Food of the Future or Nutritional Nightmare?
It’s like something out of science fiction: a premeasured, packaged drink that purportedly contains all the essential nutrients needed for health. Easy to carry and consume anywhere, and with a high-protein macro balance, these meal replacement drinks are especially tempting for endurance athletes.
And with big names in fitness signing on to promote them, they’re enjoying increased visibility at the store, online, and at the gym. With no worries about planning, prepping, cooking, or monitoring nutritional balance, who wouldn’t sign up to give them a try?
Though “supplemental nutrition drinks” have been available for decades, they’ve been marketed primarily to seniors who have a hard time consuming regular foods or to crash dieters looking to shed a few pounds. New contenders make bold nutritional claims—the most audacious being that you can thrive on a diet of ready-to-drink meals and nothing else.
Do these products hold up to the hype? Are they a viable option for training runners and cyclists? And (perhaps most importantly) how do they taste? We put four of the biggest names to the test, and offer a DIY alternative.
Cost: $2.00 per serving
The original big daddy of this category, Soylent was developed by software engineer Rob Rhinehart in his quest for a product that would make the drudgery of meal planning and preparation obsolete. These days, Soylent is available in a powdered form (just add water and shake like crazy to mix) or a pre-mixed version in a range of four lightly sweetened flavors. Each serving includes 20 grams of protein (from soy protein isolate, which can trigger some sensitivities), soluble corn fiber, and a slate of vitamin and mineral supplements. The Mocha flavor also offers a caffeine boost from green tea extract.
“It’s very bland. The flavors all taste like nothing.”
“This tastes like something a tech-bro would invent.”
Cost: $2.50 per serving
Made from plant-based ingredients with no soy or added sugars, Huel prides itself on its “real food” ingredient list. Based on oats, coconut, and pea protein, Huel claims to contain all the nutrients essential for human life. Ready-to-drink vanilla and berry flavors offer added convenience, while the powdered form is shelf-stable for up to a year. A 100-gram serving (the equivalent of one solid food meal) contains 400 calories, 29 grams of protein, and 9 grams of fiber (about a third of your daily requirement).
“It’s OK. It reminds me of overnight oats.”
“I think this would be great with a little cocoa or peanut butter mixed in.”
[Note: That’s how lots of people prepare it!]
Super Body Fuel Athlete Fuel
Cost: $2.00 per serving
Athlete Fuel distinguishes itself from the pack with extra protein to meet endurance athletes’ and increased needs. It’s also gluten-free, soy-free, and vegan. As packaged, it’s dairy-free, but Athlete Fuel must be mixed with milk to prepare. (Not a lacto fan? Non-dairy milks like oat, rice, and almond are OK, too.) Use the included instructions to adjust the amount and type of milk used for the carb:fat:protein ratio you want. The ingredients read more like a chemistry manual than a grocery list, so you may want to look elsewhere if a “real food” drink is important to you.
“Isn’t this supposed to taste like cookie dough? This isn’t much like cookie dough.”
“This is fine if you make it very cold and drink it quick.”
Cost: $6.00 per serving
This “real food supermeal” comes in at a much higher price point than its competitors, but the creators claim its commitment to whole food plant-based ingredients make it worth the difference. Ambronite’s plant proteins include oats, almonds, nutritional yeast, and greens, balanced with fiber-rich prebiotic carbs. Berries, spirulina, and chlorella offer a phytonutrient boost, and it’s sweetened with apple and coconut sugar rather than the artificial sweeteners found in many other meal replacements.
“The banana flavor actually tastes like banana!”
“I wouldn’t mind having this a couple times a week when I’m in a hurry.”
The Nutritional Skinny: Though meal replacement drinks have their avid (even rabid) fans, dietitians are nearly universal in their skepticism. They point out that while these products may contain vitamin and mineral supplements, they generally lack the other all-important micronutrients found in regular food, from probiotics to flavonoids.
Since these products are designed to meet US RDAs for vitamins and minerals, they don’t accommodate the increased levels of calcium, potassium, and magnesium (among other minerals) that hardcore runners and cyclists need to maintain bone health and keep endurance high.
Additionally, liquids don’t trigger satiety (that “full” feeling) like solid foods do, meaning you’re likely to be left hungry and possibly in search of a snack. Chewing solid food serves a number of important functions, from signaling the brain that you’ve eaten to improving your oral health.
The Subscription Dilemma: Want to try before you buy? While ready-to-drink Soylent is available in convenience stores, the other products require you to buy a larger quantity at a time. All offer subscription deals that can cut the per-serving price, but run the risk of sticking you with a pantry full of powders you won’t use.
The Final Word: While it might sound tempting to replace all your nutritional needs with a scientifically perfected all-in-one product, that technology is still the stuff of science fiction. Liquid meal replacements can be a great choice for occasional on-the-go meals, or for refueling after a workout, but they’re not yet ready to be the only thing on the menu.
DIY: Overnight Yogurt Parfait
Got five minutes? Whip up a batch of these super-simple, grab-and-go smoothies. They hit all the nutritional buttons: high-protein and rich in fiber with just a touch of sweet. This quantity makes a single serving, but it’s easy to multiply for a bigger batch.
Whisk together in a mixing bowl:
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/2 cup unsweetened milk (dairy or dairy alternative)
2 tsp chia seeds or ground flax meal
1 tsp honey or maple syrup
Pinch each salt and ground cinnamon
Place half of mixture in an 8-ounce mason jar or other reusable container.
1/4 cup steel-cut oats
1/4 cup fresh or frozen fruit (raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, diced peaches…)
Top with remaining yogurt mixture. If desired, sprinkle with 1 Tbsp slivered almonds.
Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours or overnight. Stir or shake well before serving.