Then there’s Covid. According to industry analyst Michael Dent, ‘Since the pandemic people are aware of the fact that [disease] is obviously coming from animal agriculture… things like bird flu and SARS. There have been so many incidents with these kinds of things coming from high-intensity animal agriculture, the reputation of the meat industry isn’t good.’
Huel, by contrast, has eco credentials: as of 2019, its customers, by switching regular meals for Huel, wasted 900,000kg less food (its long shelf life means it’s far less likely to be thrown away) and created 240,000kg less plastic packaging waste. Plus it is, by design, sanitised, sterilised and clean – a world away from the bloody, dung-smeared business of raising animals. ‘People [now] understand animal-human contamination much better,’ Iñigo Charola, CEO of Biotech Foods in Spain, told me last year, as the pandemic raged. ‘Before it was a horror movie, science fiction, now it is real.’
Like Hearn, Charola, whose company aims to replace livestock by instead growing meat cells in a dish, claims to be unlocking the future of food: cleaner, cheaper, more sustainable, more ethical. Perhaps most significantly, though, it will be the product not of a barn, but a laboratory.
Tring may be an unlikely location from which to revolutionise what the planet eats, but Hearn is a local lad who left school with no qualifications and whose mates are still ‘roofers, builders, mainly. One is a dustman.’ He may be a canny internet operator who went from ‘digging holes in the road’ in his 20s to making millions in his 30s, with Mash Up Media, an online voucher code business, before setting up Huel, but playing the role of international food-tech kingpin? His mates at the pub wouldn’t wear it. ‘They’d take the piss.’
Food for the time-poor
Not that he isn’t evidently supremely focused, aware of what scholars regard as mega-trends in eating that Huel – which is considering a stock market float that could value it at as much as £1 billion – is capitalising upon. ‘It’s the most extreme techno-fix expression of broader trends that see people eating out of home more,’ says Dr Alexandra Sexton, research fellow specialising in food innovation at the University of Sheffield. ‘It claims to answer a lack of time among consumers and a lack of the ability to cook.’
Essentially, Dr Sexton says, we are losing our capacity to put meals together from scratch. Busier people, with less time, access to fresh ingredients, space and cooking equipment, she says, find it harder to prepare healthy meals at home. So rather than requiring us to assemble dishes from whole ingredients, Huel reduces ingredients to their component parts. ‘It’s called nutritionism: understanding foods through their constituent vitamins and nutrients rather than as a whole.’ And nutritionism is clearly big news.
‘People eat food multiple times a day, every day of their life. So it’s a huge, huge category,’ says Hearn, who acknowledges that floating the company ‘is an interesting option’ and would be worth more than £500 million to him if it happened at a £1 billion valuation. ‘Powder, in lots of ways, will always be the best [food] product – it’s arguably the cleanest; it’s got the longest shelf life and it’s the most convenient, the fastest to make. So it does feel like the future is incredibly bright.’
Is it? Who eats this stuff? Today, the answer, not surprisingly, is the hungry. Historically, however, it has been the starving. For nutritionism is rooted in postwar famine-relief products. Then too, aid agencies aimed to work out storable, long-lasting, just-add-water powders and pastes that could deliver what the body needed. It turns out that the concept that is now underpinning many Western lifestyles began as an emergency intervention for the emaciated.
‘All sorts of people use it,’ says Hearn. He talks of metropolitan hipsters at Google, of taxi drivers on shift, electricians on building sites, airline pilots – the rushed, the trendy, the fitness focused. Super-rational doctor friends of mine chug it back when pushed for time; at Heathrow, a vending machine sells it to fed-up queues who all too often wait for hours at baggage reclaim.
Even former Health Secretary Matt Hancock was seen swigging it during his recent tell-all appearance on a podcast with Dragons’ Den star Steven Bartlett (himself a Huel director).