Back in 2014, Soylent made waves in the dietary industry as it ran an ultimately successful crowdfunding campaign on the promise of making a nutritionally complete meal replacement powder. Soon after, several other companies tried to get in on the game, and some of them succeeded. Now the market is spoiled for choice, with products like Huel, Ample, and Ambronite all competing with Soylent to be your one meal replacement.
What Are Meal Replacements?
First, let's talk about meal replacements in general. What are they and how do they work?
Meal replacements are pretty much exactly what they sound like. They're specifically formulated artificial foods. Ideally, they contain all of the necessary vitamins, minerals, and nutrients your body needs, in appropriate proportions, to keep you healthy as you eat them. They come in a variety of forms, such as powders to use as shakes, bars, or even soups.
Meal replacements are aimed primarily at people who want to regulate their food intake, people who just want nutrients and don't care about taste or variety, and people who want to save on the time it takes to prepare food. Bodybuilders like them for quick meals that save time on preparation when they're eating 5-6 meals per day, for example.
Some meal replacements have additional goals. For example, some are formulated to satiate you after eating a relatively small portion, which helps reduce caloric intake and consequently help you lose weight.
Generally, meal replacements emphasize being a "complete" meal, fortified with minerals and nutrients your body needs to remain healthy. In theory, you could replace every meal with a meal replacement and not suffer from anything other than food boredom. In practice, this may not always be the case.
Comparing Common Meal Replacements
Today we're going to look at four different meal replacements you've probably heard of before. These are: Huel, Soylent, Ample, and Abronite.
Huel is a portmanteau of the words "human" and "fuel", and is a vegan meal replacement made of GMO-free plant items and supplements. Production of Huel strives for minimal food waste, high manufacturing standards, and ethical sources for their ingredients.
Soylent comes from a 1966 science fiction novel as a theoretical meal replacement made of soy and lentils, which has pervaded popular culture. It is a heavily soy-based meal replacement that, notably, is NOT GMO-free, as the creators of Soylent believe genetically modified plants are important for the future of the planet.
Ample is a "second generation" meal replacement that not only strives to be a nutritionally complete meal in a bottle, it's also meant to be a product that addresses many of the common issues with other meal replacements, like long-term potential issues and digestive discomfort involved in typical meal replacements.
Ambronite is a meal replacement that is Finnish in origin and is comparable to Huel as an organic, whole food, plant-based meal replacement. Like Soylent, it was crowdfunded in 2014, and has gone through several iterations with improved formulats over the intervening years.
Range of Products
One of the first things you might concern yourself with regarding meal replacements is what kind of replacements they offer. Different products might have different nutritional focuses, or they may not be suitable for certain dietary goals. So what kinds of products do each of these companies offer?
Huel offers ready to drink shakes in chocolate, vanilla, and berry flavors. They also offer powders which can be mixed at home, typically with water, to form shakes without the need to deal with wasted bottles or heavier, more bulky shipping. They have both a standard and a gluten-free powder option. Additionally, they offer flavor boost powders that have few nutritional effects but serve to change the flavor of the powders or shakes to better suit your tastes. These come in chocolate, strawberry, banana, chocolate mint, mocha, apple cinnamon, caramel, and chai flavors.
Soylent offers a variety of different products with the same basic formula. They offer a meal replacement powder in chocolate, mocha, and "original" flavors. They also offer a "bridge" product, equivalent to a light snack to bridge the gap between meals, in chocolate only. Soylent Café is a caffeinated version in mocha, vanilla, and chai flavors. They also have pre-mixed shakes in chocolate, strawberry, vanilla, and original flavors. Finally, they have "squares" in Soylent Squared, which are nutritional bars in chocolate, salted caramel, and citrus berry flavors.
Ample meal replacements come in one form, as a powder, but can be bought as pre-portioned meals in bottles – just add water or milk – or as bulk powder you measure out yourself. Unlike other meal replacements, it only has one default flavor. It does, however, come in three varieties. Ample itself is a full meal replacement. Ample K is a Ketogenic formula, which is higher in fats and proteins, and lower in carbohydrates, to encourage ketosis in the body. Finally, their third formula Ample V is a vegan, entirely plant-based formula.
Ambronite only has two products on offer; their full meal replacement shake that comes in powder form, and AmbroGreens, a supplementary plant-focused product that is not itself a meal replacement, but rather an expanded "side dish" to the main product. They also have larger bulk purchases. There does seem to be a slight difference between their "complete" meal shake and their "balanced" meal shake, though in large part that difference is in quantity.
On top of all of this, all of these companies sell accessories like shakers you can use to mix up your meals without needing to buy your own from another source, and they often sell merch such as t-shirts as well. Since those aren't health-related we've ignored them for the purposes of this article.
Calories and Pricing
The price you pay per meal with a meal replacement is always going to be much lower than buying whole ingredients and preparing your own food. The comparison is not with other meals, but with other meal replacements. We've presented the various meal replacement products as cost-per-meal with the recommended meal size – typically 400 calories – listed below.
Huel pre-mixed shakes are 400 calorie meals that cost about $4 per bottle, purchased in 12-packs or as a subscription. The powder is also aimed at 400 calorie individual servings at around $2 per serving. The gluten-free formulation is slightly more expensive, by 20 cents per serving or so.
Soylent products can also be purchased by subscription or as one-time purchases, with a slight discount for subscriptions. The shakes are 400 calorie meals for about $3 per bottle, and slightly higher costs for the caffeinated version. Bridge is $2 per bottle for 180 calorie bottles. The powder is slightly cheaper, at about $1.80 per meal's worth. The 100 calorie squares are a bit over $1 per square.
Ample products also recommend 400 calories per meal. Original works out to be nearly $7 per meal when purchased individually. Ample V is slightly more expensive, though still just under $7 per meal. Ample K is $7.60 per meal, again purchased individually. Bought in bulk powder form, Ample is only $4.60 per meal, while Ample K is a bit over $5 per meal. Ample V cannot be purchased in bulk at this time.
Ambronite pouches for the Complete Meal shake are 400 calorie meals that cost about $6.80 per meal. Smaller pouches – oddly named the Big Bag – are 160 calorie servings for $2.63 per serving. The tubs include a little over 400 calories per serving and are $54 for a tub that contains roughly 8-9 servings.
Note that all of these meal replacement powders include subscription models as well as the one-time purchase prices listed above. They also may have bulk purchase options with more discounts, such as buying a case of 100 for a discount.
Individual Impressions and Reviews
Huel is probably the current leader in meal replacements in terms of value for the price. It's more organic than Soylent and thus tends to attract a wider audience, while also staying cheap enough to be a common contender for a cheap meal replacement. Consider it your standard "baseline" meal replacement to compare others to. It's slightly better than others for blood sugar concerns, though no meal replacement will be adequate for those with diabetes.
Huel's offering of flavor enhancers can go a long way towards making the transition to a meal replacement more palatable, though it will add to the long-term price of the process.
Soylent is the cheapest meal replacement, and many report that it is more satisfying and also tends to make you want to keep sticking with it. It's a great introductory meal replacement.
The largest potential downside is that Soylent does not shy away from chemicals and GMO ingredients. It's very much a meal replacement for the tech-oriented community and those who focus more on the mathematics of nutrition than on the concepts of whole foods and organic ingredients. If the idea of GMO ingredients turns you away – and it will, for some of you – it eliminates Soylent as a viable meal replacement.
Ample is something we described as a second-generation meal replacement, and it fits that description well. It is specifically formulated and iterated to address concerns with other meal replacements, such as certain nutrient balances, stomach troubles, and other concerns. It's also very much a "gourmet" option, and as such will cost more than other options except Ambronite. Ample is also the only meal replacement to offer a specific ketogenic formula aimed at those who are sticking to a Keto diet.
Ambronite is a bit of a let-down. While they promote their Finnish origin and their hand-picked, all-organic selection of ingredients, mostly this just serves to crank up the price. Ambronite is too expensive for what it is, and it has too few benefits for it. The flavor is typically lacking, though it can be an acquired taste if you choose to stick with it.
Concerns with Meal Replacements
Meal replacements are not ideal for everyone. If you like variety in your meals, a meal replacement plan will quickly grow boring, tempting you to snack and eat other foods in addition to the replacements. Even if some products have multiple flavors or forms, it can still be quite similar.
Meal replacements are also typically formulated for the average, healthy person's nutrient needs and caloric intake. If you're trying to restrict your caloric intake, you may end up needing additional supplements for vitamins and minerals you aren't getting through the products themselves.
Additionally, if you are on a medically restricted diet – such as a low potassium diet due to kidney issues, a low sodium diet due to cardiovascular issues, or another restricted nutrient – there's no way to control those nutrients individually. Meal replacements generally do not offer specialized low-nutrient versions of their products.
On a more personal level, many meal replacements will include some level of initial digestive discomfort. Any major dietary change will have some adjustment period, but there are reports of long-term issues with meal replacements due to their formulas. This, unfortunately, seems to just come with the territory.
Over to You
Have you tried one of these meal replacements? If so, what do you think? Also, are there other meal replacements you would recommend other than these? The world of meal replacements is broad, with the four represented above as merely a sample of the more popular options out there.
We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!