A Brief History of Meal Replacements

Posted by Julian hearn on

A complete meal replacement system in powdered form is thought of as a relatively recent development, but these type of foods have a surprisingly long history, all the way back to the eighteenth century. We take a brief look at the history of such meal replacements from their very first inception to the latest and most advanced product to hit the market, our very own Huel.

Pre Nineteenth Century - Pemmican

The eighteenth century saw the first development of what we would now call a meal replacement. Invented by the native Indians of North America, Pemmican was eventually utilised by European settlers who were involved in the fur trade, and then later by polar explorers, such as Roald Amundsen and ‘Scott of the Antarctic’. 

A high energy food, its ingredients consisted of whatever was available, but usually contained meat such as bison or elk, and a variety of fruit. The meat was cut thinly and dried until it was brittle, and then broken into a powder. This was then mixed with melted fat and mixed fruit, resulting into dense, nutritious balls. This mixture could last indefinitely and could provide vital nutrition in harsh environments. Many other indigenous peoples across the world had similar such foods, but it is Pemmican that is best known.

The 1920s - The idea of a meal replacement pill becomes popular

Long before the idea of a meal pill was popularised by TV science fiction, the idea of a meal pill had already taken hold in 1920s America. Matt Novak, in his Paleofuture blog talks of how although not in existence as such, the meal pill was something that was inevitable, and a number of stories and cartoons were published around this time featuring such products.

The 1960s - Tang and Space Food Sticks

With the advent of the space age, the move towards a tangible, efficient and nutritionally balanced form of food began to take place. The space program was the catalyst for this, with brands such as Tang advertising themselves as the ‘astronauts drink of choice’, a reference to the fact that it was taken on the Gemini space missions. Full of sugar and artificial dyes, flavours and thickeners, surprisingly it is still available today, mainly in emerging markets such as the Philippines and Mexico. 

Just three months after Tang was consumed by astronaut John Glenn, Space Food Cubes went into space on board Aurora 7 in 1962, which were then continually developed until they were released on public sale called Space Food Sticks. The forerunner to the modern day energy bars, they now only remain popular in Australia, where it is reported they are Olympic legend Ian Thorpe’s favourite snack.

The 1970s - Nutraloaf

The seventies saw the introduction of Nutraloaf, also known as Prison Loaf to the US Penal system. Similar in texture to meatloaf, it contains a variety of vegetables, meat, fruit and grains, baked into a solid loaf. Still to this day found in prisons across the USA, it is used as punishment. With a bland and unpleasant taste, it is served to prisoners who have broken prison rules.

It is argued that the Nutraloaf provides inmates with enough nutrition, although this is challenged by those people who disagree with its use.

The 1990s - Regulation of meal replacement products

A variety of products came to the market in the 1980s and 1990s, including products by companies such as Met-Rx. In 1996 however, the European Union decided that all such products needed to be regulated, and so the COMMISSION DIRECTIVE 96/8/EC of 26 February 1996 on foods intended for use in energy-restricted diets for weight reduction was born. It insisted that meal replacement products must provide a total number of calories between 200 and 400, with no than 30% of these coming from fat. This provides customers with a certain amount of protection in a market where many untrue and misleading claims were being made. To date, there exists no such legislation in the USA.

2000s - Various

Since the year 2000 various meal replacement products have appeared, all pre-date soylent. Here is a just a selection:

2013 - Soylent

The 21st century has seen a number of new meal replacement brands come onto the market, but not as many as interesting as Soylent. Developed a software engineer on and open source basis, Soylent claims to be perfectly nutritionally balanced, giving the body nothing more, nothing less than it needs. Soylent’s ingredients include maltodextrin, sucralose, Xanthan Gum and fish oil in certain types of the product. Financed by crowdfunding, it is a drink with a focus on function rather than taste, and its ‘neutral flavour’ causes differing opinions from users.

2015 - Huel

At first glance Huel may seem similar to Soylent, but it uses a complete different formula and is optimised for the UK / European nutritional "daily recommended amounts". Nutritionally complete and containing everything the body needs, Huel is made from 100% real food, including oats, rice, pea, and flaxseed. Unlike many of its competitors, it is suitable for vegans, it also doesn't contain trans fats, artificial preservatives or added sugar. Ethically produced in the UK, the combination of Huel’s practicality and minimal impact on the environment looks set to make Huel a viable alternative to junk food, and even home cooking.

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