubious beige slop. Before I could even process what was happening, I was arranging to have Huel products sent to my house. I pray that humankind will unite to avert climate catastrophe, but my gut tells me I should start testing various brands of nutritionally dense gruel “just in case.”
Normally when conducting taste tests I focus on flavor alone, but with Huel I wasn’t merely sampling a product—I was sampling an entire lifestyle built for optimal nutrition in a brave new world. I decided to subsist entirely on Huel products for three whole days. Upon waking up, I’d have a bottle of Huel Ready-to-drink, a “nutritionally complete meal” (in layman’s terms: a shake), along with a cup of black coffee. (Though coffee will likely be wiped from the earth long before the end of days, my family insisted that I continue drinking coffee during my experiment to prevent me from becoming, in my husband’s words, “a massive bitch.”) The concept of “lunch” will not exist in the future since we’ll be spending our days running away from rising seas, raging wildfires, robot death squads, or all three at the same time; ergo, I chose not to keep a set schedule, and would only have my next meal—two scoops of Huel powder mixed with a pint of cold tap water—once I got hungry. I would only consider solid food come nightfall, which is when I anticipate Future Me might enjoy a warm, comforting dinner of reconstituted Huel Hot & Savory, a sort of doomsday grain bowl, if you will. For dessert and midnight snack(s) I had Huel Bars, which is everything there is to (presumably) love about Huel, but in bar form. This is my story.
6:00 a.m.: It is cold and dark when I open my eyes; though the clock says the sun will rise in an hour, I feel in my old, aching bones that it shall not make an appearance today. It has been a winter full of grays and blacks, of biting winds and icy storms. It seems today will be yet another morning where I shall drag myself from the bed to the couch, the couch to the bed, and little more. Curse this wretched pandemic, and Monday mornings, too.
I change from my night pajamas to my work pajamas, head downstairs, open the back door, and retrieve a bottle of Chocolate Huel I’d previously buried in the snow. Unlike my civilized indoor refrigerator, my back stoop (nature’s refrigerator) is not stuffed with butter, bacon, and other foods I desperately miss only 15 minutes into this experiment. I know I will not survive if I mourn the past, so I shall accept my circumstances, look for the positives, and keep moving forward. Out of sight, out of mind, and into Huel!
I shake up my bottle, which has significantly thickened while buried in the snow, crack the cap, and take an apprehensive sip. It is... good? Not palatable, not passable—actually good. A bit on the grainy side, sure, but that’s to be expected from a beverage full of pulverized flax seeds and ground-up oats. With the next few sips I’m able to adjust my perspective, realizing that if I liken it to a chocolate chip milkshake, I find the texture rather pleasurable. I guzzle half the bottle before stopping myself, my brain reminding me that this is not in reality a milkshake, but a liquid meal with eight grams of insoluble fiber. I tell myself to nurse the bottle over the rest of the morning. I finish it by sunrise.
3:00 p.m.: I have just been made aware of the time not by my stomach, but by my children, who would like me and my laptop to vacate the couch so they can play Minecraft. How did it get so late? Why did my body not alert me when it was time for second breakfast, or first lunch? I know I should eat something, but the very idea of food makes me queasy. How fortunate there exists a liquid that’s also a nutritionally complete meal! I shake up two scoops of peanut butter powdered Huel with two cups of water, and end up with a container of thin, brown liquid with dense, slimy clumps. It seems that a winter of inactivity has made my arms too feeble for this sort of thing, and the Huel is mocking me.
I dump the contents of my glass into a plastic quart container, blitz it with an immersion blender, pop on a lid, and—remembering how well it worked for my pre-bottled shake—stuck it in the snow for about 20 minutes. These were brilliant decisions, transforming my muddy puddle of Huel into something luscious and satiating. And yet, what I’m drinking is plant-based powder mixed with tap water. How is this even possible? Dystopia is supposed to be a harsh, cruel place, and harsh, cruel places don’t serve tasty milkshakes (well, except for the Axiom starliner in WALL-E). My concept of reality is beginning to bend. Desperate for its 400 balanced calories and 17:40:40:3 alternative macro split, I pound my Huel, forgetting about the fiber.
7:00 p.m.: The name Huel is a portmanteau of “human” and “fuel;” not, as I had wrongfully assumed, “human gruel.” Huel is made of plants, not people, and I must keep reminding myself as dinner approaches, because I am excited about the prospect of eating solid (or at least more solid) food. Namely, this:
Huel Hot & Savory is a gentrified MRE. It comes packaged like dried cat food. When hydrated, it looks suspiciously like the food in The Matrix. None of these things should be held against it, because it’s not Huel’s fault that we burned down the rainforests and threw all that plastic into the oceans, thereby necessitating a low-waste alternative like Huel. We don’t get to set the restaurant on fire and give it a one-star review on Yelp.
Spiritually there’s not much of a difference between Huel Hot & Savory and Cup Noodles, but while the latter is a malnutritious sodium bomb in a styrofoam shell, Huel’s base is a dehydrated blend of brown rice, quinoa, and pea protein, which are then jazzed up with a variety of spices, legumes, dried vegetables, and medium-chain triglyceride powders. For my first dinner I chose two scoops of Thai Green Curry kibble mixed with one cup boiling water, and am shocked to be saying that once I added a generous pinch of salt, I genuinely loved it. Even more shocking: one bowl left me feeling totally satiated, and it was only 400 calories.
7:20 p.m.: Wait... only 400 calories, and I’m full? This seems like some sort of trap. At best, it’s a problem. I ordinarily follow a pie-heavy diet and needn’t worry about meeting my body’s daily caloric needs, but it seems important to pay attention to while I’m sticking to Huel, because I have no intention of starving myself. Between breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’ve only consumed 1,200 calories all day, and I’ve yet to be seduced by my refrigerator full of butter. Though I’m not hungry, I scarf down a 200-calorie Chocolate Huel Bar, which is chalky and disgusting. Can’t win ’em all, I suppose.
10:00 p.m.: I close my eyes to go to sleep, but am awoken by a terrible noise. There are... things happening inside my body. I pray it has nothing to do with dinner.
11:00 p.m.: Everything that was once inside of my body is now outside of my body.
10:00 a.m.: My guts are empty, my brain is foggy, and my body does not want food inside of it anymore. I manage to drink a half bottle of berry Huel, which I could certainly find nice things to say about if I wasn’t literally scared shitless of what it might do to me. I put the rest back into the snow and promise to circle back later.
12:00 p.m.: I’m hungry enough that I’m able to finish my berry shake, along with a coffee caramel Huel bar, which, much like the chocolate one, is terrible. The upside to this is that the bars are very small, and if they tasted good, I would be tempted to eat anywhere from one to six more of them. As it stands, finishing a single Huel bar feels like a feat, so... hooray for willpower?
3:00 p.m.: I’m still satiated from earlier, but I’m also a smarter woman than I was yesterday, and know I need to spread the fiber wealth out a bit. I mix a cup of water with one scoop of banana Huel powder, which miraculously tastes like actual fruit, not artificial banana flavoring. I decide make a shake with both banana and peanut butter Huel and bury it in the snow outside to age. I haven’t even reached the 48-hour mark, and already I’m calling plant-based nutrition shakes “dessert.” What am I becoming?
6:30 p.m.: Tonight’s dinner is “Mexican Chili,” which is thick enough to stand a spoon in, thanks to its generous amount of fiber-rich flaxseeds. There are some foods that, in spite of their flaws, can usually be salvaged with salt and hot sauce, and this is one of them. It’s a way to justify eating 1/2 cup of Cholula for dinner. It would probably be even better with some sliced avocado on top, but sadly we are currently on the brink of a human-made environmental disaster thanks to avocado farming. Guacamole is going straight to hell, and it’s taking all of us with it.
10:00 p.m.: I pat myself on the back for having the foresight to make “peanut butter banana pudding” for dessert, and for nailing Day Two of my experiment. I’ve consumed 1,600 calories at a steady pace throughout the day, and I feel fantastic. Tomorrow is going to be even better than today!
10:05 p.m.: Why did I eat so much hot sauce.
9:00 a.m.: Today I had the genius idea to mix my vanilla Huel shake with cold brew concentrate and was immediately awarded the Nobel Prize. My kids seem to be upset that I’m doing so well on my all-Huel diet; my husband believes they were hoping I’d have an epic meltdown they could film and post to YouTube. Sucks to be you, kids!
1:00 p.m.: After a morning of very serious food writing, I decide I need solid food for lunch and make myself a bowl of Spicy Indian Curry. It’s serviceable, and would probably be enjoyable if I stirred in some freshly chopped herbs or leftover cooked vegetables. I realize that I’m daydreaming of these things because I want to keep eating Huel, even though, come midnight, the experiment ends. Just weeks before this, I invented a pizza made entirely of stuffed crust. Now look at me, eating dehydrated quinoa from a bag and Googling “Is it possible to overdose on fiber?”
3:30 p.m.: I blend up another peanut butter banana Huel shake and begin lecturing my kids about the importance of good nutrition, because I am now an expert at it. My skin is glowing, my energy levels are soaring, and I feel vastly superior to everyone around me. Minus the gas, and this is everything I’ve ever wanted.
7:00 p.m.: I settle in to watch Jeopardy! with a bowl of Sweet & Sour Huel, and take time to reflect on my life during the commercial breaks. I had expected these past three days to be agonizing, full of pining away for cheese. And yet here I am, at the finale of my grand experiment, not feeling restricted or dissatisfied, the way so many gimmicky products can make one feel. There are no bizarre cravings or hunger pangs, and while I am looking forward to eating “real” food tomorrow, I could probably go another few days on this Huel-only diet if I wanted to. In fact, I intend to keep on Huelin’ when I’m not dining out, recipe testing, or eating excessive amounts of fast food in the name of journalism. But I will not be going through any more periods of consuming it exclusively; that’s just too limiting, and runs the risk of conflating food with fuel in all the worst ways. With Huel, I’m left feeling optimistic for the very first time about the alternative foods of the 21st century and beyond. If environmentally friendly gruel is low-key delicious, what other pleasant surprises might the future hold?