Monday, 17 August 2015


What is Huel?

"HUman fuEL: a nutritionally complete powdered food that contains all the protein, carbs, fats, vitamins and minerals your body needs."

So it is like that space food you dreamt of as a kid, the meal-in-a-pellet that would arrive at the same time as hover boots and teleporters. Well, only one of those has happened.

Huel comes as a powder. The easiest way to consume it is to mix it with water (though there are other options). We thought we'd buy some and get a few people to try it because many of the advantages below make sense to us.


  • Cuts down on food waste (up to 30% of all food in the UK is thrown away). Huel has a shelf life of over 1 year.
  • Makes it easy to take in the right amount of calories, which would help to curb the UK's obesity epidemic: 64% of adults are overweight or obese and obesity related conditions are on the increase.
  • Includes all the nutrients you need. "Huel provides at least 100% of the UK Government's Reference Nutrient Intakes and the European Union's Daily Recommended Amount."
  • Cruelty-free and suitable for vegetarians and vegans. "Huel contains no added sugar, no meat or animal products, no dairy, no soy, no eggs, making it suitable for those with even the most complex dietary requirements. Huel is made from real food. It contains a carefully chosen blend of vegan protein (rice and pea), oats, flaxseed, sunflower lecithin, MCT from coconut, and a vitamin and mineral blend."
  • Cuts down on packaging: a whole week's supply of Huel comes in two pouches, compared to all the packaging required if you purchased traditional food from the supermarket.
  • Saves time: it takes 2 minutes to mix a whole day's supply. Less washing up, less shopping, and no cooking.
  • Versatile: you don't have to have it as your only food. Just use it for one meal a day, or one meal a week, and eat traditional food the rest of the time. Some people have Huel when on their own, and normal food when in company so they can enjoy cooking or eating out with friends as usual.
  • Handy for when you don't have access to a kitchen (e.g. overnight stay in a hotel, travelling).
Most people expected to dislike it, but the reality proved different: they all really liked it. A mixture of the convenience and the surprisingly nice vanilla flavour helped win people over. It is possible to add things to flavour it, but so far none of the testers felt the need, because they liked it as it is. Still, for the future we're quite interested in adding flavours and seeing what the end result is: raspberry, coffee, or mango could be good ones to try.

One comment was that it definitely alters the way you think about food – as with people who fast, you really appreciate "normal" meals more than usual afterwards. It makes you appreciate food, rather than just shovelling it in mindlessly. That’s a good thing.

If you're interested, you can buy it here.

Amounts and calories
If you want to try it then this information might help. The basic theory is:
  • Eat more calories that your body uses, and you will gain weight. 
  • Eat less calories that your body uses and you will lose weight. 
Approximately 3500 calories equals 1 lb of fat. Therefore, eating a deficit of 500 calories per day should see you lose about 1lb of fat a week and vice versa.
  1. Calculate your required calorie intake for the day (based on whether you want to maintain or lose weight).
  2. Divide it by three – one portion for each of the three main daily meal segments (morning, afternoon, evening).
  3. Divide the number of calories you need for that part of the day by 4 to find how many grams of Huel would be an equivalent. (Huel has 402 calories per 100g, or 4 calories per gram.)
  4. [If you use their provided scoop: divide that by 38 to find how many scoops you need.] Though you could measure it accurately with scales or other implements. In a level scoop (38g) of Huel there is 152.76 cals. (100g = 402cal divided by 100 times by 38 = 152.76 cals),
It seemed like Huel had everything going for it. The one black mark is packaging. This is a topic we covered here and here. The ideal is make all packaging biodegradable or recyclable; the worst is composite materials like Tetrapak.

Unfortunately Huel's packaging didn't even say whether it was recyclable. This is a big oversight - all packaging should be labelled with details of how it should be disposed of so customers don't have to follow it up with questions... Upon further investigation it was found to be that composite material so favoured in the food industry right now. Unfortunately composite laminate is the worst kind of packaging, environmentally. The companies making this kind of product alter what the term recycling means in order to try and claim it is recyclable – but it is only recyclable in a less-good way.

What I mean is that most basic resources which are recyclable can (with relatively little energy and processing) be turned back into the base material. So glass can be melted down to make new bottle and jars; tins can be melted to make new tins and so on. The problem with composite materials like this is that there is no way to separate out the separate materials again (usually layers of paper, foils and plastics); or, if it is possible, it requires specialised processing plants and massive use of chemicals and energy which would not only be environmentally bad, but which isn’t economically viable. So, instead, they give up on separating out base materials, grind the whole thing into pellets, and try to make other products from the pellets. It depends on there being a market for the pellets (it fluctuates wildly) and is more a form of re-use than recycling, because a pure form of the latter (reclaiming the base components, which is the aim of recycling) is impossible. Even the grinding into pellets is a specialised form of processing – often companies like Tetrapak have to part-fund collections from local councils to specialised factories (sometimes abroad), because it isn’t true recycling, or straightforward. Anything made from the pellets is not recyclable, because it is also composite, and therefore goes into landfill.

Composite packaging companies try to hide this. For example in this presentation they try to poo-poo the idea of packaging that is biodegradable – they even try to argue that paper and cardboard are not. They then give one scenario which only applies in some cases, which is disingenuous of them, but quite common amongst companies which make environmentally-harmful packaging. Basically I add paper and cardboard to my compost. It breaks down quickly and is fully biodegradable. They can also go in with food waste, collected from the doorstep –  again, this is biodegraded and turned into compost. It’s a lie to claim that it all goes in to landfill – this kind of material is easily biodegraded/composted; and when that doesn’t happen it is usually recycled. Even the small proportion going into landfill would still biodegrade, just slower than normal (and it can be years before a landfill site is covered over, by which time the cardboard etc has fully biodegraded!)

Nowadays we have biofoils/bioplastics which can be used as food packaging and are 100% biodegradable/compostable. The other good option is single-material packaging (e.g. foil, plastic, cardboard, paper – but only one, not mixed, unless one is a sleeve/envelope enclosing the other, unattached, and they can be separated easily for recycling). Most of the claims that base materials aren’t good for storing food are the results of “research” funded by companies that make the environmentally-harmful composite materials; i.e. it is biased and the full research is normally kept commercial, with only select bits used as “evidence”. The truth is that for a dried food it isn’t necessary to use these composite packaging materials. Shelf-life might be slightly less, but still long enough. Certainly, given a choice, I’d rather be kind to the environment and have a 6-9 month shelf life than destroy it for a few extra months.

The idea of Huel is a good one, and could contribute a lot, but if it is solely packaged in environmentally-harmful packaging then it undercuts its own message, compared to exemplar companies such as Seed and Bean, which got a perfect score from Ethical Consumer. That page mentions some of the properties of the biofilm packaging they use (moisture barrier, gas barrier, heat resistant, yet compostable). The kind of good packaging made by companies like NatureFlex which do bags for muesli etc.

I've not gone on about the packaging to have a go at Huel, but as an opportunity to talk about composite materials and why society should be shunning them. Huel should certainly label their packaging, and should switch to something biodegradable or properly recyclable rather than something you're meant to just throw in the bin. Then they'd get a 100% score for being a flawless, green, and exciting product.

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