“Why overcomplicate nutrition?” Huel co-founder and CEO on market potential of complete meal replacements

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22 Jun 2018 --- “People overcomplicate nutrition; it’s not rocket science. For the lay consumer, getting your nutrition right needn’t be that hard.” This is according to nutritionist James Collier, co-founder of Huel, a meal replacement brand currently seeing huge growth in Europe and the US. Launched three years ago, the company is reportedly one the fastest growing companies in the UK, with revenues of over £14 million (US$18.6 million) in 2017.

The “nutritionally-complete” powder contains a blend of oats, pea protein, flaxseed, brown rice protein, MCTs from coconut, sunflower lecithin, vitamins and minerals, vanilla flavor and a sweetener. At a cost of US$2.35 per 500-calorie meal, Huel aims to provide nutritionally complete meals with all the essential vitamins, minerals, protein, fiber and healthy fats individuals need. 

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James McMaster, Huel CEO.

NutritionInsight spoke with James McMaster, Huel CEO, and James Collier, who founded Huel with Julian Hearn, about the brand’s audience, formulation challenges and the next steps.

At a time when consumers are becoming more mindful about what they are consuming and increasingly yearning for simple and easily-recognizable foods, the decision to launch a powder meal replacement may seem surprising. However, the co-founders note that Huel taps into a different huge trend: that of uber convenience. 

This trend spawned the strong success of concepts such as Soylent in the US, where food is primarily seen as fuel and sustenance that meets the needs of young time-starved consumers. The rise of these types of “nutritionally complete” powders means that plenty of opportunity exists for innovative brands that can help to close the nutrition gap with macro and micronutrient blends.

“The idea behind Huel was to create a powdered food you could live on. Some people enjoy junk food, but many people do not eat an optimal diet just out of convenience; we wanted to create a more healthy, convenient alternative,” Collier explains. 

“The majority of ‘Huelers’ will use the product once or twice a day, often during the working week,” McMaster says. “For most people, this offers a better nutritional profile than they would have eating some toast, cereal or high sugar juices. So, Huel is about tackling your most ‘inconvenient’ meal of the day – usually breakfast or lunch.”

The brand's mission is to make convenient, affordable food, but with minimal impact on the environment. Huel reduces food waste during production, with all the ingredients making it into the bag, and with a shelf life of 1 year, Huel hopes the cut unused produce or expired food to deal with at home.

“The world is moving towards becoming more convenient but the awareness people have of what they eat in terms of its impact on both the environment and their bodies is also growing. Huel hits the sweet spot of both those factors,” McMaster notes.

Interest in personalized nutrition has been occupying the industry for a while now, but both note that at the moment they see no need to offer products to different target audiences.

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James Collier, Nutritionist and Co-Founder of Huel.

“Although there are a number of people whose diet is completely based on Huel, this is not what it was designed for. Huel is designed to be convenient and to meet the requirements of all adults. If people are replacing one or two meals a day, plus the occasional snack, with Huel, [their requirements will be roughly the same, meaning there is no need to offer personalized or segmented products],” Collier states. “People overcomplicate nutrition; it’s not rocket science. For the lay consumer, getting your nutrition right needn’t be that hard. There’s a lot of information out there but [the rule of thumb] is that if you eat good food and have a regular, structured diet, you’ll be fine, and Huel can be a good part of this.”

Nutrionally complete
Huel’s formula is described as “nutritionally complete,” which means that the products meet the nutritional guidelines – at least – of the region in which they are sold. 

“With respect to European Huel, we meet the Nutrient Reference Values of all essential nutrients. However, to be nutritionally complete, we feel these guidelines might not be right: For certain ones – such as vitamin D, potassium, choline – we decided to go higher.”

“One of the key things that makes Huel stand out is the omega 3 to 6 ratio. Not enough people are consuming omega 3s and there is an overconsumption of omega 6s. Huel has a ratio of 1-to-1, which peer-reviewed evidence has shown is a desirable level,” says Collier.

“We constantly look at nutrition trends and new ingredient launches. Since launching Huel in Europe [three years ago], we have had a number of version changes; adding extra vitamins and minerals, such as vitamin K2, folate and B12, or changing the ratios,” he notes.

“Choline is a great example. In the US, it is part of the 27 essential vitamins and minerals, but it is not on the list in Europe. Americans – quite rightly – feel that as you can’t synthesize enough of this nutrient naturally, [supplementation] is really beneficial. This is why we have added it to Huel, whereas other formulas might not include it. We also use a natural form of folate called l-methylfolate calcium, as opposed to synthetic folic acid, which other brands use. l-methylfolate calcium has a higher bioavailability than synthetic folates.”

“Additionally, Huel has higher levels of vitamin C, not just for the sake of having more vitamin C but also because of its impact on other vitamins and minerals and on preventing anti-nutrients from impacting the formula,” Collier says.

Flavor formulations
As with many brands working with vegan protein, achieving an optimal flavor was a challenge.

Click to EnlargeWe use vegan proteins, notably brown rice protein and pea protein isolate, which have great amino acid profiles but are not the best tasting proteins out there. The challenging bit has been providing the right flavor components,” says James Collier. “We use some oils in our products, and improvements to a method of delivery of those oils whereby we could use a lower percentage of carriers would be helpful.” 

Following its launch in Europe, Huel became available in the US in 2017. The company’s range has been expanded with the “world’s first nutritionally complete” granola in January in the UK. 

Additionally, Huel has come up with more preblends – such as the recently launched coffee preblend – and two new flavors set to debut this summer.”

“We have a great range of flavors, but we are continuingly improving them. We’re working with flavor houses to get the optimal, natural flavor boost, which is an area we will continue looking into,” Collier says.

Part of the simplicity mindset of the brand is also reflected in the company’s approach to packaging. 

“We try to be very transparent as a brand,” says McMaster. “Our packaging is simple, which is the opposite of certain large food and beverage brands which people have lost trust in.”

“One of the things people like about Huel is that it is transparent and clean; the main ingredients are all natural, and we see ourselves as a very modern setup, and a poster child of clean labeling,” he concludes.

By Lucy Gunn

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