Food is so 2016. Eating, too.
In a world where you will soon be able to point your driverless car in the direction of your drive-through Starbucks, it was perhaps inevitable that someone would find a way of by-passing this whole, pesky ‘nourishing ourselves’ ritual that has wasted our collective time since cavemen started clubbing sabretooths.
Huel – human fuel – is the latest product aiming to reverse engineer that time-honoured biological process.
Put simply, Huel is a shake. It’s a shake you drink three times a day which will delivers you all the nutrients a human - even a vegan - requires to live and thrive.
If it all sounds a little like an idea dreamed up for Silicon Valley keyboard jockeys, unable to unglue themselves from their screens for more than the two minutes it takes to add grey powder to water and drink, well, that’s because it was.
When Rob Rhinehart lived off Soylent – Huel’s philosophical predecessor – he did so to whip up a bit of storm. But his point was this: there was a time where if we wanted to get somewhere we walked. Then at some point we started riding around in horse-and-carts. Why shouldn’t a scientifically-engineered, nutritionally balanced food-replacement shake be food’s equivalent of driving a Lamborghini?
There are other, valid, reasons why Huel claims to be the food of the future. It offers a balanced diet, at a time when our nation has never been less healthy. It’s affordable – coming out at around £1.33 per ‘meal’. And, with Huel, no animals had to die to make sure your lunch tastes good.
But all of this requires an almost-pathological dismissal of the cultural, human process of eating. I eat, therefore I am, to paraphrase Descartes.
So I was somewhat surprised when I saw Herefordshire chef Holland Otik – one of the most irrepressibly human people you are likely to ever meet – was set to follow in Mr Rhinehart’s footsteps, and try to live off Huel.
Holland runs the four-weekly bao-fest that is the Secret Underground Dumpling Club, with her partner Joel. With guests sitting side-by-side on long tables, it’s a seemingly-endless feast of pork and sauce and steamed buns that would take down even the most-substantial sumo.
It’s a true celebration of food, and of eating. And so her decision to swap it all and dine like spaceman, was pretty intriguing.
She was kind enough to diarise the process. Here, in her own words, is how it went down.
I'm a chef and a lecturer. I have a nervous social disposition yet a need to be adored, which naturally I cope with by feeding people who I like – and feeding them well – until they keep coming back to me, even if they don't know why. A bit like that urban legend about the bloke who put nicotine patches on his sleeping girlfriend. But less morbid.
I run a pop-up restaurant, and I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm happy when my students turn up because maybe if they eat my food they'll like me more and do their essays... you see how this works? I feel at home in the kitchen, confident and assured, even zen at times. Food is my one pure true joy. So for January I'm giving it up.
I'm going full Huel – or as my friend Rhod has dubbed it in one of the rhyming verses of a country song he has written to commemorate my decision – pure Gruel. “The night is dark, the air is cool – Holland is out there, and she's living off Huel”, it's a contemporary classic in the making. (ed note: Scroll down to the bottom of this article for potential album artwork)
Huel is marketed as a nutritionally complete meal replacement program, they also throw in lots of other information about how it could potentially save the planet which I can totally get on board with, but mostly I'm in it 'for the laughs'.
Or am I? I will admit that trawling the forums and reading entries from, amongst other gems, a man who hadn't pooped in three days and was getting very cross (turns out that he didn't realise that he still had to drink water, and grumbled that if the water wasn't included in the macros “it should really say that on the packaging”) is fun. But I can't deny that the jiggling carrot of weight loss, and the frowning stick of my partner who realised I'd just spent £50 on 'space food' are also strong motivators. I have lots of lingering food intolerances which I never seem to be able to pinpoint, so my initial plan with Huel was to have a bit of a detox (yes I know that's not a real thing), but as is the nature of bizarre life choices, I made it into a joke to test the water with my friends, and now it has become a real joke which I am the butt of and I have about 4kg of powdered misery sitting in my house.
So, what's it like? Well, it's day one. I'm two Huels in. I'm counting liquid in Huels now. Going metric. My piss smells like sugar puffs and vanilla already, and I've been mocked by a bunch of art students (who still haven't finished their damned essays – maybe the food doesn't work after all) for chugging from my branded Huel beaker in a lecture (just wait until they see the t-shirt).
I'm filled with regret, and also with ground flax husks, but luckily have drunk enough water to poop.
I have realised one thing though; in the twenty minutes it has taken me to write this, no less than three people have asked me if I want something to eat/need anything from Asda/want fish and chips (I do, I do!) - and then been genuinely shocked when I declined. Am I such a glutton? In truth I would have normally said yes to every request and thought nothing of it.
I was also filled with relief at not having to have that unending conversation with my other half about what we're going to eat tonight.
Maybe the strong urge to gag whenever I so much as imagine the scent of Huel might be worth it.
I awoke to find that my hatred of Huel had minimised overnight. I even managed to open the bag and mix it up without any revulsion – my new plan was to mix it with some peanut butter and cinnamon (I don't care what anyone says, peanut butter IS a seasoning) and see how it fared. The answer is: much better. I got through at least half of it before the slightly gelatinous texture became noticeably disturbing.
I admit, I did eat one poached egg in the morning (so shoot me) as I was feeling pretty sorry for myself with a full morning of internal ultrasound tests ahead of me, and this certainly helped with the dread more than rocking up to the stirrups filled with dust/water emulsion would have. I was totally paranoid the entire time I was on the bed with a probe between my legs that I would be one of those people on the Huel forum who had bent the wrong way and emptied their bowels all over their work colleagues/neighbours dog/friends pencil case. I causally ask if Huel will shrink my ovarian cysts – the answer, medically speaking, is 'certainly not orally'. Damn.
By lunchtime I was having obscene cravings for food which I certainly didn't need – I'll say one thing for my oaty chum, I'm not hungry – but yet I just couldn't stop fantasising about, in order: salmon, one olive, tom yum soup, and tuna straight from a can. I did not cave, however, and downed the rest of the mornings Huel from the fridge (now the texture of the brain-blancmange which my mum made me for my seventh birthday).
By the evening I was feeling good, albeit dizzy, until my partner started cooking. The absolute tyrant was making dim sum. I'm sure he's trying to sabotage me so that we can discuss food shopping ad infinitum again - he's now taken to asking me 'what shall I have for dinner' so there goes that perk.
To my utter horror I could smell tom yum soup coming from the kitchen. Obviously I caved. It was delicious and worth it and I have zero guilt about cheating on my flaxen, frigid, nutritionally complete, mistress.
I was ready to give up this morning. Then, as ever, modern cowboy and all-round-anecdote-hunter Rhod offered to buy one of my bags of Huel from me, after I admitted I was googling 'Huel Black Market' - “You're talking to one” he said.
Thank GOD for that Welsh troubadour. A new verse shall be added to the country dirge – and better than anything, he's coming to stay so that I have someone to side-eye as I blend coffee into this trash in the desperate hope that the caffiene high will get me through drinking it.
I decided to hold off on the Huel until Rhod arrived, because I just couldn't face it, and ended up getting on with work, cleaning, getting a tattoo, learning a song on a harp, attaching a small harness to one of the cats and calling it Puppy, organising my computer folders – basically everything that's been on my to-do list for months but I haven't had anything decent enough to procrastinate about.
It's 9pm, Rhod still hasn't arrived, I still haven't eaten, the cat is still in a harness and I'm beginning to wonder if all of this is good for me.
I ate another egg. I am concerned that I feel guilty about this. Back on the Huel today – still no Rhod, bloody mountain folk... and they say a wizard is never late - well, I beg to differ.
I was feeling pretty upbeat in the morning. Partly because I've lost 4lbs in as many days, which actually might be a cause for concern.
The problem came when I had to start planning the menu for our pop-up restaurant: char siu bao, siu mai, sticky ribs - “I need to eat more pork products”, my partner says. Don't we all, Joel, don't we all. And with that the cravings began.
I can't say that I don't feel nutritionally satiated, in fact I'm probably more full of omega3 than I have ever been in my life (except that time my sister dared me to eat loads of cod liver oil tablets) – but there's something about fresh vegetables, you know, stuff that amazingly might still be clinging on to life even though it's been in your fridge for a week, and doesn't just look like the scrapings from around a bandsaw.
I think that what I really miss is the complexity of eating. The mere act of choosing what to fuel yourself with. It's a method of self-love which I completely underestimated the importance of.
I remember a friend telling me once that his aunt cooked for her family daily with a spice blend which reflected the mood of the household, and which was tailored to nourish them body and soul. I'm beginning to realise the value those rituals around eating and preparing food: that friend who used to have six sugars in their tea and cut down to one, but you still sneak an extra half a spoon in because you know they'll appreciate it; the way that you keep a stodgy potato until last on your plate, to use it as a mop for juice; the smell of bitter coffee and the rattling sound of a mocha on the stove which reminds you of the first morning you ever woke up in your now-lover's home.
Food is so much more than 'Human Fuel', although I always appreciate a witty product name. I think tomorrow will be my last day of this experiment, not because I'm a quitter, but because I want to cook for and eat with the people I adore again.
I've lost more weight – even with my digressions. I'm wondering if this is because my insides are distinctly... not right.
It's my last day of Huel, and my heart is really not in it, but an experiment is an experiment and I shall see it through. I sat down earlier to design some more menu items for the pop-up and thought over what I'd learned about texture and balance. I also spent a while considering what it means to try and eat only vegan, plant-based food, which is one of Huel's main selling points.
I hate the idea that it's so hard to find and cook plant-based food which hits all of the marks, that it's easier to drink sludge every day.
I thought about the vegan menu which I offer, and how it wasn't really all that it could be.
I got down to it, listing everything I missed whilst eating Huel, and within twenty minutes I had designed a vegan dish which I'm really proud of – something which would never have come about had I not restricted myself.
In short, eating liquid calories has been everything I expected: disgustingly repetitive, nearly impossible to enjoy, poop-inducing, isolating, and slimming.
But it's also been enlightening, like breaking up with someone and realising you've made a terrible mistake, and then seeing them out eating a delicious melty pizza which is better in bed than you were probably... so then you do Youtube workout videos and avoid pizza like the plague (because it hurt your feelings and also made you feel inadequate), but then one day you turn around and look at yourself and go 'hey, you know what, I'm going to make my OWN bread products and they'll be better than before'. Then you get fat again and you're still alone but at least your bowels are more predictable.
Farewell, Huel. I'll see the rest of your bag of delights when I run out of money the week before payday.
That’s it. If you haven’t discovered the county’s Best Kept Secret, check out the Secret Underground Dumpling’s FB page here, and book up for February. Unless you’ve switched to Huel.
The two shots at the top of the article were taken by the super-talented Emma Pugh - take a look at more of her stuff here.
And, as promised, if Rhod's country music Huel-inspired opus ever makes it to the shelves, this is what it may look like. (credit: Hollad Otik)