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Too busy for lunch? China’s tech workers turn to meal-replacement drinks that’re fast, healthy … but not necessarily tasty

Five minutes into his lunch break, web developer Zhou Shengkai has already prepared and finished his meal.

Zhou makes his lunch every day by mixing 100 grams of powder with cold water, which offers him 20 grams of protein, 9.5 grams of fat and 430 kcal in energy. Dinner is consumed with the same efficiency – he usually has it on the bus from his workplace to the gym.

“This is so convenient,” said the 23-year-old, who lives in Qingdao, Shandong province. “Half an hour is way too long for having a meal. Now I can do something else with the time.”

What Zhou has two times a day is a meal replacement made from oats, soy and other ingredients including vitamins and minerals. Its producer claims that people aged from 18 to 49 can get all the essential nutrients they need from the powdered drinks, without eating anything else.

Such products, called “the future of food” or even “the end of food” by their techie fans in America’s Silicon Valley, have recently found new demand from China’s urban workers, who want to eat healthily, but also fast.

But that demand may not be sustainable in a part of the world where good food has always been fresh, warm and shareable. The minimalist way of eating, with a stress on speed and convenience, faces a challenge when battling China’s taste-obsessed culture.

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Meal-replacement drinks were made popular by US firm Soylent in the past few years. Founded in 2013 by Rob Rhinehart, the company was shipping 30,000 “meals” a month a year later and Rhinehart told Bloomberg in January this year that sales were up 300 per cent. Soylent is now valued at more than US$100 million.

Its success has seen similar start-ups springing up around the world. India’s SupermealX, Australia’s Aussielent and British-based Huel all claim to offer nutritionally complete drinks.

Shao Wei, who was working as a programmer in Hangzhou, was also intrigued by the idea. As a start-up worker, he had been looking for healthy meal options for those who had little time away from their computers. In 2014, he quit his job and set up his own meal-substitute brand, Ruffood. Its Chinese name – ruo fan in pinyin – means “like rice“.

Orders came quickly. Ruffood has sold the equivalent of 500,000 meals of drink powder across China since October last year, and Shao said nearly 100,000 meal packs were sold last month alone.

About 20,000 people were ordering the product regularly, he said, most of them tech workers in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

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Zhou, who has been having Ruffood for lunch and dinner for the past year, said the drink was cheaper and healthier than the lunch boxes he used to get from restaurants.

“I don’t want to have takeaways any more, as they are high in fat and sodium,” he said. “I’m working out, and I have to manage my calorie intake carefully. But I’m also too lazy to cook.”

With health awareness rising, Chinese consumers are asking for healthier and more nutritious food products, according to research firm Euromonitor International. And for China’s city workers, speed is important, too.

“With growing demand for convenience due to the accelerating pace of modern life, the ready meals category will still demonstrate stable growth in the near future,” Euromonitor researchers wrote in a report published last year.

But Ruffood may be the only ready-meal provider in China that has given up on taste. Shao admits it is a challenge to win a larger share in a market where delicious food is an essential part of life and culture.

“China is a country of foodies,” he said.

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Pan Jiabang, a 22-year-old coder in Hangzhou, described Ruffood as a light-yellow, pasty drink that smelled like soy. He said it took two minutes to drink and another two to clean the cup. After that, he wouldn’t feel hungry for half a day.

Although Pan was impressed by the convenience, he quit after two days of trying Ruffood.

“The taste was too plain,” he said. “Our company canteen offers Cantonese roasted meat. I prefer to have that.”

Soylent has received US$21.5 million in venture-capital funding, but investors are yet to believe more Chinese will give up rice, dumplings and stir-fries for Ruffood’s tasteless powder.

The company recently released a chocolate “patch” so users could improve the taste.

And whether powdered drinks can replace regular meals is still open to debate. Gu Zhongyi, a nutritionist at the Beijing Friendship Hospital, said such products satisfied basic nutritional needs but failed to offer a variety of compounds contained in natural food.

Ruffood developed its formula based on Soylent’s recipe and China’s own nutritional standards. Shao said it had also made tweaks based on consumer’s preferences. For example, the fat-to-carbohydrate ratio was lowered because Chinese people were scared of fat, he said.

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Gu said meal replacements could be an alternative for busy workers but were unlikely to become popular with the general public.

“Not everyone is so short of time,” he said. “For many people, the process of going grocery shopping, cooking and having dinner with family is a great pleasure.”

Shao has focused most of Ruffood’s marketing efforts on China’s expanding tech community, to attract people he said were “rational and analytical.” About 90 per cent of Ruffood’s customers were men, he said, because women were more demanding when it came to appearance and flavours.

Meal-replacement drinks have also lost their price advantage in China. A 400-kcal Soylent drink sells for US$2.69, a bargain in Silicon Valley given the cost of dining there. But a Ruffood meal costs 24 yuan, the equivalent of US$3.59 and close to what a takeaway lunch costs in Beijing or Shanghai.

But the 33-year-old Ruffood founder, who has been living almost entirely on meal replacements for two years, said his mission was not about sales numbers, but to overthrow the deep-rooted perception that food was only about taste and appearance.

“Ruffood is going against the norms,” Shao said. “We don’t want people to crave our products. We are telling them to think rationally, not to be controlled by their appetite.”