Liquid meals - Are complete foods the future of food?
“Food-In-A-Cup” is the name of the meal shakes that the population in the movie WALLE lives on after there was no vegetation left on planet earth. It seems like director Andrew Stanton envisioned a rather bleak, dystopian future back in 2008. But after watching Matthijs Diederiks live solely on complete food shakes for an entire year in his documentary "12 liquid months", I started to wonder if Stanton was right about a future where food is replaced by shakes (Diederiks, 2019). To put my scepticism to the test, I ordered 50 powdered meals and dove into the world of complete nutrition.
The food paradox described by Dagevos (2016) states that we are surrounded by the biggest abundance of food in history, however, we have never been more distanced from food. This paradox leads to another: wealth in food does not necessarily lead to food joy amongst consumers.
Apart from this food discomfort, the current food industry comes with large environmental costs, being responsible for 26% of global CO2 emission and 90-95% of global water scarcity (Poore and Nemecek, 2018).
Furthermore, the current western diet lacks the right nutrients and is contributing to the rise of lethal foodrelated diseases such as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases (WHO, 2020; Segasothy and Phillips, 1999; Ghagane et al., 2015). Lastly, our busy schedules sometimes force us to resort to unhealthy fastfoods, instead of a nutritious meal, leading to stress and health issues (Jabs and Devine, 2006). Are complete foods the answer for these problems, and if so, is it ethical to reduce the function of food to just providing nutrients? Or is this just another Silicon Valley hype?
Complete Foods: a crash course
As described by Irazabalbeitia (2019), a meal replacement or a complete food is a nutritional product based on the current scientific understanding of human nutritional needs. It aims to provide a complete and balanced set of nutrients that will satisfy all your daily needs. The modern concept of complete foods was started in 2012 by software engineer Rob Rhinehart who saw food as a time-consuming, expensive and inefficient burden (Widdicombe, 2014). To solve this hassle, food, he and
his roommates set out to redefine food by looking at it from an engineering perspective: food is essentially just nutrients (ibid). This grew out to SoyLent: first, an opensource community where people shared their recipes for complete foods, two years later a brand that was crowdfunded by over $1,5 Million in pre-orders (Troitino, 2020).
Now, six years later, there are over eighty brands that sell nutritionally complete meal replacements, ranging from a price of $4 to $50 per day (BlendRunner, 2020). Complete foods are not just available in shakes, powders and bars: this year MANA launched their nutritionally complete vegan burger, and Japanese brand BASE sells complete nutrition noodles.
However, the idea of complete foods has been around for longer. Hospitals have been feeding patients that are unable to eat with liquid food for decades (Laarhoven, 2020). Space travel has been using nutritionally complete food as a way to feed astronauts on long, challenging missions (Perchonok and Bourland, 2002). Currently, NASA is working on a meal replacement bar for deepspace
missions, such as going to mars (Garcia, 2016). The main difference however between these examples and commercial complete foods is that the former is designed out of necessity, there is simply no alternative, while the latter is a voluntary decision, taken by healthy people because of ease, comfort and effectiveness.
Are complete foods good for your health?
Eating healthy and gathering the knowledge on what foods are nutritious or not, is complicated and timeconsuming for a lot of people. Complete foods aim to take this challenge away and provide you with all nutrients you need in a 300ml shake. Yet, as much as different companies claim to be the nutritional equivalent of a healthy meal, there is a lack of scientific evidence to support it. Product recipes are based on governmental Recommended Daily Intakes (RDI’s), which change often and are only based on what is already discovered by science. Experts say that nutritional science is only at the beginning of fully understanding nutrition, and there is a vast amount of information on nutrition that is unknown. For instance, just recently scientists have
discovered the importance of microbiomes on health, and the fact that diet is the largest influence on a healthy gut-microbiome (Singh et al., 2017; Dave et al., 2012). As Prof. Ashley Blackshore explains, it is unlikely that liquid, unvaried foods can feed healthy microbes in your intestines, which can cause a variety of diseases (Selby and Blackshore, 2020). Although most complete food brands do not take this into consideration, one brand, Jimmy Joy, recently enhanced their recipe with ProDURA® pre- and probiotics to follow scientific discoveries (Jimmy Joy, 2020). Likewise, the brand Ambronite uses a different approach to improve the health value of their products: only using natural, real foods, and abstaining from using any additives or supplements (Anderson and Suhoeimo, 2019). This way, the founder says, you can enjoy the health benefits of fresh food, just in a more convenient way (ibid).
Although there is a lack of scientific evidence on the long-term effects of a complete food diet, there are ‘selfexperiments’
of people that live(d) on just complete foods. Matthijs Diederiks’s health results after 12 months of food shakes, showed nothing unusual (Diederiks, 2019). And a team of 5 men broke a world record crossing the Atlantic in a rowing boat, fuelled on complete food powder; Lee Primeau, a dietetic student that lived on complete food for 6 months, was shown by blood tests that his health improved with this new diet (Primeau, 2016). These and other ‘guinea pigs’ show that it is possible to live on complete foods. However, if these examples are sufficient proof that complete foods are as healthy as ‘real food’, is debatable. We just do not know yet what we do not know, about what makes food healthy, to be able to break it down into a synthetic powder.
Are complete foods good for the environment?
Another reason to switch to a complete food diet is to reduce environmental impact. The current food system is a big contributor to environmental issues, and consumers hold the power to have a positive impact by making more sustainable decisions. A survey on complete food users showed that 20% looks for products that are vegan, organic and GMO-free (LatestFuels, 2019). Also, many complete food brands use environmental benefits as marketing. But how sustainable is a complete food diet, compared to other diets?
When looking at the ingredients of complete foods, many brands are plant-based and use soy as a protein source. The benefits of a plant-based diet for the environment are immense: by switching our current diet to a plantbased diet we can reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emission 6.6 billion tons of CO2, reducing the food industries total emission by 49% (Poore and Nemecek, 2018). And there is more. To produce one kilo of beef, 15400 litres of water is needed, as opposed to a kilogram of soybeans, needing only 2145 litres of water, which is 7 times less water used (Info Design Lab, 2020). Plant-based complete foods are an easy and effective way to sustain a plantbased diet. Another sustainability issue of food is the packaging. To keep fresh and processed products fresh longer, they are packed in cans, plastic and paper. An average person in the EU generates 174kg of packaging waste a year (Eurostat, 2020). And although there is an improvement in recycling waste, these methods are still rather
inefficient. The recycling net yield of plastic packaging in the Netherlands is only 26%, meaning 74% of plastic packages ends up as waste (Brouwer et al., 2019). Even though supermarkets aim to improve the amount of plastic packaging on their products, there is still no better alternative and when looking in supermarkets the effects of their effort is hardly noticeable. The increasing
demand for convenient food, such a pre-cut fruits and vegetables, requires even more plastic.
If you look at the amount of packaging needed for complete foods, it is very little. Matthijs Diederiks in his experiment measured the reduction of waste to be twenty times less when living on complete foods as compared to a normal diet (Diederiks, 2020). That is because most complete foods are sold in bulk, with around 10 meals in one bag. Compared to the packaging of weekly groceries, three a4-sized bags are most likely a lot less.
Lastly, there is the benefit of reducing food waste. Onefourth of all food produced gets lost or wasted, and consumers are responsible for an average of 34 kilograms of food waste per person per year (Timmermans, 2018; Kummu et al., 2012). On top of consumer waste is the waste generated in transport, processing and supermarkets. A bag of meal replacement powder, that
has a guaranteed shelf life of 1 year, avoids supermarket and consumer losses and has a much lower transportation and processing loss. Furthermore, it is easy to measure the exact needed amount, avoiding having leftovers.
Imagine that everyone would replace two meat-based meals a week with complete foods. This would result in a 5% GHG
reduction, 20% less packaging waste, 10% less food waste, a 2% reduction of water usage and both acidification and eutrophication would reduce by 5% (Poore and Nemecek, 2018; Diederiks, 2019; Timmermans, 2018).
The purpose of food: more than nutrition
The idea that the essence of food is providing nutrients, seems effective. But the purpose and value of food are much more complex than that. Apart from eating for basic survival, food gives pleasure because of the taste, smell, satiation, neurological stimulation and challenges (Henschke, 2013). Think of how the smell of freshly baked bread or homemade soup brings up childhood memories, and the taste of a fresh, juicy mango can cause a feeling of joy and pleasure or bring up holiday memories.
Also, food is strongly related to social relationships and culture (ibid). Sharing a family dinner strengthens social bonds, a business lunch can make or break a new multimillion deal, and when celebrating your birthday, you blow out the candles on your cake. And think of food’s moral and symbolic meaning in religion: breaking bread in church, halal and kosher meat, Ramadan and
Eid-al Fitr, gifting food offerings to Hindu gods, and so on. Apart from religion, food gives identity to communities (Rozin, 2005).
A countries cuisine is the heart of its culture, symbolizing people’s cultural legacies (Henschke, 2013). Take bread as an example: there is the French baguette, Italian pizza, Indian naan and Mexican tortillas. Although all made from flour, all are completely different and have a completely different meaning and cultural background.
The last purpose is the purpose of trade. As Henschke explains, “it was trade in food, in particular exotic spices, that was key for developing early trade networks […] it was central to much development of human history” (2013).
Apart from purpose, food is also strongly related to wellbeing. As a leading psychologist in well-being and positive psychology, Martin Seligman describes that as a therapist, you can take away a depressed patients’ anger, anxiety and sadness, but that will leave you with an empty patient instead of a happy patient (Seligman, 2012). The same goes food dissatisfaction: taking away
food completely does not necessarily lead to happiness.
By taking away food and replacing it with a powder, you also take away all the positive things food can bring, and it leaves you psychologically empty. To regain satisfaction with food, you need to do more than just subtracting the negative. To get joy from food, you need to feel engaged, redevelop positive emotions and a positive relationship with food, and find meaning and accomplishment in food (Seligman, 2012; Harrington, 2012). Therefore, complete foods can be a useful tool to reduce our dissatisfaction with food, but they are not a solution to the problem of dissatisfaction and disconnectedness.
The lead scientist of NASA food technology, Dr Grace Douglas, talks about the challenge of space food design in a podcast about space food. He explains that when creating nutritious meals for astronauts, “you have nutrition, but you can't just focus on nutrition, you have got to focus on variety because there is the psychological aspect” (Moran and Douglas, 2020). Paradoxically,
NASA’s astronauts demand a variety of food on space missions that is psychologically satisfying, however, we voluntarily choose to remove any variety and satisfaction from our diet by consuming complete foods. What complete food brands seem to overlook, is the broader purpose of food in society. To reduce food to a nutritional powder, you simultaneously take away all of the above-mentioned purposes of food, apart from nutrition. Ethically and psychologically, that seems unjust.
Complete foods: my experience
For 4 weeks I have had a complete food meal for breakfast and lunch. At first, it was efficient and took away the stress of eating healthy. I had more time in my day to do other things, and I appreciated having dinner and cooking much more. Later on, however, the shakes became tasteless, joyless and extremely boring. I also felt that a formula that is based on general guidelines, the same for men and women does not provide me with balanced nutrition. Since every human has a unique lifestyle and identity, it seems impossible to reduce that to an ‘average recommended intake’ based powder. Furthermore, I came to realise that I have a good working brain, capable of making my own responsible and irresponsible choices about what food to eat. After drinking 2 shakes a day for two weeks, I felt empty, and the lack of challenge and variety took away any feeling of fulfilment and achievement that I usually get from eating. On a positive note, the experiment and research made me appreciate the function of real food more than ever and motivated me to reconnect with the purpose of food (after I get through the last two bags of tasteless powder).
So, are complete foods the future of food?
Complete foods can be a good alternative to our current diet. Compared to eating fast-food when you lack the time and resources to prepare a healthy meal, complete foods are a healthy, sustainable and efficient alternative. But at the same time, it is the most joyless, depressing way of looking at food. From an efficiency perspective, yes, complete food can be the future. But thankfully,
humans are complex creatures that put more value in food than just efficiency. Putting your daily nutrition, a basic physiological need according to the Maslow Pyramid, completely in the hands of tech-start-ups, takes away your power and responsibility and is morally and ethically questionable. Especially when there is a significant lack of scientific evidence to support it.
Solving food discomfort by taking away the concept of food completely, you simultaneously take away the positive aspects of food, such as the cultural, social and neurological benefits of food. Rather than getting rid of the hassle of food, I think we should find a way to reconnect with the positive aspects of food. It might be challenging, but, as Joshua J. Marine said: Challenges are what makes life interesting, and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.
The food paradox described in the beginning is nevertheless a relevant issue that cannot be overlooked. How can we regain our joy and connection with food in the overwhelming abundance of food available to us? The solution is hopefully not making a complete food shake out of it, because the idea of a future where we only eat complete foods, makes me hope sincerely that we can find other solutions to this food paradox.
- Ika Wondergem