Huel isn’t what people would normally define as food. At least not in the traditional sense. Functional to its core, the meal replacement company earns its keep through distilling the key nutritional values of foodstuffs into hyper-convenient consumables designed to provide everything a health-conscious individual might need on a daily basis.
Initially launched as a nutritionally balanced powder to be mixed with water, Huel has undergone regular expansion in terms of product portfolio since starting in 2014, including bars, drinks and granola.
Their initial recipe was a complex blend of proteins, carbs, fibres and fats, with the six main ingredients being pea, flaxseeds, brown rice, oats, coconut and sunflower. This was topped up with bespoke vitamin and mineral blends to provide desired amounts of all nutrients.
While traditional food development teams might not be able to take cues from a product specifically designed to replace the very foods they might be producing, Huel must still align themselves with current consumer demand to keep themselves on-trend. This is particularly important given the ongoing health and wellness boom in the UK, with their nutritional direction worth noting.
Speaking to Food Spark, co-founder James Collier outlines not only the company’s main directions in today’s nutritionally orientated climate, but also how the key changes to the latest Huel powder taps into the latest gut health and plant-based trends.
Paint it black
It was a busy end to 2019 for Collier and Huel, with their signature Huel Powder updated for the first time in two years with Huel v3.0 and the launch of Huel Black Edition - the first product to join their existing powder in their six-year history.
“Huel’s new formula is now made with all-natural flavours to improve the taste, while not compromising on nutrition,” Collier says. “Huel Black Edition, meanwhile, contains half the level of carbohydrate, 40g of plant-based protein and no artificial sweeteners, while still delivering a nutritionally complete meal.
“Indeed, the primary carb source in Huel Black Edition is tapioca flour and we’re also using this in v3.0 as we’ve found it helps to provide a more rounded texture.”
Gut health trends are driving multiple areas of food development, with sourdough and kefir just two of a number of products to benefit from increased exposure and interest. And the growth of gut health has not been lost on Huel, with v3.0 incorporating kombucha.
“Kombucha is popular and it also provides some B-vitamins and there have been claims that it’s been linked to gut health. We also include probiotics in Huel Powders and Huel naturally contains prebiotic fibers,” continues Collier.
“A healthy gut microbiome is important, not only for gut health, but has also been linked to immune health and cognitive function.”
Nutrition vs convenience
Convenience has, from day one, been a fundamental for Huel, with today’s time-poor consumer providing further springboard for their portfolio of products.
And Collier says that providing both nutrition and convenience in equal measure is something food companies are yet to crack.
“A lot of convenience food is low in nutritional value,” Collier claims. “Nutritious food which you cook at home is not convenient. We provide a solution to the two.
“Most food products aren't optimised for nutrition; Huel products are. Good nutrition should be the main purpose of food; taste or texture – whilst important – are secondary to this.
“Most people know this; they just don’t have access to the right foods. Putting a convenient, nutritious product in front of people that not only has the right levels of protein and carbs but also optimal levels of essential fats, fibre, vitamins, minerals and more, and that’s pleasant to consume is basically what people want.”
While Collier says taste is a secondary aspect when compared to nutrition, finding flavours is a complicated process at Huel HQ, with pea and brown rice - their two main proteins - tricky customers in the development room.
“Creating flavours is a complex process,” explains Collier. “Pea and brown rice proteins have strong flavour notes so finding a flavour that works can be challenging.
“Huel’s own product development team liaises with expert flavour houses who have state-of-the-art facilities to find the flavours that suit the complex Huel ingredient base.
“There are over 25,000 flavour molecules recorded in the flavour database that represent specific tastes and volatiles. Of these, 2,254 are derived from 936 natural ingredients.
“Understanding all of these and how they mix with each other takes a specific kind of expertise and years of experience. The flavour houses we work with have the very best flavour chemists with the right skill set to combine this knowledge with Huel’s base.”