Would You Replace Real Meals With Powdered Food?

Personal Health

Food: It's one of the few steady components of being a functioning human that should bring joy to each day, multiple times a day. But what if we cut out chewing for the sake of efficiency? Forget pancakes and bacon to lure you out of bed on a rough morning, the banh mi that will power you through your lunch break or the nostalgic home-cooked meal to wrap up a weekend. Protein powder has long been part of the smoothie-centric diet of fitness enthusiasts, but a growing movement to replace meals with powdered food may endanger cuisine's status as, you know, essential, for future work-centric generations.

Soylent, the powdered and liquid meal replacement invented by tech entrepreneurs in San Francisco circa 2012, has become both a status symbol and somewhat of a joke. In fact, Soylent admitted to making people ill with their poorly formulated meal replacements—specifically, in a bar that caused consumers to suffer from gastric distress—but the company is still in business, and plenty of similar liquid and powder meal replacements have emerged to compete in the food-less meal market.

Huel, for example, can potentially replace every single meal of the day, is shelf-stable for a year and is engineered to include 100 percent of the daily recommended vitamins and minerals a person needs, as suggested by the FDA. Customer feedback on Huel's website is (of course) overwhelmingly positive; comments note that happy customers have ostensibly budgeted better, lost weight, stressed less and saved time thanks to the liquid meal. But one Business Insider writer who tried a week-long Huel diet "missed real food terribly." A Guardian writer who endured a similar experiment felt like "an idiot" for replacing actual food with powdered replacements. Which, yeah, anyone who is accustomed to eating solid food for most meals a day would probably agree with.

So what is powdered food exactly? Sold by tub or pouch, Soylent powder is a dry combination of soy protein, canola oil, Isomaltulose and "vitamins and minerals" derived from vegan materials. What does that mean, exactly? Soylent is transparent on its site—which is more than can be said for countless food companies—about the less-than-traditional origins of its nutrients. Vitamin D, for example, is "produced industrially by exposing fungus to specific wavelengths of UVB radiation (light)." Sure.

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According to the Soylent website, Soylent Powder is "designed to provide complete nutrition with minimum effort. Just mix with water to create nutritionally complete meals that keep you satisfied for hours." (image: Rick Turoczy/Flickr)


Dinner is served. (image: AdamChandler86/Flickr)

In a world ever-leaning toward convenience and efficiency, those who aren't as food-obsessed may buy into the lure of the powdered meal—but is it even healthy? "In my opinion, there's nothing like the real deal," Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach Natalie Gaetani says about meal replacements. "Powdered meals or nutrients can definitely be part of your daily diet and possibly helpful, but eating real whole foods is the best way to get nutrients, fiber and earth energy!” As a millennial, Gaetani sees the lure of a convenient and fast powdered food but recommends only using a powdered meal replacement in a bind.

For hurried eaters in a pinch, Gaetani does have some go-to meals that require minimal assembly but actually consist of "healthy, whole foods." For example, a few handfuls of leafy greens, like arugula, topped with some canned tuna, sardines or salmon, avocado and a homemade dressing made from dijon mustard, lemon juice and olive oil takes a few minutes to prepare and is "loaded with protein," Gaetani says. Quinoa takes about 10 minutes to cook on a stovetop (or pre-cooked quinoa can be purchased inexpensively, and microwaved, or eaten at room temperature) and can be flavored and made more nutrient-rich with fresh vegetables, olives, cheeses and a lemon and olive oil dressing. Other easy hands-off meal ideas: Steamed sweet potatoes and kale or other veggies with beans.

For those just looking for a quick snack that's not, well, bottled, Gaetani recommends unsulfured dates and walnuts, apples or bananas with nut butter, crudite with hummus or an avocado drizzled with sea salt. Sure, having fresh ingredients at home or work takes more planning than stocking up on shelf-stable nutrients—though various delivery services, like Amazon Fresh or Boxed can auto-refill your fridge with regular deliveries. But the small amount of planning that goes into creating a balanced, healthful diet with actual flavor and texture seems worth it, no?

From a nutritional standpoint, powdered food could help someone get every element of their diet in order, but it's also a lazy substitute for learning about how to consume a balanced diet packed with proper nutrients.

"[Powdered meals] seem like they could be a good idea because everything is controlled in terms of the calories, portions, exact ingredients, et cetera… However, looking at this from another angle, we still don't know everything about how the body works, so it's very difficult to provide [bodies] with an exact food solution which fits every requirement,” says Rob Jackson, a personal trainer and precision nutrition certified coach based in London. “The body has evolved over thousands of years to extract nutrients from real food and that's what it's good at. Powdered alternatives often contain non-natural ingredients, which are manmade to increase shelf-life, taste or increase profits. As appealing as these powdered alternatives are, the safest way is to stick to a minimally processed, whole food diet."

Jackson, who is 35, also tried Huel, but found that he experienced uncomfortable bloating as a result—he knows some people swear it works well, which is another testament to the complicated and diverse ways our bodies work. There's no one-size-fits-all approach for diet, or exercise for that matter, and a single shake or dehydrated meal can't possibly suit the world’s population.

Speaking of the billions of eaters in the world, however, powdered food could potentially be broached as a solution to food insecurity and food waste. In 2015, a group of grad students developed FoPo (short for Food Powder, naturally), packaged powdered foods that could help feed people in disaster areas or underserved communities. The actual product, however, has yet to fully exist beyond the prototype.

In June 2017, a startup called NewFoodZ started crowdfunding for its mission to turn otherwise wasted food and aquaculture into dehydrated, edible food powders. The concepts are strong, ambitious, and in many ways, potentially lifesaving. But knowing that the world produces more than enough food to substantially feed the human (and animal!) population and knowing how unappealing powdered foods can be, it's hard to see dehydrated foods as an all-encompassing solution to hunger and food waste.

In all the arguments for eating powdered food—and if it gives you actual pleasure, by all means, do it—the strongest seems to be a lack of education or resources. If people learned how to create a healthy, balanced diet with foods that are regionally available (and perhaps supplemented by powdered or dehydrated foods, as necessary) and learned how to better use food scraps and allocate resources, future generations could be spared from choking down Soylent-like substitutes and enjoy actual meals and family recipes. Oh, and actually take a lunch break.

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