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111: Is Huel® Actually a Good Meal Option? We Ask a Nutritionist

Aug 09, 2022

There are plenty of ads promising quick, convenient meals that give you all the nutrition you need. Is there something to these new food replacement options? Or is it just a repackaging of the old shakes from the 90s? Mitch has been eating Huel® and has questions for nutritionist Thunder Jalili, Ph.D. about the “World’s No. 1 Complete Food.” His answers may surprise you.

Episode Transcript

This content was originally created for audio. Some elements such as tone, sound effects, and music can be hard to translate to text. As such, the following is a summary of the episode and has been edited for clarity. For the full experience, we encourage you to subscribe and listen— it's more fun that way.

Scot: Mitch mentioned that he was using a product named Huel to Troy, and Troy and I went, "What?" We had no idea what he was talking about.

Troy: No idea.

Scot: Yeah. And he explained it to us a little bit and then had some questions that we couldn't answer about it, so we thought, "Well, let's get our nutritionist Thunder Jalili on the show."

So this is "Who Cares About Men's Health," providing information, inspiration, and a different interpretation about men and men's health. We've got a good crew here. I love this crew. I love this crew right here. I provide the BS. My name is Scot Singpiel. He provides the MD. His name is Dr. Troy Madsen.

Troy: Thanks, Scot. We love you too.

Scot: And then we have Ph.D. Thunder Jalili. He knows so much about nutrition and how the body processes nutrition and does its nutrition thing. And I know I completely just undersold what you've spent your whole career doing, but let me just say Thunder is really smart about this stuff.

Thunder: That was a great introduction. I'll take it.

Scot: Okay. Yeah, you're great. And then we have Mitch.

Mitch: Hey.

Scot: He's a Hueligan, apparently, I've come to find out.

Mitch: Yeah. There's a t-shirt even that they sent me. It's a whole thing.

Scot: Yeah. So you ordered some of these Huel meal replacement products. Are they meal replacement products? What are they, Mitch?

Mitch: So you hear about them sometimes on podcasts, on some of the tech blogs that I read all the time. They were definitely invented by Silicon Valley tech bros for tech bros. All of the branding and everything is very, very much, "It is the world's number one complete food." It's not a meal replacement. It is a food.

And the kind of concept is that, "In this busy world that we're all in, you don't have time to think about your nutrition, your macros, what you're going to eat. So we have created a product that is a 'nutritionally complete meal' with an exact amount of calories, an exact perfect amount of," according to them, "macro distribution." It's vegetarian. There's supposed to be a ton of nutrients in it. It's all super foods. Who knows what's in it?

And it's okay. It's not the most delicious thing in the whole wide world, but it's okay. I don't know. I just was curious, how much of this is all hype to repackage the old SlimFast-style meal replacements of the '90s to today's tech culture? So I'm glad that we have Thunder on to kind of talk me through this.

Troy: Mitch, I'm curious. Do they market it as this is all you eat? Or you're on the go, you need a quick meal, you eat your Huel? Or is it just, "This is your food. This will sustain you and you will eat nothing else"?

Mitch: So there are a couple of brands out there that are not Huel that I have not tried that do market it as, "This is all you eat." You eat three shakes a day and you're perfect. All the nutrition your body needs. I couldn't really get behind that particular brand because the idea of just drinking a kind of earthy-tasting protein powder . . . It was like protein powder plus dirt plus a little bit of chocolate. Eating that three times a day, slurping that down was not my idea of a good time.

So the Huel and the reason I hopped on the Huel train was they have what is called their . . .

Scot: Is this your next t-shirt, the Huel Train?

Mitch: Choo-choo, all aboard.

Scot: He's in deep, guys. He's in deep. Intervention.

Mitch: Yes. But what I liked about the kind of marketing for the Huel is that they market it as, "This is a healthy lunch to have." They talk about how you can have their breakfast shake and their lunch and then have whatever you want for dinner. It's this idea of, "Don't go for fast food. Have this instead." And I appreciated that more than thinking I was joining some group of people who just don't like food anymore. I do like food. I don't know. I don't get it.

Troy: Well, I've got to tell you, Mitch, and I mentioned this to Scot off the air here, that I used to do a lot of cholesterol testing on people as part of a job I had. And this one guy, he was a tech guy, and I checked his numbers and I was blown away. I had never seen cholesterol numbers like he had. Crazy, crazy low LDL, crazy high HDL. I was like, "What do you eat?" He said, "Soylent. All I'll eat is Soylent." He said, "Totally on a Soylent diet." It was crazy.

Mitch: So he was doing the goop? He was doing the goop all day, and it was . . . Oh, my God.

Troy: Yeah. He was doing it all day, every day. That was all he ate. So he was not doing Huel like you're talking about it where it's like, "Hey, this is your healthy lunch and you can eat whatever you want for dinner." He was going all in. It sounds like some of these are marketing where it's just like, "24/7 this is all you eat." But the numbers were impressive. I will say that.

Mitch: That's crazy. Okay.

Thunder: That sounds like such a boring food culture.

Troy: It sounds horrendous, but . . .

Thunder: I know. It's like the Russian Gulag of eating.

Troy: Exactly. It's just like, "Eat your porridge."

Scot: I knew that Thunder was going to . . . Thunder is very pro-real food just because I think he enjoys the experience of eating real food.

Thunder: And it tastes good. You can make it taste good too. Isn't that a bonus?

Troy: I was going to say Thunder has already referred to me as the metronome of eating. These guys take it to a whole new level.

Thunder: That's right. You can set your watch by the way Troy eats.

Troy: That's right. But these guys, this was something else, the Soylent diet. And it sounds like probably some of these people that are doing Huel 24/7. That's a whole other level.

Scot: Thunder, what's your take on this? To me, my initial reaction is this probably is not good. I don't know. But then I hear what Troy just said. So what's your take?

Thunder: Like you guys, I am kind of a novice to the whole world of Huel and I tried to educate myself a little bit about it. I don't think they're doing anything new, as Mitch mentioned.

Over decades, there have always been food substitutes, meal substitutes, and they're always marketed with the same sort of thing. "You're too busy to make food, so eat this," or, "You want something healthy and you don't know how, eat this." etc.

So my take on it, this is probably not a terrible thing if you want to do it sometimes. I think, overall, the danger . . . I don't know if danger is the right word, but the problem with this sort of thing, in my opinion, is that it gets you really used to reaching for a convenience product to get your meal out of the way and move on to the next phase of the rat race.

I don't know. To me, it sounds restrictive. I've never tasted it, so I don't know if it's delicious or if it tastes like crappy camp food. But that's one of the things that I would wonder about. Would it get boring? I mean, you're all excited, you do it for a few weeks or a month, and then you're totally sick of eating all these lunches because you're rotating between the same five options.

I don't know, but maybe we'll find out because Mitchell is doing the experiment for us. So we'll get some information about it.

Troy: Along those lines, Thunder, too, I wonder . . . There probably are some beneficial health effects. I don't doubt that. I just wonder about the psychology of eating that way 24/7 and what the long-term effects of that are. Is it like being in the desert with just a small amount of water and then you get to the oasis and when you finally get a chance to drink water, you just overdo it and kill yourself? Do you just break down at some point and just go crazy and just eat tons of fast food? I don't know.

Thunder: Yeah, that's a great point. The health thing and then do you just totally go off the deep end because you can't take it anymore with the monotony?

I will say, regarding the health aspect of it, I'm split in my mindset of that. Just glancing at some of the ingredients and nutrition labels, it doesn't look like it's bad from a health standpoint at all. It's just that I wonder if you become reliant on it, does that prevent you from going out and seeking whole foods on your own? Do you get so used to the convenience that then the meals you do on your own tend not to be great because you've kind of fallen off the wagon of cooking and finding whole foods and going down the classic nutrition route?

Mitch: That's interesting because that was the big thing that I was wondering about. We talk a lot about whole foods. We talk a lot about they're the best possible version. But we've also said like, "Eh, if it's frozen, it's okay. It's still pretty nutritious." And this flash dried or whatever it is. It's 100% like camp food. It tastes . . .

Thunder: Yeah, freeze-dried

Mitch: . . . like camp food, but maybe a little bit better. I don't know. Maybe I'm just biased. But ultimately, is the processing or anything problematic for the foods that are in it, the ingredients? Is the nutritional value impacted by the way that it's formulated and shipped and packaged?

Thunder: I mean, the general answer is probably some, but it's hard to answer specifically without taking the ingredients in their natural state before they're freeze-dried or whatever and comparing them to the rehydrated version.

So we're going to guess that, yeah, there's going to be some degradation of some of the vitamins. But who knows exactly how much? Hopefully, you make it up with other parts of your diet as well, or maybe by just eating enough Huel that if the levels are lower, you eat enough volume to make up for it.

Scot: Hey, question for you Thunder. One of the things that you talked about one time was the food matrix that the nutrients reside in, and that makes a difference, right?

Thunder: It does make a difference, but this does seem to be like whole food. So I've got to give them credit for that. They're taking whole ingredients, not just powderized this or that. They're incorporating whole foods, which theoretically would address the food matrix issue.

Scot: All right. So, Mitch, I'm confused. I thought these were shakes.

Mitch: They do make shakes. That is an option you can have. I found them to be gross. That is a personal . . . That is not an official stance for this podcast or our organization. That is just a Mitch Sears opinion. Kind of gross.

Thunder: They taste like wallpaper paste.

Mitch: No, more like . . .

Scot: And that is a Thunder Jalili opinion. Not necessarily . . .

Mitch: Not the podcast.

Thunder: A completely uninformed opinion because I've never even tasted it.

Mitch: Sure. No, it's more along the lines of . . . Have you guys ever had the taste of pea-based protein powder? That weird veggie taste? You mix that with the smell of dirt and you mix it up with some almond milk and that's . . .

Thunder: My mouth is watering.

Scot: Again, why are you doing this?

Mitch: But I don't eat that. I eat the fancy hot and savory stuff. It's like a mac and cheese. And it's got quinoa-based noodles and a yeast-based cheese sauce, right? Or a Mexican chili that's full of lentils and beans and whatever. So it's 100% like the camp food you'd get at an REI or something like that, the kind of freeze-dried, rehydrate type stuff.

Scot: And do they amp up other nutritional stuff by adding additional things to it?

Mitch: That's what they say. They say they're able to increase the amount of plant-based protein. There are 27 vitamins and minerals. It's high in fiber because it's all lentil- and veggie-based.

Troy: Mitch, it sounds like you're going to do this.

Mitch: What? What am I doing? I just have it sometimes.

Troy: Are you doing Huel? I thought you were . . .

Mitch: I'm doing it.

Troy: I thought you were going all in on it. You're doing it. You're actively doing it.

Mitch: Oh, no. I am currently eating some Huel for lunches and I have another one that is some fancy oats that I have in the morning, high-protein oats. It's a similar concept. But it's not like I'm doing it every single day every, single meal.

Troy: Okay.

Mitch: I just mix it in there when I know I'm going to have a busy day or something like that. So I just do that rather than go get a gas station taquito.

Troy: Okay. So it's going to . . .

Thunder: The infamous roller food.

Troy: Yeah, it beats the alternative.

Scot: Yeah. I guess in comparison to that, it's pretty good stuff, right?

Troy: No, it really sounds like it is.

Thunder: In the application that Mitch is using, it's probably fine because he is not living off it. It's not the staple of his diet. Yeah, I don't really see any problem with it.

I think in the grand scheme of things, if you look across the spectrum of people that would be interested in this, maybe you'll get some people who want to make this their meal all the time. And that could have some issues.

I mean, for one, it's probably really expensive, and for two, it probably gets them away from exploring what they could get out of real foods and just gets them locked into this particular panel of meals.

And then as Troy was saying earlier, what if you just get to a point where you're like, "I can't take it anymore," and you just fall off the wagon and just will eat anything because you need a different taste?

Troy: And along those lines too, you mentioned cost, Thunder. Mitch, what are you finding in terms of how much you're paying for a meal?

Mitch: So it ends up being about $3 per meal.

Troy: That's pretty cheap.

Mitch: Maybe a touch more than that.

Scot: That's way cheap.

Mitch: So that's kind of more . . .

Troy: That's really cheap.

Mitch: Yes. They give you a bunch of bags. You have to order a certain amount, so there is a bit of an upfront cost. But yeah, for me to have just a couple of bags in the back, just on-hand, emergency replacement food, it's been nice. It's been nice to have that. I do worry that this feels processed. This feels like a trap. This feels like it's all snake oil or something like that. So I wanted to figure out.

Thunder: Technically, Mitch, it is processed because it's dehydrated and you have to reconstitute it.

Mitch: Yes. But is it killing the nutritional value? That kind of stuff.

Thunder: Yeah. And again, that's difficult to say. There's probably a little bit of a hit with the nutrients, with the vitamins and the phytochemicals, but it's impossible to say how much.

I have a couple of technical questions about the Huel. So you add water and you just throw it in the microwave. Is that how you prep these?

Mitch: Yeah. You put two scoops. They have these little special measuring scoops. If you want to get real technical about it, they give you the exact weight measurements, and then you put a couple of scoops of water, throw it in the microwave for two minutes.

Thunder: So how much food does this make? Are you full? Are you satiated from eating that?

Mitch: Yeah. It's a big bowl.

Thunder: Okay.

Troy: I'm just confused, Mitch. Yeah, I'm just trying to figure out what these meals are, because my initial thought when I heard about this, I thought of Soylent. With Soylent, you're just drinking soybeans. I mean, it's just like a soybean paste and that's what you're drinking.

It sounds like, though, here you're talking about different varieties. They are like camp food, but some have a pasta sort of consistency to it. Others are just protein drinks. So it sounds like there at least is some variety both in the texture and the flavor of it.

Mitch: Oh, yeah. And I think that's kind of what drew me to it. They've got chilis, they've got Cajun dishes, they've got curries, they've got a chicken and mushroom. And they always spell it a little different because there's no meat in any of their products. A tomato and herb. A sweet and sour if you're feeling like you need a little bit of takeout Asian-type food. It's a good mix. They're okay. They're all pretty okay.

Troy: Yeah. For me, for someone who's certainly not a nutritionist, the way you're doing it seems to make sense where you're using them to substitute certain meals. It's not like it's overly expensive. It sure beats some of the alternatives for fast food or quick meals.

And it sounds like, from what Thunder is saying, there's definite nutritional value there. It's not like the freeze-drying process is necessarily causing it to lose a lot of that. So it seems like a pretty good approach.

And talking about it and just looking at their website here, I'm actually intrigued and maybe this will make it into my food metronome. We'll see.

Mitch: Oh, sure.

Thunder: Hey, I'm looking at the offerings, the hot and savory offerings. There are nine. They're advertised on the website. And I think it'd be neat just to real quick look at some of these ingredients, because they do emphasize the whole food thing.

I'm looking at yellow coconut curry because I actually like coconut curry. So they have dried grains, which consist of brown rice and quinoa, pea proteins, flaxseed, coconut milk powder, raisins, desiccated coconut, which just means dried up coconut, yellow coconut curry. So these are all pretty much whole ingredients that you would use if you're making coconut curry.

And then at the end, they have all the other things they add to it to bump up the nutritional content. And what I mean by that is ascorbic acid, which is vitamin C, nicotinamide. Is that in cigarettes? Nicotine? No, that's actually a vitamin.

Troy: No, I don't think it's the same thing. Yeah, nicotine is in cigarettes, but I don't think nicotinamide makes it in there.

Thunder: But it's funny. People will look at ingredients and they have no idea what some of these are because we're not used to seeing these added to food. They have alpha-tocopherol, which is vitamin E, lutein, which is a carotenoid, a vitamin A derivative, calcium, zinc, retinol acetate. So you guys get the idea.

Troy: Interesting.

Thunder: They're basically putting a multivitamin in these products. And every one has basically elements of a multivitamin added to it.

Troy: Yeah, that's interesting to hear that because as I was scanning over it, I got the impression it's a lot of, like you said, whole foods and you're getting the nutrition from that. It sounds like it has that certain component, which is the bulk of it, but then they're adding a whole lot to it as well to get those vitamins in there.

Thunder: Yeah. That's good for the label.

Mitch: I was so sure that there was going to be an "Oh, Mitch, you're ruining everything" episode. This is awesome.

Scot: I'm actually a little surprised too. And this feels like it's becoming an ad for this product, which it certainly is not, right? I'm still skeptical. I don't know why. I find that to be interesting. It doesn't sound like it's expensive. I figured it would be. It sounds like it tastes okay. It sounds like Thunder is reading the label and he is like, "Yeah, this seems all right." Troy is all like, "If you're just using it as a once in a while meal replacement, that'd be fine."

Thunder: Yeah, and I think that's the take-home message. Once in a while meal replacement, this is okay. You could do a lot worse.

I think what Troy and I agree on is that you don't want this to be the foundation of your diet all the time because while you could get by strictly from a nutrition standpoint, I think you miss out on other things. You miss out on trying new foods, trying new sources of nutrients, and the element of extra nutrition you get from fresh things, farmer's market products and so forth. But as a once in a while meal supplement, I think go for it, Mitch.

Mitch: Cool.

Thunder: I can't even really ding them for too much sodium. That's the low hanging fruit. You always bash on frozen foods or processed foods. "Oh, it has too much sodium." It doesn't really have a lot of sodium either. Yeah, as far as meal replacements go, it doesn't look like it's bad.

Scot: All right, Mitch.

Thunder: For me, it would really come down to taste, if I can stomach it or not.

Scot: Why don't you invite us over for a Huel dinner and we could do some taste testing?

Troy: Yeah. Speaking of inviting people for meals, why don't you serve us up a Huel buffet? We can try all sorts of different Huels.

Scot: We could all sit down at the table and then you can get up and you could put it in the bowl and we can watch you use the specially designed scoop to put two scoops of water in your food and then put it in the microwave and you can bring it out. That'd be great.

Thunder: It could be like a bonding food preparation experience like we talk about except with powder.

Mitch: It just feels like a joke on some sci-fi show of some sort where it's like, "Oh, yes, let me reconstitute the meal."

Scot: Who knows? That may be the way of the future. So I think this episode was all about Mitch wanting permission that this is okay.

Troy: Yeah.

Mitch: Yeah, basically.

Scot: Am I getting it correct that you guys are giving him permission?

Thunder: Yes. Mitch, you have permission to have occasional Huel.

Scot: All right, Mitch. Permission granted.

Mitch: Yes.

Scot: Can we wrap up the episode?

Mitch: Absolutely.

Scot: Okay. Thank you for listening and thank you for caring about men's health.

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