Food of the future

What became of the dream of a meal in a pill? Bee Wilson traces the strange legacies of the meal replacement, from early feminist fantasy to contemporary Silicon Valley reality

Tank _autumn 2016_46Photograph by Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie

“What will the man of the future eat?” asked the American journalist Henry J.W. Dam in McClure’s magazine in 1894. Dam had been to Paris to interview the French chemist Marcellin Berthelot, who was then considered a prophet of future food. Berthelot’s prediction was that eating was about to go high tech. Sitting in a small, dark study in the Institute of France, Berthelot told Dam that it would soon be possible to generate “artificial beefsteaks” and other factory-engineered forms of nutrition. This new food, predicted Berthelot, would “be a tablet of any colour and shape that is desired”. Berthelot was not the only one in the late-19th century to dream of replacing breakfast, lunch and dinner with tablets, pellets or lozenges. In the 1880s, another chemist called Arthur Hill Hassall set up a Pure Food Company selling “meat lozenges” and solidified “beef tea”. Back then, beefy pills looked like the future. 

These Victorian chemists were wrong on the details, but right about the general concept. Meal replacements are now everywhere, from protein bars to SlimFast to liquidised “on the go” breakfast cereals (leading Australian brand UP&GO claims to offer the protein and calcium of a bowl of cereal in a single handy drink). Today’s advocates of universal meal replacements such as Soylent or Huel (the British equivalent) usually take them in the form of a thick, slurry-like vegetarian drink rather than artificial meat tablets. But Berthelot was prescient in seeing that in a scientific age, evermore people would want to dispense with the messy and inefficient business of meals in favour of something more utilitarian and flavourless. The dream of the “meal-in-a-pill” has become a daily routine for thousands. 

“He won’t go out to restaurants with me,” sighed a twenty-something woman who I met recently after giving a talk in Seattle. She was despondent that her boyfriend refused to share her great love of food with her. In their relationship, there was no staring at each other across a candlelit table, no swapping spoonfuls of dessert, no grocery shopping for interesting new ingredients. In place of all this mutual joy, he just ate “sports bars” whenever he got hungry, feeling no need to share. He was a gym fanatic and claimed that the bars gave him all the nutrients his body needed. What he got from these bars was better than what she got from food, he insisted; more streamlined. “At least he’s healthy, I guess,” she said, not sounding very convinced. She looked sad and asked me if I thought he would ever change. She reminded me of a parent whose child won’t try anything green. 

When someone eats nothing but pizza and Cheestrings, we call them a picky eater. Yet when someone builds their life around modern meal replacements, we are supposed to believe that they are doing something superior to the drab old business that the rest of us indulge in whenever we sit at a table with knives and forks and conversation. In this time-obsessed, screen-fixated age, these people are carving out more minutes and hours to spend on useful stuff like email, social media and ordering more possessions online. They are the winners, who sip their portion of slurry and get on with the day. We, with our dirty chopping boards and endless rush to get unreliable ingredients ready in time for dinner, are the losers. What are we thinking, using our lunch break for actual lunch? 

In utopian fiction of the late-19th century, the meal-in-a-pill was a feminist concept. In Mizora, a serial published in theCincinnati Commercial in 1880-1881, Mary E. Bradley Lane envisaged an all-female society where the women ate artificial meat and cream. This was an alternate reality to the real world where women were tied to the kitchen. In 1887, American novelist Anna Dodd published a satire called The Republic of the Future. In it, she imagined food tablets being delivered by pneumatic tubes to dwellings that contained no kitchen. “When the last pie was made into the first pellet,” she wrote, “women’s true freedom began.” 

Today, the meal replacement has different, more individualist connotations. It is not about liberating women from cooking meals, but freeing young men from eating them. Huel – which costs around £4.83 per person for a day’s supply – is not something you buy to save someone else the trouble of cooking. Rather, it is an extreme form of self-care, for individuals, not households. Many Huel users claim it has transformed their health, helping them either to lose weight or to gain it, giving them more energy to exercise, clearing up their skin. Based on testimonials, users are preponderantly young, single men interested in a more scientific way of eating. Huel – devised by dietician James Collier – is made from oats, pea protein, rice protein, flaxseed, coconut, a few other things and vanilla flavouring. It boasts that it contains, “all the proteins, carbs and fats you need”. This is something to “take”, like you would a vitamin pill, rather than something to savour, like a ripe peach or a bowlful of buttery egg noodles.

To me, the thought of going a day without food remains dystopian. Waking first thing, I am often in a state of mild panic: why didn’t the alarm go off sooner; how will I make inroads on my to-do list; what do the children need for school today; and why did I not get it ready the night before? What calms me is the prospect of coffee and toast, and perhaps a pear: that reassuring music of the coffee grinder and the toaster, the warm, comforting smell that fills the kitchen. Food makes the panic dissipate.  

For people who drink meal replacements, on the other hand, food itself has clearly become the cause of panic. Maybe Soylent is a logical reaction to an age that can’t stop talking about food, with Instagram feeds devoted to cake, and restaurant meals photographed as if they were babies. For some people, the whole complexity of food – the ethics of green beans, the healthiness or otherwise of butter – is just too much. Soylent drinkers can opt out of all this.

“At least I won’t have to think about lunch,” said an elderly woman who was buying a bottle of Weetabix On The Go in the queue in front of me at Boots. “It’s one less thing, isn’t it?” Many of the customer testimonials on the Huel website describe it as something that can save you from the stresses of eating. Some say that it has stopped them from compulsive snacking because it keeps them full. A waiter writes that before he started having Huel, he would come out of work after his shift “and eat crap”. 

To contemplate the reasons a person would have for using meal replacements is to see how disappointing the experience of eating has become for many. I started to think about meal replacements differently when I came across a blog written by Dan Wang, a 24-year-old writer and editor based in the United States, though he has also lived in Canada and Germany. Wang drinks Soylent once a day and argues that the prejudice against meal replacements is misplaced. Unlike many users, he does not claim that Soylent has changed his life or made him healthier. He does not pretend it is even particularly satisfying. But neither, he points out, is most of the food for sale in the average Western city. 

“I challenge the doubters to declare that every meal they have is a plate of nutritious deliciousness, prepared simply, and enjoyed in the company of friends,” he writes on his blog. Wang himself started drinking Soylent over a year ago, to replace the meals, that would otherwise become “a hot dog in a cafeteria” – in other words, lunch. Soylent comes in two versions: “Version 1.3, which I’ll call cake-mix Soylent; and Version 1.4, which I’ll call burnt-sesame Soylent”. Wang marginally prefers the cake-mix version, although he does sometimes worry that he will one day find it too disgusting to swallow. 

For Wang, Soylent makes sense for modern life, not because it is something utopian and wonderful, but because the rest of the Western food supply is so dispiriting. “I spent the first seven years of my life in Kunming, Yunnan,” Wang tells me. He sees Kunming “as a food paradise: the broths, the rice noodles, the cold dishes, and especially the mushrooms, all delicious”. When he found himself studying at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, none of this deliciousness was available to him. His lunch options – the only ones he could afford on a student income, anyway – were “microwave meals and greasy hamburgers”. He still cooks tasty Chinese meals for himself in the evenings, but during the day, he finds Soylent a way to avoid wasting money on bad food. It appeals to his sense of frugality. But, he emails from San Francisco, “If cheap, nutritious, and delicious food were easily available, I would opt for it over Soylent every time.”

It says something sad about our food supply that not-eating can now seem like a better option than eating. For most of the 20th century, the idea of the meal-in-a-pill had space-age connotations. But astronauts themselves, it turns out, are not so keen on food in a tube. They yearn for comfort food. There was a notion – encouraged by those pouches of dehydrated Neapolitan space ice cream that you see in museum shops – that astronauts had different palates from earthbound humans. But these days, NASA space food consists of a menu of around 200 items, all designed to be as similar as possible to real food, only thermostabilised and vacuum packed. According to the US space agency, a favourite is fajitas, made from long-life tortillas, hot sauce, and various vacuum-packed meats. Another is shrimp cocktail. It reminds American astronauts in their lonely cabins of the tasty flavours and textures of home. 

The future never turns out quite as predicted. Spacemen crave the old-fashioned food of an actual kitchen: something to chew, to savour, to share around a table, to remind them that they are still human. Meanwhile, back on earth, many people no longer even aspire to such pleasures. With our screens to comfort us, we no longer need a stove. “My definition of Man is, ‘a cooking animal’,” wrote James Boswell in the late-18th century. Now, we are animals who neither cook nor necessarily eat. The idea of the meal-in-a-pill goes back a long way. But this is the first generation to test what happens to human society when meals are removed from the equation not due to famine or poverty – but rather because there are other things we care about more. § 

First Bite: How We Learn to Eat, published by Fourth Estate, is out now.