Meal replacement beverages have been around since the 1950s, and demand from time-strapped consumers searching for nutritious meals adhering to their values is reinvigorating the market for the modern era.
James McMaster, CEO of Huel for the past two years, helped create a powdered meal replacement brand for time-poor people. The brand, founded in 2015, says it has seen 150% growth year over year and is on track to be valued at $1.25 billion within three years.
“I think the stars aligned at the same time,” Huel founder Julian Hearn told Food Dive. “Huel is a very simple, easy way to [eat] while also still benefiting your nutrition and saving you money in your wallet as well. I think all of those factors combined at the right moment and are what people are looking for.”
After only four years in business, the complete nutrition beverage announced it has sold 50 million meals worldwide. McMaster said the impressive sales figure is only half the news. The brand has been profitable right out of the gate and only experienced “very mild losses” because of the company’s method of operations.
Clearly, the company has tapped into a trend. Huel is now sold direct-to-consumer in 80 countries including the U.S., but it is far from the only player in the game. With Soylent, Slimfast, OWYN and Après already on shelves, the U.S. market is crowded. Hearn doesn't mind. He said it is beneficial to have more than one brand of products because it gives consumers confidence in the category.
Limited SKUs lead to large growth
The United States is the British brand’s second largest market, despite selling only a fraction of the products the company makes. Here, Huel only sells four flavors of the ready-to-drink and powdered beverages: unflavored, berry, vanilla and chocolate. Chocolate is a new addition to the lineup, first released in the United States several weeks ago. Already, McMaster said it has become the number one seller.
McMaster said the limited product offering in the United States is due to federal regulations, which require different formulations in order to be called “complete nutrition.” This label is based on the U.S. Dietary Guidelines and Recommended Daily Allowances, which includes 27 micronutrients — one more than the 26 required in the European Union.
Still, the products are fundamentally similar, McMaster said. In the United Kingdom, the company offers a wider range of drink flavors, a power bar and granola cereal. Though Huel plans to eventually bring the bars stateside, they are focused on powdered complete nutrition beverages for the time being. Part of the reason, explained McMaster, is to help re-educate consumers about what food can be. Huel considers its beverages to be food, plain and simple.
The desire to reframe consumers’ conversation around food also keeps Huel’s product range narrow. The powdered and ready-to-drink meal replacement beverages include plant-based ingredients like oats, pea protein, flaxseed, brown rice protein along with a vitamin and mineral blend. According to the company, these ingredients are all a person requires on a daily basis to ingest the recommended daily amount of protein, carbohydrates and fats.
All roads lead to snacking
At the same time, snacking is a rapidly growing segment of the food industry. Consumers who are limited for time look for multiple ways to get their nutrition on the go. Datassential estimates consumers eat about four to five snack foods a day instead of three sit down meals. As a result, the snack market — worth $89 billion in 2018 — is expected to have a compound annual growth rate of 6.83% between 2017 and 2021, according to Research and Markets.
While meal replacement competitor Soylent dove headfirst into the snack sector with Soylent Bridge and Soylent Squared snack bars, Huel has found a narrower focus on its four global product lines allows the company to engage more deeply with its consumer base and adjust products according to feedback. This approach, McMaster said, not only helps ensure the company operates profitably, but it also helps develop a better product that resonates with consumers.
Hearn said Huel doesn’t see itself competing directly with meal replacement drinks. Huel is in competition with the convenient and ready-to-go meals on supermarket shelves as well as fast food, he said. To stand out, Hearn said, “we’ve got an aesthetic and a product that people like.” It also helps, he said, that “we just focus on doing our own thing.”
"Huel is a very simple, easy way to do that while also still benefitting your nutrition and saving you money in your wallet as well. I think all of those factors combined at the right moment and are what people are looking for."
Huel’s “own thing” is its direct-to-consumer model, focusing on customer engagement and creating meal replacements that speak to those looking not only for complete nutrition but a vegan product with no added sugar, genetically modified ingredients or soy.
With such a pedigree, the brand is selling over 1.5 million meals per month and McMaster said the growth isn’t slowing down. That is not because Hueligans, as they are known on social media, are replacing all their meals every day with these drinks.
"We’re not saying, 'Stop eating,' ” said McMaster. The company's idea is simply to replace a meal or two several times a week when life demands too much and people are not able to slow down and cook.
This approach has broadened Huel's appeal to the mainstream. McMaster said Huel's customers are firefighters and doctors working shift jobs, photographers who spend the day at a shoot, and college students looking for an affordable way to eat a meal on the go.
As for those who say meal replacements are not a healthy way to get nutrition long-term, McMaster said “on the majority of occasions, [Huel] is way better than whatever you’ve been consuming.”
The company's products, he said, were formulated with a team of nutritionists and are marketed to consumers who would otherwise be consuming a “nutritionally negative” meal like fast food.
Although the product is newer in the United States, the company expects it will eventually become its primary market. Huel is not necessarily looking to partner with a more traditional CPG company to expand its supply chains and distribution, although McMaster said, “It’s something, of course, we would consider if it would help us in the future.”
The future for meal replacement drinks is anyone’s guess. Like SlimFast faded out of fashion in the early 2000s, the replacement shakes of today could follow a similar trajectory. That is, however, why Huel is committed to competing not as ready-to-drink nutrition, but as food.
“We’re food but we’re better for you, better for the world, save you money, so it would be a no brainer that there would continue to be a market,” McMaster said.