The beginning of a dietary revolution?

An image of a pill

The fitness industry has transformed over and over in the past 50 years. From fads like the grapefruit diet, emphasis on superfoods like quinoa and exercise regimes like Zumba, the industry is constantly changing as consumers continually lose confidence with each but never give up hope in the next .

With transformative celebrity before and after pictures combined with the rise of social media, there has been more awareness of fitness supplements and subsequently, more demand. While the emphasis in the early 2000s focused on skinny, today strength is considered the ideal.

Fitness supplements in the past were largely used by serious weight lifters but the market has rapidly expanded, especially with women. By 2024, the global dietary supplements market is expected to reach $278.02 billion1 (£216.91 billion).

Image of a woman working outFitness supplements have grown in popularity with women

The most common kind of fitness supplement is protein. Whether its powdered whey protein or protein bars and chocolates, millions have subscribed to the idea of eating high protein snack bars and shakes accompanied by protein-heavy meals.

In May 2016, a study by Mintel found that almost one in four Brits have consumed a sports nutrition product in the past three months, rising to 42 per cent of men aged 16 to 24 and UK consumers spent £66 million on sports nutrition foods in 2015.

Most consumers that buy these foods want to support a healthy lifestyle but some may not have time to cook, may be vegetarian or vegan and so need a source of protein.

According to Emma Clifford, Senior Food and Drink Analyst at Mintel, “despite a rise in high- protein new product development in prepared meals, these options remain few and far between, suggesting ripe opportunities for further development in this area”2.

Soylent - not so green

Soylent, named after the 1960s sci-fi classic Soylent Green, offers a new type of food replacement. As opposed to the fictional Soylent Green cubes containing human remains, this Soylent is a new food replacement developed and sold in the US by a Los Angeles startup Rosa Labs. Consisting of a mixture of protein, fats, fibre, carbohydrates and other necessities, there are 400 calories per bottle and it claims to provide maximum nutrition with minimal effort.

Soylent supporters argue that fruits and vegetables, although healthy, can represent a wasteful culture3. With almost 8 billion people to feed, we may not be able to consume agricultural produce all the time . By using products such as Soylent, world hunger can be reduced as well as agricultural waste. The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations estimates that one third (1.3 billion tonnes) of the world’s food is wasted4.

This is not the first time that this has been attempted. In hospitals around the world, patients who are malnourished are often fed through a tube with polymeric enteral formulas, a formula enriched with nutrients specific to the patients’ needs.

Many have argued that as more people move to meal replacements like Soylent, the human element of eating food is lost; aside from nutrition, people get joy from eating and cooking food, and it brings families and friends together. This is not the same with meal replacements.

Since its creation in Silicon Valley, Soylent has proved popular with the local audience, many of whom don’t have time to cook.

 Huel (human fuel), developed in the UK in 2012 (a year before Soylent but with a longer route to get to market), is made from powdered blend of foods including oats, seeds, pea protein and a blend of their nutrients; it can be mixed with water or used in place of flour for baking.

Soylent and Huel promote the idea that traditional food is old fashioned and inconvenient. This kind of meal replacement is more hi-tech and delivers the same nutrients as a balance healthy meal. 

Image of pills and a tightened waist band

Pills over pies

Although diet or meal pills have been a mainstay of science fiction with cartoons such as the Jetsons and Willy Wonka’s three-course meal bubblegum, it hasn’t ever reached reality in any substantial way.

With meal replacements taking storm and continuing developments in nutritional sciences, food pills could feasibly become reality.

A diet consisting of vitamin tablets and meal replacement shakes was experimented by Men’s Health magazine. The diet consisted of multivitamins, Pro Plus tablets for caffeine, vitamin C, Omega 3 pills, zinc and magnesium supplements as well as meal replacement shakes.  

The problem with this is that too much of something is not good. Although minerals and vitamins are important to consume, it is also vital that they are consumed in a proportionate amount.

The level of vitamin C in a few pills and multivitamins is considerably more than in one orange and, after a certain point, the body rejects more vitamin C, so excess is lost in urine, leading to a waste of vitamin C and money on costly vitamins.

A study by University of Pittsburgh concluded that a mix of multivitamin and antioxidant developed by NASA increased survival rates of mice in radioactive environments to 80 per cent compared to a control group’s 30 per cent chance of seeing the next meal.

Scientists at the Institute of Food Research in Norwich have been researching microcapsules with the potential ability to recreate Willy Wonka-style gum. The capsules would be filled with different flavouring which would break open on contact with saliva. Tougher capsules for the next flavour would release once chewed and more excessive chewing would be required to open the toughest capsules with the final flavour. The institute’s Professor David Hart has already developed a boiled sweet that uses different layers to provide changes in flavour.

Tiny microscopic capsules have also been developed by researchers at the University of Massachusetts that allow molecules of flavours to be captured inside capsules which have an oily shell around the molecules to prevent the flavours mixing.

Previously, pills and supplements were used to promote fitness, healthy hair, nails and bones, as well as help build muscle but with these recent developments, the future of supplements will be for food replacement rather than fitness.

As the world population grows and people become busier, quick and cheap alternatives to food will find further favour.

Meal replacements and multivitamin pills can be ideal for those seeking a hassle-free life, especially for those who do not get joy from cooking and find it time consuming. By eating one pill or drinking a meal replacement, they have more time to focus on more important things.

Perhaps The Jetsons was prophetic; people could completely replace food with supplements rather than enjoy a cooked meal with family and friends.

What would this mean for the future of the food business? Would it be the end of fast food chains and restaurants, or grocery stores? Or will grocery stores only stock a variety of pills and meal replacements?

Or is this just another fad?  

Join the PatSnap webinar with Peter Cowan