Today feels like the perfect storm of work. You’re in back-to-back meetings (some of which are frustratingly double-booked), you’re up against a major production deadline and you still need to complete that report for that big client who seems like they’re waffling on a proposal.
Lunch? Just not a priority. You have so much on your plate that you just don’t have time to put anything on your plate.
Enter the meal replacement.
Now, you may have heard that Soylent, a popular meal replacement product, has been pulled off of shelves in Canada after failing to meet the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s requirements. While they’re reportedly working with the CFIA to fix the issues (no details have been officially released about what, exactly, the specific issues are), it’s left many busy people hungry.
So while you’re waiting for your next meal, let’s take a look at what, exactly, meal replacements are, and how they’re changing the idea of food as we know it.
From magic pills to milkshakes
The CFIA defines meal replacements as “a formulated food that, by itself, can replace one or more daily meals.”
BBC’s Matt Novak traces the roots of the meal replacement dream to the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. And it wasn’t a question of science fiction, but one of politics. It’s a great read, so check it out for yourself… but bear with me as I brutally summarize it here.
To hype up the World’s Fair, the American Press Association asked writers to create a vision of what life might look like in 100 years. American suffragette Mary Elizabeth Lease offered a prediction in response: that science would allow us to take all the nutrients we need on a daily basis through a pill – thus freeing women up from their kitchen work.
The idea was mocked, but it stuck. Satirical books were written to dismiss women who didn’t love the idea of sitting in a kitchen for most of the day. Newspaper comics focused on that little magic pill as a way to lighten the struggles of hunger during the great depression. A full meal replacement was a crazy idea… but just crazy enough that it actually could work.
And it did work for astronauts, the first of whom notoriously ate their food out of tubes and pouches. Space was pretty popular in the 1960’s and 70’s. It’s no surprise that food pills, wafers, powders and gels became a staple in many works of science-fiction (including Soylent’s namesake Soylent Green, from Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room!).
So: women’s rights, the Great Depression, hunger, space and books. Cool!
Now, the meal-in-a-pill became a caricature of the future more than a reality. But the underlying idea survived. Meal replacements as we know them today – in bar, powder or liquid form – really took hold with dieters and body builders, as well as people with poor nutrition, medical issues, or low appetites.
(You’ll recognize names like Boost, Ensure, SlimFast, Vega, and Muscle Milk are a few of many brands available on shelves across Canada.)
Most manufacturers will say it’s cool to replace a meal or two here and there with their products, or regularly fill in for, say, breakfasts only… but Soylent was the first to market itself as something you can eat, every meal, every day, for the rest of your life, without horrible things happening to you as a result.
Feeding the tech sector
The popularity of total meal replacements like Soylent, Schmoylent, Schmilk, and People Chow in the tech sector has been well documented, although there are certainly fans across all walks of life.
The New York Times reports that “tech workers in particular have the ‘early-adopter personality’ that makes them open to trying the powder.” The Guardian writes, “It is a good fit: the tech industry likes efficiency so why not apply it to yourself, but nutritionally optimised for your lifestyle.”
Meal replacements even make a comic appearance in Artificial Superintelligence, an iOS game about an AI startup building the world’s first sentient supercomputer. “Have you heard of meal replacement slurry? It tastes awful, but you don’t waste time cooking real food!”
Since its May 2014 launch, Soylent and competitors quickly claimed their place among busy people as a time saver. Reddit fans raved about reclaiming time spent planning, shopping, preparing, or eating meals. No clean-up afterwards.
It’s also insanely easy to pop open a bottle and drink your lunch without needing to stop what you’re doing or making time in a busy schedule – though you may need to put up with your share of “liquid lunch” eye-rollers.
Even Elon Musk talks about the idea in a biography authored by Ashlee Vance. “If there was a way that I couldn’t eat so I could work more, I would not eat. I wish there was a way to get nutrients without sitting down for a meal,” he said.
So what’s the big deal?
The idea of getting all your nutrients through liquid meals makes some people excited, and others skeptical. Here’s a recap of the reasons why:
Probably the number one issue to pop up from total meal replacements entering the market: do they truly provide all the nutrition we need to survive – and thrive?
On the whole, manufacturers say they’re adhering to established nutritional guidelines and are a healthier option than, say, grabbing a pizza on the way home. Calories, proteins, vitamins and nutrients are precisely measured with advice from doctors and nutritionists so you know what you’re fueling up with.
But there’s a lot we don’t know about human nutrition. CNN reported on this last year, with nutrition experts questioning whether meal replacements are good for our gut bacteria and whether they do enough to stimulate the muscles in our gastrointestinal tract.
Canada throws out about $31 billion worth of food each year, much of it from supermarkets and our own homes, claims a report from Value Chain Management International Inc. In context, that’s higher than the GDP of the world’s 29 poorest countries put together. And think of all the other costs that go along with the actual waste itself: labour, energy, transport, disposal…
Meal replacements reduce the amount of food waste produced by those who use them with one caveat: as long as the containers are recycled appropriately.
Meal replacements save time. “But preparing a proper meal doesn’t need to take much time,” I hear you thinking (if you’re someone who isn’t on the meal replacement diet, that is). It’s true: there are lots of options for healthy food, with little waste, that can be made quickly. Preparing meals can also be fun, and a great way to form bonds with friends and family.
And if you’re not into shopping or meal planning – one of the draws of meal replacements – there are services like Amazon that deliver groceries, and Chef’s Table that deliver all your ingredients, pre-prepared; you just have to put it all together.
That said, you could easily spend half an hour in total prepping a day’s worth of quick meals. That fridge above? A month’s of food, stocked in 20 minutes – no clean-up necessary.
Taste and variety
Here’s one of the biggest pain points of meal replacements going mainstream: people get sick of eating the same thing over and over again. Between texture and flavour, what’s new and novel can get old really quick. This part varies person to person, of course – lots of “future food enthusiasts” on the Soylent subreddit say they don’t really care what they eat as long as they’re getting the nutrients they need, and have been using the product exclusively for years.
Consuming meal replacements has been likened to drinking pancake batter. Yes, they have a thick, sometimes gritty consistency. Yes, the flavours are limited, even if there are choices. But leave it to the innovators to come up with ways to dress it up, from mixing in fruits and flavours of their own, to using the bevvys in baking (Soylent cupcakes or waffles, anyone?).
Though, as they gain popularity, meal replacements are at least coming out with new flavours to… get ready for it… shake things up.
If you have a family that likes to sit down and enjoy a meal together, meal replacements probably aren’t something you’ll serve for dinner. That’s why you’ll find they’re popular among people who are replacing meals during the day – grabbing a bottle for breakfast as they’re leaving the house, or for lunch, which they’ll enjoy at their desk anyway. Your habits and the people around you make a difference.
Health and wellness
In addition to saving time on meals, meal replacement users often anecdotally report losing weight (if they’re overweight), gaining weight (if they’re underweight), and finding respite from complications from allergies or dietary restrictions. And people with stomach issues who otherwise have a hard time digesting food share stories of finally being able to eat with ease again.
There aren’t any scientific reports out about this stuff yet, so take this one with a grain of salt.
Some products are also marketed as a tool to help developing nations feed their people. It’s a good fit: the powders or shakes require little in the way of storage, preparation, or infrastructure, and they pack a nutritional punch. Now you can feel warm and fuzzy while you’re drinking your goo.
What you pay depends on whether you sign up for a subscription with most full meal replacements. But it’ll come to between, say, $2.50 and $5 per meal (obviously it varies between companies). Much cheaper than fast food options, but buying fresh and preparing your own food could still be a money saver.
One size fits all
Soylent offers just one mix for everybody, while Super Body Fuel offers product lines designed for different lifestyles (think athlete vs. regular Joe). Still, the idea of customizability is a little lacking as of now. While it may be easy to track your calorie and nutrient intake, it gets harder when it comes to finding what works best for you.
An industry with an appetite
Some people replace meals entirely, some replace breakfasts and lunches, and others fill in the odd skipped meal, or simply choose a meal replacement over an unhealthy fast food option. Maybe you’re just kind of wary out at the idea in general. That’s okay!
But let’s put some numbers behind those thoughts. Looking back to 2015, demand grew faster than supply could support, with waiting lists reaching six months before delivery, reported The New York Times. And the future looks good: the meal replacement industry will be worth about $12 billion USD by 2020, estimates RnR Market Research in its 2016 report.
How do you feel about meal replacements shaking up the way we think about eating? Let us know!