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Huel and food optimisation

How do you take the measure of what a nation believes? How can you, in a fractious political moment – given to strawmen and symbolic threats which are founded in something perhaps a little less than objective reality – get inside of people’s heads and separate the pap of suspicion from the hard kernel of belief? 

At a point in time which seems, increasingly, to be defined by the opposition between insiders and outsiders (those included, and the preterite left-behind), it seems reasonable to investigate the interior. And since we can’t comfortably examine what we’re all putting in our heads, we may as well look at what we’re putting in our stomachs. In an age of unparalleled consumption, let’s look at what we consume to stay alive. Assuming that food is as good a place to start as any, let’s look at our habits of nutrition and try to take a pulse by poking our bellies. 

Exhibit A in any analysis would have to be Huel: a powdered nutritional download which – in the same manner that Joyce’s Ulysses hoped to ‘end’ the novel, and the Tractatus hoped to conclude the discipline of philosophy – is looking to bring cookery to an untimely close. Not because it’s being consumed in any serious quantity (it is about as marginal a product as exists in the grocery market), but because it lies at the extreme end of an evident social cathexis. It is the furthest outlier of the vegano-ethical spectrum which looks to ensure that we live with as little guilt as possible in a world where the consumer is king. Huel enthusiasts (and there are other, similar products on the market) resemble the figure in Oscar Wilde’s The Model Millionaire – who wants, more than anything, to disown the kingly status which life has put upon him by posing as a beggar in one brief snapshot of portraiture. 

But even if this can only be achieved in one segment of our day-to-day existence, it works, and it works because Huel is food taken down to its root. It boasts of being ‘complete nutrition’: meeting the daily EU Reference Nutrient Intake (RNI) as well as ‘Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) and Nutrient Reference Values (NRV) for all macro- and micronutrients’1. All four food groups are taken into account and re-arranged into optimized ratios (37:30:30:3 for carbohydrates : fats: proteins : fibre). This is an average balanced meal divided and then sub-divided until all that's left is nutrition, or – more accurately – information about nutrition. Because, as Mark Greif points out in his essay Against Exercise: ‘the only truly essential pieces of equipment in modern exercise are numbers’. ‘Food’ can be inserted for ‘exercise’ in that sentence with minimal disturbance. More and more, we want data on our plates. 

It’s no longer sufficient that meals fill us or taste nice, we want the consumer fetish that surrounds the food to fully justify the food itself. This is evident in something like Huel because the admirable call of eco-ethics comes eerily close to the lifestyle ethos of so-called ‘Clean eating’ – the stark asceticism of the product is its chief appeal, it isn’t about fun, it’s about doing what’s right, and any serious-minded dieter will understand the cold logic of that moral law. The progressive politics which inform a vegan diet operate beyond trends and fashion, but even that purity of intent cannot withstand being subsumed into ‘lifestyle’ living when food, increasingly, is not food without a second-order justification for why we should eat it. 
This is just as evident in the work of Fast Food 2.0 providers such as Deliveroo or JustEat. They sell us the ‘bad’ food that, supposedly, is killing us: adding inches to our waistlines or dialling in a dormant cancer threat to our bodies courtesy of unknown chemical nasties. But these service providers make it OK all the same, because it’s technical: the meals arrive courtesy of our smart phones and higher levels of grease, salt or sugar are acceptable if they contribute to the frictionless beauty of the Digital Economy. Of course, the food looks good in the adverts even if it’s not actually good for you. And expectations are being re-arranged in this department too thanks to the rapid sharing of information. 

The standard joke about food advertisement concerns its deceptiveness – the mighty Whopper which looked to be the size of your head, but arrived slightly damp in the corner of an A4 plastic tray. Today’s food bloggers make sure to do the opposite. They Instagram their cooking to make it clear that the event of their food is entirely attainable. There is no distance between what they present and what it is. Instead the deception is transferred elsewhere: we’re not being sold a fake image of food but a fake image of life. We’re being convinced that ‘proper’ cooking will make us less guilty about our diets, when in reality – the more we give in to a moral superego around food, the guiltier we become. 

The dialogue around what we eat, in the final analysis, is hysterical. As with politics, as with so much today, we are fed so many contradictory instructions from supposed authorities that we buckle under the weight of facts and potentially unverifiable pseudo-science. Huel is an extreme solution to the potential hysteria that might engulf us – the constant questioning of what and why. 

If products like Huel, Soylent or JouleFuel – products which do away with cookery by offering total powdered nutrition – do have a future, indeed are the future, it will be because we’ve lost a battle to maintain the pleasure of eating against data and optimization. It seems very unlikely to take hold entirely – operating as it currently does on the outskirts of fashionable lifestyle minimalism (the food equivalent of a Pasadena billionaire’s gigantic unfurnished mansion, left bare to prove a point). But if we do give up pies and chips and drink our dinners instead, it will be because we’ve given in to two strange ideas. Firstly, that life can be sidestepped in the name of living it. That a casual relationship with food is less important than eliminating it entirely – freeing ourselves up to get on with our ‘lifestyle’ (so long as that doesn’t involve eating in the company of others). The second idea is tougher: that we should just accept the path of least resistance when dealing with our guilty consciences around food. 

Letting it – consume us. It's no simple co-incidence that a bleeding edge kitchen instrument such as the NutriBullet is so titled: it's a silver bullet for food neurosis. A simple answer for our guilt-ridden brains. Pulp it and drink and be done with it in about thirty seconds. It contains what you need: nutrition without questions. Sustenance without worry. Information that is halfway tasty.