The success of Soylent – another meal replacement brand described by one uncharitable observer as “only slightly more appealing than an IV bag” - has proved that sterile packaging and a utilitarian ‘food as fuel’ approach can co-exist pretty comfortably with trends towards whole foods and minimal processing in a culture bombarded with images of affluent couples preparing fabulous meals from meal kit companies on TV every evening, founder Julian Hearn told FoodNavigator-USA.
“It’s just a convenient healthy foodstuff. We over-index in 25-25-year-old males with job titles in tech, but we also have customers in their eighties, plus students, so it’s a real mix. It offers benefits for everyone."
Huel is a minimally processed product
And for critics that are suspicious of any ‘meal’ that comes in a packet, he noted: “Most foods have been optimized for taste, not nutrition.”
“We’re offering something better for when you don’t have time to cook,” added Hearn, who first came up with the concept in 2014, launched his product in the UK in June 2015, and has since sold more than six million meals in 55 countries.
Hearn also takes issue with the notion that Huel (‘human fuel’) is ‘highly processed': “Huel is a minimally processed product. The main ingredient is milled oats followed by pea protein, flaxseed and brown rice protein, then you’ve got sunflower oil and coconut and vitamin and mineral blend. There are no added preservatives and no added sugar.
“We use sucralose and stevia but we have an unsweetened, unflavored version for people that don’t want sweetness or want to add their own ingredients.”
Huel costs $2.36 for a 500-calorie meal. The company also offers bulk and subscription discounts, with costs starting at $1.95 per meal.
One meal (vanilla) contains 500 calories. Each one-cup-serving contains 37g protein, 9g fiber, 1 g sugar (and no added sugar), and 16g fat (most of which is polyunsaturated fat). The first ingredient is oats, followed by pea protein, flaxseed and brown rice protein. Delivery is free in the USA for all orders over $25. Delivery for orders under $25 is $5.
Ideal for breakfast and lunch during weekdays
As for usage occasions, as Soylent has also acknowledged, while Huel has been developed to provide an optimal balance of nutrients such that you could technically eat it all year around, most users aren’t going to ditch food as they know it, said Hearn.
Instead, they tend to consume it while traveling, at busy times, or for breakfast or lunch when they are busy, and alone (according to Hartman Group almost half of adult eating occasions are now solitary).
“The best use case is to use Huel to replace your most inconvenient meals when you’re away from the kitchen so maybe breakfast during the week or lunchtime,” added Hearn, a serial entrepreneur who has founded three businesses since 2008 after several years spent working in online marketing for leading UK supermarket brands including Tesco.com, Starbucks and Waitrose.
While many urbanites might have access to fresh prepared soups, salads, sandwiches or other healthy convenience foods at lunchtime, that’s not the case for everyone, he pointed out. “Maybe you work in a small office with no cafeteria, and the only thing outside is a burger van.”
While Huel is not marketed as a weight loss program, meanwhile, consuming it for a certain period is a good way to keep track of calories and nutrient intakes, while it is also very satiating, he added (the oat-based formula is high in protein and fiber and very low in sugar).
Ingredients, Huel vanilla: Oats, Pea Protein, Flaxseed, Brown Rice Protein, Vitamin & Mineral Blend (Dipotassium Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Calcium Carbonate, Magnesium Chloride, L-Choline Bitartrate, Sodium Chloride, Vitamin C (Ascorbic Acid), Lycopene, Vitamin E (as DL-Alpha Tocopheryl Acetate), Menaquinone-7, Vitamin A (as Retinol Palmitate), Niacin (as Niacinamide), Vitamin D2 (Ergocalciferol), Potassium Iodide, Pantothenic Acid (as Calcium-DPantothenate), Chromium Chloride, Vitamin K1, Vitamin B6 (as Pyridoxine Hydrochloride), Vitamin B2 (Riboflavin), L-Methylfolate Calcium, Vitamin B12 (as Cyanocobalamin), Biotin), Medium Chain Triglycerides (from coconut), Sunflower Oil Powder, Vanilla Flavor System (Artificial Vanilla Flavoring, Stevia, Sucralose) Acacia Gum, Guar Gum, Xanthan Gum.
So what’s the go-to-market strategy in the US?
The plan is to mirror what’s worked for the brand in the UK by focusing efforts on online sales, said Hearn, who has struck a deal with a co-packer in Canada to produce Huel for the US market.
“We are in some gyms and other outlets in the UK but the vast majority of sales are from our own website, and then some from Amazon. We want to keep the connection to our customers and handle the customer service. Buying Huel is not the same as buying a can of Coke, it’s a bit more involved and we want to keep that direct relationship."
Building an online community
He added: "Our forum [an online community of Huel fans] has been a fabulous resource for us. We also have a closed group on the forum that have given us feedback on products we've sent out before they hit the market - things like a strawberries and cream flavor we launched [in the UK] ahead of Wimbledon. We tested the bar for a long time with forums members before launching it.
"When we first launched the unflavored, unsweetened product for example, we took out the gums [to shorten and clean up the label] but people told us it was too thin and watery, so we added the same amount of gum that we use in the standard vanilla version and then people said it was too thick, so you can't please people all the time, but it's a great way to get feedback."
"We've also had a lot of feedback suggesting people are using Huel to help them manage their weight."
Product formats: ‘RTDs are more convenient but they are more expensive and they create more waste’
While Soylent now has ready-to-drink (RTD) products and bars (which have been temporarily removed from the market) as well as its flagship powdered product, Huel is initially focusing on a powder for the US market, said Hearn.
“We have a bar in the UK and we will consider ready to drink products and bars in the US in the future, but powders will always be the most cost effective and nutritionally perfect format because you don’t need binders and other things to hold ingredients together and keep things moist.
"RTDs are more convenient but they are more expensive and they create more waste.”
To date, Hearn has funded Huel entirely out of his own pocket (largely from the proceeds of a business he sold) and says it is already profitable: “We’ve been profitable from a pretty early stage.”