Meal replacement shakes are suddenly in fashion again, boosted by a new range of plant-based formulas. But are these synthetic drinks taking the joy out of eating?
These days, the business of feeding ourselves can seem hard and confusing. We yearn for a simple solution, something healthy that saves us from having to think about food, let alone prepare it. Yet I’m still aghast at the new wave of ‘meal replacement’ protein shakes that are gaining ground with some people, especially those who are concerned with their looks, their fitness, and, as they see it, are far too busy to cook.
It honestly never occurred to me that we’d see a revival in ‘liquid nutrition’ meal alternatives. All you do is add water to the powder in the packet, get the resulting lumpy gloop down your gullet, and, according to the manufacturers, you’ll have ingested a complete meal that provides you with all the nutrients your body needs to thrive.
Such products have been around for decades, sold to slimmers and people who have undergone stomach surgery, and fed to the sick and elderly when they can’t manage to eat or digest whole food. They used to be the sort of thing you’d only eat in extremis. So how did they suddenly become cool?
Part of the answer is that there are new, fashionable vegan versions available. Old-school shakes were mainly based on milk proteins; new wave ones use proteins extracted from plants. That apart, their composition is similar: ultraprocessed proteins thickened up with gums (guar, xanthan), synthetic vitamins and industrial oils, all made palatable (at least to some people) by the addition of artificial sweeteners and man-made flavourings.
There’s absolutely nothing about these surrogate meals that tempts me on gastronomic grounds, and several of the ingredients, sweeteners for instance, raise some health concerns. Didn’t nature give us teeth to chew and guts to digest for a good reason? Where’s the evidence that this liquid diet will work out well for our bodies in the long run? We are still trying to map all the complex synergistic properties of food. The notion that human nutrition can be crudely reduced to isolated nutrients and calorie counts is premature and cocky.
And even if meal alternatives did deliver on their sales pitch, they nevertheless represent an extreme embodiment of the ‘food is fuel’ mentality. It downgrades the act of eating to a robotic, joyless formula that will keep our bodies ticking over while we concentrate on more pressing things in life, like putting in workaholic hours, playing computer games, or spending too much time on social media.
But I suspect that us humans ultimately need more than that from the food we eat. While some might flirt with meal replacement drinks for a time, possibly thinking they’ll lose a considerable amount of weight, or feeling that they can’t even afford the time to chew, in the end, whole, intact food will win out.
Think of astronauts, sent into space with sachets of nutrients and pills to sustain them during the voyage. When they land back on this planet, they head off to enjoy the satisfying meal of real food they’ve been dreaming about throughout their journey. If you ask me, the current fad for liquid meals is due to touch down on earth soon, with a very gentle, but quite definite, bump.
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Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.