Huel hits heights
The British ‘food of the future’ is selling £14m a year
One in four British adults today is obese, which Julian Hearn, co-founder of powdered food maker Huel, blames on our easy access to unhealthy convenience food.
“Humans and their ancestors have, for most of our history anyway, not had a consistent source of food … but today, instead of eating only what we can find, we now eat what we want, when we want, with the only limiting factors time and money,” he says.
It’s around three years ago that the 46-year-old launched Huel, a brand you may recognise from Instagram posts featuring toned men and women in gym gear carrying a bottle of the powdered shake in one hand and a sweaty towel in the other.
But Huel, a portmanteau of “human fuel”, is touted as the “food of the future”. Nutritionally complete, convenient, affordable (it works out at around £2 per meal), with minimum impact on the environment and animals. It’s 100pc vegan, sourced sustainably and ethically, and – as users only use the amount of powder they need to consume, there is minimal food waste.
It comes either unflavoured or vanilla and is made up of oats, pea protein, ground flaxseed, brown rice protein, and various vitamins and minerals. There seems to be a market for it. After launching in 2015 last year turnover reached £14m. Hearn expects this figure to “double, or even treble” this financial year.
Celebrity endorsements from the likes of One Direction’s Niall Horan and professional skateboarder Matthew Pritchard, as well as from online fans known as “Huelers”, have helped push it into the spotlight.
While the “beige gloop”, as one taste tester described it, has been criticised for its lack of flavour, it is nonetheless growing in popularity. In the US, monthly sales surged by 140pc in the three months between December and February 2018, from $500,000 (£352,200) to $1.2m.
Serial entrepreneur Hearn founded Huel with sports nutritionist James Collier, after he received a windfall from the sale of promotionalcodes.co.uk, his discount codes website.
Their aim with the business was to take the convenience of protein shakes, which have become exceptionally popular over the past few years with gymgoers, and to make them more nutritional. Making the product environmentally friendly and vegan was also a priority, Hearn says.
While he isn’t a vegan himself, Hearn understands the impact of intensive farming for meat production, and acknowledges that it is “inefficient and inhumane”.
Despite America eating more meat than any other country in the world, around 120kg of meat per person per year, this has not had an impact on Huel’s stateside popularity. America’s obsession with convenience food means Huel’s shakes, which take less than a minute to make, fit the bill. The US market is so big that it’s expected to overtake the UK by June, Hearn says.
Britain-based Huel already has a US rival, but this doesn’t seem to have impacted the business. Soylent launched just before Huel did in 2015, and offers meal replacement drinks that meet all the nutritional requirements of an average adult.
Los Angeles-based software engineer Rob Rhinehart developed the product in 2013 as an alternative to fast food. The product was named in homage to Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel Make Room!
Make Room!, which explores the impact massive population growth could have on world resources.
While Soylent has faced some setbacks since it launched – last year traces of milk product were found in batches of one of its powders that was advertised as free of lactose and milk products – Huel, by comparison, is growing from strength to strength.
Hearn says its team of 38 people, most of whom are based at its headquarters in Aylesbury, where Hearn lives, will likely double by the end of the year, and its emergence into new markets will bring new opportunities. While the firm has already launched in Sweden and France this year, it is looking at expansion in the Netherlands, Italy and Spain next. The language barrier means each new market has to be entered in isolation, Hearn says, but thanks to Huel’s exclusive partnership with Amazon, it doesn’t have to rely on a big presence in each country in order to grow.
Could Huel be the food of the future? With a growing global population putting substantial pressure on the food supply chain, it might just be.
Julian Hearn, co-founder of powdered food maker Huel, has seen turnover jump to £14m as Instagram and word of mouth have popularised the ‘human fuel’, which has been touted as the ‘food of the future’