It is rare these days to find yourself in a face-off with your lunch. There is probably still the occasional adventure-seeker who, ten days deep into the Amazon, finds himself in hand-to-paw combat with a capybara. But it’s impossible to walk through the centre of any major city at midday without being proffered kimchi doughnuts or sambal scotch eggs or dozens of equally irresistible dining options. Yet there I was in my kitchen, looking at a flask of Huel, and wondering whether I could bring myself to drink it. In one light, it looked like slurry from a limestone quarry; in another, it resembled an attempt to make a smoothie out of sawdust. It stared back at me with the implacable greyness of a dissatisfied bureaucrat. I looked longingly at the fridge, even though I knew it only contained a parmesan rind, some wilting spring onions and six types of mustard.
Huel is a meal-replacement powder, compounded of pea protein, oats, flax seeds and millenarian fervour. Five hundred grams, mixed into a shake with water, provides you with all the fat, carbs and protein the average human needs, along with a dizzying complement of vitamins and minerals. Never again will you endure riboflavin deficiencies! Pantothenic acid deprivation is a thing of the past! (Watch out, though, for a molybdenum overdose, since each daily portion contains 473% of the recommended amount.)
These food substitutes are wildly popular among time-pressed millennials who regard food as fuel and their guts as offally combustion engines. You might think it incongruous that the very same people who swig meal replacements also swoon on Instagram over pictures of quintuple fried chicken and burgers sweating molten cheese. Appreciation for food is shallower than it seems, as evidenced by the improbable apotheosis of the avocado. Texturally, it combines the qualities of floor polish and baby food; its sole virtue appears to be a photogenic greenness. Most telling of all, it’s impossible to cook.
There has always been a chasm between what people want to eat and what they’re capable of preparing themselves. Meal replacements allow you to mask incompetence with virtue. One person I met drank Huel each day for lunch in order to save the environment. The slaughter of his first-born would probably help the environment too. Every muscular twitch ultimately contributes to the entropic catastrophe of the universe. In the end, we’ve all got to live a little. At least part of the reason that the planet is worth saving is so we can enjoy ourselves on it.
Having tried Huel’s vanilla flavour, I would rather the Earth were smothered in barbeque smoke than be forced to march on that powder. It was the single most noxious thing I’ve ever tasted. My mouth subjected to a saccharine outrage. It was as though Rodgers and Hammerstein had decided to liquidise their favourite things rather than set them to music, if only the raindrops were syrup, the warm woollen mittens had been spun out of candy floss and the brown paper package contained half a pound of Tate & Lyle’s finest. I was incapable of drinking more than one sip at a time and the only way to consume a reasonable quantity was to dilute it in gallons of water to almost homeopathic levels. A similar approach is required with Ambronite, which combines an awful sweetness with undertones of sodden kelp. “Choose to become a savage in a world of weakness,” exhorts the package. I’d back myself with a knife and fork anytime.
The original meal replacement is Soylent. Its name derives from the steaks of soy and lentil that feed the over-expanded and increasingly feral populace in the Malthusian dystopia depicted by Harry Harrison in his novel “Make Room! Make Room!” This is an odd choice of nomenclature, a bit like naming your new yacht Marie Celeste or your son Joseph Mengele. Soylent offers not just powders but pre-prepared drinks, including a caffeinated one called Coffiest, for those who struggle at breakfast time to alternate eating and drinking. “Great,” enthused one of my younger colleagues from the data department, “you don’t even need to mix it.” His eyes glowed at the thought of all those efficiency savings. The Soylent drink is utterly devoid of character. It is as inoffensive as a curate attending his first episcopal tea party, and it lingers with a similar determination. You can feel the heaviness in your gut for hours after you’ve drunk it. It sits in the pit of your stomach, like guilt.