The troubles with Huel started in December 2019, when the company tried to reinvent itself. It introduced a new "Huel Black Edition" powder, released a new website, modified the formula of its existing products to make them nutritionally inferior, added a shellfish allergy, changed its flavor boosts, and discontinued the original vanilla flavor. At the same time, many products went out of stock.
The blood test results and my experiences from the other articles should not be considered valid for the newer version of Huel, as it is likely that the inferior ingredients in the new version of Huel will have smaller benefits compared to what I posted.
I'll start with some discussion of Huel's new powder formula, because it's their core product. The major changes in the new formula were to change the sources of some vitamins and minerals to make them more "natural" and to replace some of the oats with tapioca flour.
Adding kelp to the powder formula
Of the vitamin changes, the most concerning is that the iodine is now sourced from kelp. Kelp in itself is not a major allergen, but it is processed on ships where shellfish is present. I experienced a severe reaction in 1990 when I ate clam chowder, and around 3-6% of the population also has shellfish allergies. Shellfish allergies are much more common than other severe food allergies, like peanut allergies (0.6%,) so Huel chose to risk one of the worst possible allergens in their product.
While Huel states in their announcements that their tests revealed undetectable levels of shellfish proteins in their recent batches, they cannot test every batch. If 1 in 1000 batches were to encounter trace amounts of shellfish contamination, that risk is too high for me and that other 3-6%. Most people would not undergo an elective surgery that has a 0.1% chance of death.
Huel did not claim that kelp is a superior source of iodine for clinical outcomes. Compared to a chemical produced in a laboratory, they only claimed that it is natural. Natural products are not intrinsically superior to artificial products, and the only scientifically proven fact about this substitution is that it brings the possibility of shellfish contamination with it.
What's most perplexing about this change is that since Huel claims they sold 50 million meals, that means they need to sell an additional 1.5 million to 3 million meals to people who would not have bought Huel otherwise, but who will now buy Huel solely because of the sourcing of this one nutrient from kelp.
Replacing oats with tapioca flour
In version 3.0 of the powder, Huel replaced oats with tapioca flour, an inferior source of nutrition. The change decreased the amount of fiber from 9g to 7.5g in a 400-calorie serving of the vanilla flavor, which means that someone who consumes 2000 calories of Huel in a day will lose 7.5g of fiber, a significant change.
More and more research is indicating that fiber consumption is one of the most significant, if not the most significant, factors affecting longevity and healthspan. While the US government recommends that people eat 30 grams of fiber, many sources state that 38 grams is the optimal amount (https://www.webmd.com/diet/guide/fiber- ... you-need#1.) Some sources state that long-lived people in Japan ate 100 grams of fiber per day with no problems for years. Therefore, while it's clear that eating too little fiber is problematic, it's unlikely that eating too much fiber results in bad outcomes.
The substitution of tapioca flour was ostensibly to improve taste, but the taste of the first version of Huel was perfect and has been declining from there. Huel makes no mention of nutritional benefits from tapioca, because there aren't any: https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/tapioca. As you can see, the article concludes:
Meanwhile, another article on the same site lists 9 benefits of consuming oats, with impressive headlines like preventing damage from LDL cholesterol and improving blood glucose control (https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/9- ... ts-oatmeal).Due to its lack of protein and nutrients, tapioca is nutritionally inferior to most grains and flours.
In fact, tapioca can be considered as "empty" calories. It provides energy with almost no essential nutrients.
While I can't speak to the company's beliefs myself, the page that lists the ingredients in Huel has pictures of the same six ingredients that have been pictured there since the company's founding. Tapioca receives a two-line mention with no image or claims of nutritional benefits:
And finally, if you're a person who doesn't want to eat so much fiber, then wouldn't it be a better choice to just drink less Huel? Almost all the science on longevity is suggesting that caloric restriction has few downsides and many people are overweight, so it's not like people will be harmed by not consuming this useless tapioca filler.
The Black Edition powder
Next, Huel introduced their "Black Edition" powder, which appears to be targeted at athletes. The Black Edition has an enormous amount of protein: 40% of the powder consists of protein, for a total of 200g per 2000 calories. While that sounds impressive, studies have shown that protein consumption beyond about 0.85g/lb/day does not provide any benefit to building muscle. If you're a bodybuilder attempting to gain muscle and eating 3000 calories per day, you would have to weigh more than 350 pounds for this amount of protein to be necessary. Other than Olympic champions, I doubt there are more than a few people in the entire world who have that much muscle mass, and if you weigh that much because you are obese, you should be dieting instead. All that excess protein is just being stored as fat.
Not only that, the Black Edition completely eliminates the oats from the formula and uses only tapioca for carbs, reducing the fiber content even further than the new "standard" powder already does. It's difficult to see who would actually benefit from the Black Edition. The standard powder provides enough protein for bodybuilding already, and bodybuilders who are looking for a simple protein supplement would be better off consuming whey isolate.
Most items out of stock
Even Huel's liquid drinks are out of stock, with only the chocolate (the least palatable flavor of the liquid, unsurprisingly) being available. As you can see in the image,
it's almost comical how all of their products are unavailable. They have eleven flavor packs, and the only two that are available are the same flavors offered in the powder. I figured that I could at least order some of the liquid vanilla Huel for bike rides when the weather starts to improve towards the end of April, and ended up buying Soylent instead.
Huel increased the price of its products by 10%. That would not have been a big deal to me, as I stated multiple times that they were charging too little for their product and I would have paid far more than what they were asking. However, I do have a problem with paying more to get less, which is exactly what happened when Huel cut corners in its version 3.0 powder by replacing the oats with tapioca.
I would have been glad to pay 25% more to retain the nutrition of the previous version, but I refuse to pay more for an inferior product.
Discontinuation of the original vanilla flavor
In previous posts, I explored whether Huel should pursue a Soylent-like strategy. Soylent sells an "original" flavor, which is very similar to the formula with which they started, and a number of other flavors that they add and sutract over time. Over time, their newer formulas have diverged significantly from the original flavor formula. For example, in their ready-to-drink version, oat fiber is used in the original flavor, while corn fiber is mixed in the strawberry and vanilla flavors. It's not just the flavor that remains the same, but many of the core ingredients as well.
Huel's original vanilla flavor fits with the product much better than their new vanilla flavor does. The new vanilla flavor clashes with the natural flavors of the ingredients. It is true that the new vanilla flavor tastes more like vanilla extract, but that doesn't mean it's better than the flavor that was called vanilla before.
Soylent recognized that many of their long-time customers had gotten used to drinking their product, and would continue doing so for life if they offered it. I would offer that Soylent's (and Huel's) long-time customers are also their highest-spending and most loyal customers, and have a much higher value than the average customer who buys only the newer flavors. Soylent recognized that retaining those customers would provide them with a revenue stream well into the future, regardless of whether they added or discontinued other flavors and products.
Poor customer service
After Huel released their new website, I submitted a ticket to the company asking for clarification on the shellfish allergy and whether there was any original vanilla flavor available. The ticket was submitted on December 18, and I finally received a reply on December 24.
I've only ever received replies from customer service from the same person - Dominique - and the replies only ever arrive on weekdays. Huel states on their website that they don't do business or ship on weekends. I work every day of the week, the Internet is open 24/7, and all the delivery companies now even deliver on Sundays. The world doesn't stop because the calendar says it's Saturday.
I've noticed that when we don't reply to a ticket for a few days, I look at customers' accounts and find that the stopped mining during that time. In our case, most of those customers tend to return after a reply, but there is no upfront investment in mining. With the purchase of a product, you are locked in until you run out. There are certainly many customers who bought alternatives to Huel in the week it took them to reply.
A corporation in crisis
While I'm not associated with the company, Huel seems to an outsider like a corporation in crisis.
In justifying their price increases, Huel commented that they have to support 100 employees. While I have no doubt that it is very difficult to create a complete food, it doesn't make sense to me that complete foods are 25 times more difficult than creating a mining pool that mines and pays out in hundreds of coins. How can we operate a business with $30m in revenue with four people while they need 25 times more employees? What, exactly, are the 100 people at Huel doing?
Huel likely hired too many people and, due to the labor shortage, found that wages were skyrocketing. They either didn't realize why their costs were so high, or decided not to cut costs, and ended up allocating their capital towards the wrong things. The people they hired were also in the wrong departments - there are probably too many people in product development (when they already had a good product) and too few people in customer service (when it takes six days to reply to a simple ticket.)
They probably recognized that they were not profitable, and decided they needed to bet it all on selling more. They created a new powder version, a Black Edition powder, bars, more flavor boosts, and on and on and on.
Those who watch "Shark Tank" and "The Profit" will notice that Lemonis and O'Leary, in particular, rail against companies that try to do everything. That's why we decided against moving into exchanges or staking - we want to improve our mining services. My guess is that Huel spent all its money on inventory of these new products, which is why the chocolate drink, the bars, and the version 3.0 powder is still available, but everything else is out of stock. While some lead time is required to produce a batch of food, that lead time is not three months, and points to Huel being insolvent or having dead inventory. They aren't earning enough profit to buy inventory in their existing products, which were obviously selling well because they got them to this point.
They have the wrong products in inventory, and have no way to earn money to buy the products that would sell. And the products aren't replaceable. I don't like chocolate ready to drink Huel, so I bought Soylent instead of Huel vanilla ready to drink, which was out of stock. I'm drinking the remaining Huel I have flavorless, because there is no banana, mocha, or chai in stock. And I'm not going to buy the version 3.0 Huel because it's a step back in nutrition.
Imagine if you walked into Best Buy and they only had LG TVs in stock, but there were no Samsungs or Vizios, and the shelves in the TV section were empty. And there were no cell phones at all, and only a few video games but no consoles. Not only would you go to Wal-Mart to see if they had more TVs, but in the future you might also go to Wal-Mart even after Best Buy was back in stock because you enjoyed the experience at Wal-Mart the first time. This is what is happening to people who read about Huel somewhere, visit and learn that a lot of products are out of stock, and try Soylent or Jimmy Joy or Bertrand instead.
Because Huel hired so many unnecessary people and alienated its core customers, they probably now have to turn to the "Silicon Valley model" of corporate governance: spend most of the time on planes asking investors to support a corporation that loses money, and to keep doing that until someone eventually buys out your shares, passing on the problem of actually earning profit to the next guys. I suspect that they have months left until they declare bankruptcy or change course; how can a company remain in business when they can't sell their key products for at least two months?
What I did
On December 25, I purchased 48 bags of the original vanilla Huel:
for about $1300 to give me time to figure out how to proceed.
I also figured that a side benefit of the purchase is that if the Wuhan Coronavirus is as deadly as it sounds that it is (15% of cases with outcome die - https://www.worldometers.info/coronavir ... rus-cases/), and if it is true that it can spread asymptomatically to kill millions of people, then I can just work from home and subsist on Huel for months, if necessary, until the danger passes.
Whether the virus becomes a catastrophe or not, I'll have eight months to come up with a new formula.
I'm disappointed in Huel because Huel seems to have followed in the footsteps of many earlier technology products. An example of this trend is Activeworlds, an exceptional 3D "virtual world" software that was most active around 2000. I spent a lot of time in Activeworlds until the company announced it was changing its focus. Now, instead of building complex objects with Activeworlds, we have Minecraft, where you use simple blocks.
One could argue that the Internet itself is an example of this sort of negative "evolution." In 2005, I published a blog, and so did many others. Blog posts included many words and detailed content. Now, instead of most online content being news articles and detailed blog posts, a significant percentage of that content has changed to people posting 280-character comments on twitter.
Video games used to be fun because they were challenging - those who spent a month trying to get past that Turbo level in Battletoads will acknowledge that. Now, many games are movies where you press a few buttons, fight some token battles, and never die. What was the last game you played where you had to look at a guide to get past a level?
And don't forget BitPay, a scourge of the cryptocurrency world. Five years ago, when one wanted to buy something with coins, the merchant would display a wallet address and you would send money to the address. Now, with many merchants having accepted BitPay's services, this method has been replaced by having to use a specific type of payment that is only supported by BitPay's (and a few other) wallets. I now purchase fewer things with coins than I did before, because I don't want or need the software they claim is necessary to make things easier to use.
There are some examples where this trend of making a product worse over time has not occurred - the dramatic increase in quality of "fast casual" restaurants is an example. But Huel is following in the trend of Activeworlds, blogs, and video games by making unnecessary changes to things that were already really good.
My next steps
As I mentioned above, the unavailability of products leads former customers to search for alternatives. Before Huel ran out of everything and introduced the shellfish allergy, I hadn't considered competitors. When I got fed up with Huel, I looked around for alternatives. I found that the market is largely divided into the cheapest possible foods like Soylent, and companies that stuff a lot of fruits and vegetables into a blender and hope that a combination of "superfoods" will lead to an excellent outcome.
The former companies aren't that great because while oats have a lot of research behind their benefits, there is no research showing that maltodextrin has the same benefits. Why not start with a base that has proven benefits?
The problem with the latter companies is that their drinks can cost $10 for a 500 calorie bottle, and there is no science to prove that a little bit of everything is good. It may in fact be true that many of the ingredients combine in harmful ways.
With version 1 of its powder, Huel was clear where they were positioned: much better than Soylent, and much cheaper than Bertrand. In its latest version announcement, Huel said that their goals were to add "natural" ingredients and to "improve texture," but because they made no mention of nutrition, it's obvious they have lost focus on making the best nutritionally possible meal.
That's unacceptable to me, so I'm going to create my own alternative. Once I run out of the bags of Huel I purchased, around August, I'm going to replicate the original Huel v1.0 formula with some key changes. The goal will be to create optimal nutrition at a reasonable cost, and that's it. I won't overly focus on veganism or taste, or add gimmicks like "natural" sourcing.
I'm going to replace the pea and rice protein with whey concentrate or isolate, as whey appears to have a superior amino acid profile to the plant-based proteins. I'll restore the amount of MCT oil to the original v1.0 formula, target the fiber to about 40g per day (perhaps with psyillium husks for a more diverse source), and try to replicate the original vanilla flavor, even if it requires using imitation vanilla extract. I'll get rid of the tapioca flour and see if it's possible to source vitamins without so much maltodextrin carrier as well.
I'll make another post in six months to let people know the formula once I've created it, and will update everyone on my health with the new formula. In the meantime, I recommend that people not purchase Huel - the company is not what it once was, and the products are getting worse with every iteration.