Huel CEO calls for mindset change: ‘Food should not be about taste the entire time’
Huel is a mission-based brand that was established four years ago. It produces a powdered food designed to meet all of your nutritional needs. It is based on plant-based materials including peas, rice and flax seed.
The first product Huel launched was a powder cup. “You pour it into a shaker, shake it up and drink it. It is generally consumed for breakfast or lunch,” chief executive James McMaster explained, although he added it can completely replace regular meals. “We are complete nutrition. Which basically means you can live off it.”
Emissions and plant-based eating
As a mission-based business, Huel wants to offer a solution to some of the big-picture issues facing the world today.
By offering a plant-based complete nutrition product, McMaster said the brand is able to offset some of the detrimental affects of animal production and tap into the growing trend for consumers to reduce their meat consumption.
“Burgers are fascinating – they are representative of the American dream. The average American has 4.4 burgers a week… The downside is burgers are bad for the world. Why? The key one is the environmental impact,” McMaster said.
Speaking at London Food Tech Week last month, he noted that it takes 3,000 litres of water to produce one burger. Cows, he continued, are the “biggest contributor” to greenhouse gas emissions.
Indeed, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), livestock accounts for 14.5% of all greenhouse gas emissions globally. Cattle alone are responsible for around 65% of this total.
“By the year 2050 we will be making more crops to feed animals than to feed ourselves,” McMaster stressed.
“The good thing, is that the world is changing. The number of people who are reducing their meat consumption in the past year is actually quite surprising. In the US, 26% of people are eating less meat now than they were a year ago… People are realising that they shouldn’t have so much meat… It is evolving very quickly.”
Population growth and food waste
Currently, 30% of all the food produced for human consumption is wasted. McMaster pointed to the demands of retailers who reject ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables that are not cosmetically appealing as one cause of this. However, he stressed, consumers also bare the weight of responsibility.
“We all do this. Regularly you will throw away stuff from your fridge that has gone off. Chilled food has this wonderful premium connotation [but] actually in some instances frozen food and shelf stable food is better for the world,” he explained.
In this context, Huel’s complete meal concept can be leveraged to help cut food waste because it is shelf stable, the chief executive believes.
It can also help develop a new paradigm to feed the growing population, he suggested. The global population is forecast to rise to around 10 billion people by 2050, up from seven billion people today.
The current food system is not fit for purpose and production cannot simply be ramped-up to feed more mouths. A new approach is necessary, McMaster argued.
“How are we going to feed all these people? If we do it in the same way as we do now, we are going to have more greenhouse gases, we are going to have more food waste.”
Taking on ‘fast food’ culture
McMaster said Huel is positioning itself to take on fast food. This sector is not only embedded in the current (failing) food system but also contributes to the global obesity pandemic, he suggested.
“A huge change that has got worse and worse as food has become more plentiful is the number of people who are overweight or obese has increased to 69%. That is a huge number,” he stressed.
Time-poor consumers are exercising less and turning to convenient meal solutions – frequently fast food. “Fast food has got bigger and bigger because of this lack of time. Fast food has grown but the problem is fast food is junk food. We think about the obesity crisis, that’s because we are rushing around, eating bad food that is making us fat. There is very little fast food that is actually good for you,” he claimed.
‘Food is fuel’
“We are buying food we love. It is entrenched in history. It is entrenched in culture," McMaster observed. But consuming too much of food that is high in salt, fat or sugar is not good for us. As such, society needs to re-think food culture.
“Traditionally, food is just fuel. If you don’t eat you die. Now food has become taste and enjoyment and fun. We have gone from one extreme for the other. There is a mindset change that is needed where food should not be about taste the entire time. There are occasions when through the day, during the week, you are rushing around and you haven’t got time to eat real food.”
Huel is designed as a healthy, sustainable, affordable option for these occasions. “We are here to make nutritionally good food that is convenient, affordable and low impact to animals and the environment,” McMaster said.
While McMaster conceded drinking your meal is “quite an out there thing to do” he stressed that “early adopters” are driving the growth of the business, which has now sole more than 40 million meals. McMaster expects this growth trajectory to continue.
“We are one of the fastest growing companies in the world in the food space,” he noted. “Huel saves time, money, there is no food waste, it is a shelf stable product. It is good for the world in that it’s not killing animals not creating greenhouse gases in the same way.
“The sugar and soft drinks market is worth $60bn globally for a product that is basically empty calories. How big could the complete food market be?”