Written By Chris Taylor
Chris is Operations Manager at Ultra X and takes the lead on planning new races and events. His interests include (and are limited to): ultra running, plant-based foods to eat whilst ultra running, and ultra running with dogs.
Running multi-stage ultra marathons often means being self-sufficient for days at a time. Freeze-dried or dehydrated food is therefore a necessary component of the multi-stage adventure. Lightweight, easy to prepare and energy dense, you’ll struggle to find a more convenient fuel source when running 250km in the desert, jungle or mountains, especially since many races impose weight restrictions on what participants can bring.
In the past, freeze-dried food suitable for vegans – without meat, eggs or dairy – has been difficult to find. However, given the meteoric rise in popularity of veganism recently (particularly in running – and even more especially in ultra running), it is no surprise that the food options for plant-based endurance athletes have improved significantly in response. But just how good are the meals on the market?
We sampled a range of vegan freeze-dried foods from six of the top brands, including breakfasts, main meals and snacks. Chris, a member of the Ultra X team who has been both a vegan and an ultra runner for several years, acted as our taste test expert, providing honest reviews for each.
Measures of comparison
Before we get stuck into the meat of the matter (yep, intentional), it’s worth highlighting the five measures we used for comparison: energy-to-weight ratio, nutritional composition, value for money, ease of preparation, and, most importantly, taste (we also considered factors such as packaging and sustainability, although these were not treated as individual categories).
Energy-to-weight ratio: The gut instinct of many ultra runners will be to scrutinise the label in order to first determine which meal yields the most energy return for the least amount of weight. Whilst weight is certainly a factor to consider, the good news is that Ultra X races come with a free mule: us. Unlike other totally self-sufficient events which leave runners plucking out individual filaments from their toothbrushes to skimp on an extra few grams, we transport competitors’ food and equipment between campsites for them. Competitors need only carry what they require for each individual day’s run. The energy-to-weight ratios below have been calculated per 100g of dried product (as opposed to rehydrated weight).
Nutritional composition: Of course, it’s not all about the number of calories. Checking where those calories come from is important to ensure you are fuelling correctly. Though the LCHF diet can be of benefit to ultra runners, fat adaption is best achieved during training. Carbohydrate will therefore be the main energy source during a multi-stage ultra, particularly when running in heat or at altitude. Protein is also crucial to aid recovery post-run, although remember the body can only absorb so much at a time. Below, we have calculated the percentage contribution of carbohydrate, fat, and protein to the overall calorie content of each meal.
Value for money:* Let’s face it, ultra running can be an expensive sport – making it more accessible is one of the primary reasons Ultra X was founded. After factoring in kit, travel and insurance costs, many runners will want to get the most bang for their buck from their food choices. For the purpose of objectivity, we have calculated price per 100kcals across each brand.
Ease of preparation: Getting out pots, pans and cutlery is the last thing anyone wants to do after finishing a 70km long stage run. We have therefore commented on the ease of preparation and use of each brand’s food below.
Taste: The grievance most often voiced about freeze-dried meals is that they don’t taste good. By their nature, they can have quite a stodgy texture, often leaving runners feeling bloated and struggling with stomach complaints. However, there has been a real transformation in recent years, with some brands in particular producing food genuinely worthy of consumption at home, let alone out in the field. Taste is obviously a highly subjective measure, so we’ve tried to rate meals based on their flavour, texture and wholesomeness.
Lastly, it’s worth mentioning that, although many of the meals below can be rehydrated with cold as well as hot water, for our purposes each meal was prepared with hot water. The rehydration process takes considerably longer with cold water and the food generally rehydrates less thoroughly. Fortunately, hot water is provided at campsite at all Ultra X races, so there’s no need to worry about finding crunchy strips of soy in your post-race dinner.
We sampled all the meals below apart from the ones highlighted in italics.
Vegan options available:
Breakfasts: Coconut Porridge, Organic Porridge, Organic Millet Porridge
Soups: Cream of Tomato & Pepper Soup, Organic Gazpacho
Main meals: Barley-Lentils Risotto, Nettle Curry, Chilli sin Carne
Fruits & desserts: Apple, Fruity Dream, Banana, Exotic Pleasure, Strawberry, Wild Berry Mix
Others: Red Smoothie, Red Vitamin Drink
Background: LYOFOOD have existed in one form or another for more than 25 years. Based in Germany, they are partnered with freeze-dried food experts Lyovit and recently launched a new, sleekly designed, multi-award winning product line called LYO EXPEDITION. Their meals are all free from artificial additives and preservatives (no palm oil) and use 100% natural ingredients. The LYO vegan range is easily the most diverse, encompassing a selection of breakfasts, main meals, soups, fruity desserts and even powdered smoothies. Below, we have evaluated the vegan breakfast and main meal options.
Energy-to-weight ratio: Three of the four LYO breakfast offerings are vegan. They come in two sizes, a single and a double helping. The E:W ratio is similar for all the single portions, ranging from 498kcal/100g (Organic Millet Porridge) to 518kcal/100g (Coconut Porridge). The three main meals come in one size only and vary in E:W ratio, ranging from 373kcals/100g (Chilli sin Carne) to 481kcals/100g (Nettle Curry).
Nutritional composition: The breakfasts are high fat, varying slightly in carbohydrate/fat balance and averaging: 37-51% carbohydrate, 49-54% fat, and 7-8% protein. The main meals are more consistent, offering a high carbohydrate content across the board: 43-56% carbohydrate, 23-47% fat, and 8-13% protein.
Value for money: Based in Germany, the LYO website lists prices in Euros.** They do ship to the UK, however their products are also available from UK distributors, such as Base Camp Food. In terms of bang for buck, the breakfasts range from £1.02/100g (Coconut Porridge) to £1.34/100g (Organic Porridge) and the main meals from £1.68/100kcals (Nettle Curry) to £2.19/100kcals (Chili sin Carne). The breakfasts do offer more value if bought as a double helping.
Ease of preparation: All of the meals come in the same eye-catching grey/black pouches, which have a handy blue fill line on the back. The meals are easy to make – fill with boiling water, stir, close the zip-lock, wait around 10 minutes, and… bon appétit!
Taste: Very good. LYO have been paving the way when it comes to producing freeze-dried meals that taste like real food. The star of the show is their Nettle Curry, made in tandem with rock climber Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll. The vegetables taste homemade and the creamy coconut sauce is delicious.
Verdict: LYO have an exciting and diverse range of vegan meals, more than any other competitor, and they all taste fantastic. Very flavoursome, though perhaps not as hearty as others. The drawback: they are more expensive than the competition. But, as always, you get what you pay for.
Vegan options available:
Breakfasts: Granola with Coconut Powder and Dried Fruit
Main meals: Posh Baked Beans, Porcini Mushroom Risotto, Vegan Orzo Bolognese, Dal and Rice with Spinach, Chilli non Carne with Rice
Background: Founded five years ago by an English adventurer frustrated with the lack of decent dehydrated food options available on the market, Firepot meals are all handmade in Dorset. The company launched a range of five plant-based meals in September 2018 and now report that at least 20% of their customer base is vegan. Handily, Firepot are the only company we sampled to offer a Mini Taster Pack, so you can try before committing to a week’s worth of food. Their meals come in regular and extra-large sizes and they can be bought in either bright yellow and waterproof pouches or in compostable (better) packaging. All figures below are for the regular size meals.
Energy-to-weight ratio: The meals vary slightly in E:W ratio – 344 kcals/100g (Posh Baked Beans) to 414 kcals/100g (Porcini Mushroom Risotto).
Nutritional composition: Firepot’s vegan meals are high carbohydrate, very low fat and have some of the highest protein content of those we sampled. The nutritional composition across the board ranges from 69-77% carbohydrate, 5-13% fat, and 8-26% protein.
Value for money: The regular servings all cost £6.95; the extra-large servings £8.95. That works out as a range from £1.24/100 kcals (Porcini Mushroom Risotto – £1.08 for extra-large) to £1.49/100 kcals (Posh Baked Beans – £1.28 for the extra-large).
Ease of preparation: The packaging for the regular meals has a handy fill line on the back, making preparation swift and easy. The water must be measured out for the Mini Taster Packs however, though this is a minor effort to ask for such a great meal-testing service.
Taste: Great! A good range of flavours with a high vegetable content in all five meals. Italian style dishes are generally a good option for vegans (Orzo, Risotto, etc), as you won’t run into stomach problems from excessive spice.
Verdict: All in all, the meals taste good, look good and the Firepot team are clearly environmentally conscious. With five options, they have the most vegan main meals of the brands we sampled. The carbohydrate content of each is very high and they use soya beans to increase the proportion of protein. One of the best all-rounders.
Vegan options available:
Breakfast: Blueberry Burst, Super Seed and Red Berry, Subtly Cinnamon, Cashew and Goji Berry
Main meals: Almond Jalfrezi, Italian Inspired, Moroccan Mango
Background: Established in 2014 after the founders spied a gap in the market whilst on a cycling expedition through Alaska, TentMeals offer simple, no faff, high energy meals. After being convinced of the value of natural, plant-based ingredients by a vegan friend (kudos to that person!), TentMeals now produce only vegan breakfasts and main meals. The only products not suitable are a few of the trail mix options. The packaging is minimal and recyclable and TentMeals ship their products in re-used cardboard boxes. All of their breakfasts and meals are available in 500kcal and 800kcal sizes (the figures below are for the standard 500kcal). You can also create your own vegan meals and they offer bulk purchase discounts.
Energy-to-weight ratio: The four breakfast options range in E:W from 393kcal/100g (Blueberry Burst) to 442kcal/100g (Super Seed); the main meals from 391kcal/100g (Moroccan Mango) to 450kcal/100g (Almond Jalfrezi).
Nutritional composition: The nutritional composition of TentMeals is generally very consistent. The breakfasts range from 45-63% carbohydrate, 27-44% fat, and 10-13% protein; the main meals from 47-60% carbohydrate, 32-47% fat, and 10-15% protein.
Value for money: Their big selling point is undeniably value for money. The breakfasts are 84p/100kcal (or just 61p/100kcal for the 800kcal large portion) and the main meals are 98p/100kcal (or 74p/100kcal for the 800kcal large portion).
Ease of preparation: Due to their commitment to minimal packaging, TentMeals cannot be made in the bag and therefore require runners to bring a bowl, or similar container, in which to rehydrate their food. A minimal effort requirement, but one worth considering.
Taste: The flavours are generally a bit less sophisticated. Their main meal options are mostly based on couscous, though the breakfasts are more imaginative. The nuts included in each breakfast and meal are a nice touch and also help boost the calorie and protein content.
Verdict: TentMeals have quickly established themselves as one of the best freeze-dried food producers on the market. Their meals may taste somewhat less exciting than others, but the ingredients are nutritious, the meals are energy dense and they offer the best value on the market. It’s also nice not to have to read the label (they’re all vegan!) and the company try hard to reduce their impact on the environment.
Vegan options available:
Main meals: Couscous with Cajun Spices and Vegetables
Background: Expedition Foods have been around since 1995. In that time, they have become one of the best-known brands in the freeze-dried food market, fuelling many famous faces, including seasoned expeditioners James Cracknell and Ben Fogle. They offer 22 meal choices but unfortunately only one of them is vegan. It is available in three sizes: regular (450kcal), high energy (800kcal), and extreme energy (1,000kcal). All figures below are for the regular option.
Energy-to-weight ratio: The E:W ratio is good, 409kcals/100g.
Nutritional composition: The macronutrients are well balanced and suitable for ultra endurance events: 48% carbohydrate, 33% fat, and 13% protein.
Value for money: Expedition Foods charge £5.99 for their regular size, which equates to £1.33/100kcal. The high energy option costs £7.49, or 94p/100kcal.
Ease of preparation: Their vegan meal has a fill line on the back. With the addition of hot water and a few thorough stirs, the food rehydrated well in about 6-8 minutes.
Taste: Quite plain, mainly couscous with a few vegetables and a bit of spice. Okay for a one-off but would get boring quickly.
Verdict: With just one simple vegan meal option, Expedition Foods aren’t the most exciting for vegans. However, their meal has a good nutritional balance and offers better value for money than other brands.
Vegan options available:
Main meals: Thai Red Curry, Pasta in Tomato Sauce, Chilli Stew with Beans, Squash and Sweet Corn Casserole
Background: Drytech, the company which produces REAL Turmat meals, was founded by a man called Rolf Hansen in 1989. Wanting to preserve the delicious taste of his wife’s homemade stew, Hansen mastered the art of gentle freeze-drying. Located in Tromsø, northern Norway, REAL Turmat meals are produced with an exceptionally attentive scientific approach. Currently only shipping to Norway but available from UK retailers such as Base Camp Food, they have four main meals suitable for vegans.
Energy-to-weight ratio: The E:W ration is consistent across all their products, ranging just slightly from 370-383kcal/100g (Thai Red Curry and Squash Casserole, respectively).
Nutritional composition: The carbohydrate:fat balance does vary somewhat between meals, so it’s worth checking the labels before buying. The range is 38-53% carbohydrate, 28-42% fat, and 10-21% protein.
Value for money: Perhaps due to being based in Norway, REAL Turmat are more expensive than the others. Base Camp Food currently price their meals at £9.99, which breaks down as £1.76-£2.08/100kcal.
Ease of preparation: Fill line on the back. Clear instructions with how to prepare and use. The timing indication for rehydration was accurate, all three meals rehydrated thoroughly in minutes.
Taste: We have to say, REAL Turmat wins the taste test hands down. All three meals that we sampled were delicious. Hearty, wholesome and packed full of flavour, we could easily live off these meals for a month, let alone a week. Bravo, Rolf Hansen and wife.
Verdict: REAL Turmat have a great background story and take the science of freeze-drying food seriously. They are quite clearly the masters of their trade as their meals taste homemade and freshly cooked. However, they are more expensive than others. If taste is your number one priority though, look no further.
Summit to Eat
Vegan options available:
Main meals: 5 Bean Cassoulet, Spicy Pasta Arrabiata
Background: Summit to Eat have a wide variety of meals, breakfasts and snacks, including homecooked staples and campfire classics. Their two vegan options, 5 Bean Cassoulet and Spicy Pasta Arrabiata were recently launched. Both meals are available in regular and big pack size.
Energy-to-weight ratio: The E:W ratios vary considerably, from 384kcals/100g for the Pasta Arrabiata, to a whopping 589kcals/100g for the 5 Bean Cassoulet – the most of any meal we tested.
Nutritional composition: Again, lots of variance here. The pasta is much more carbohydrate dense: 63% carbohydrate, 28% fat, and 13% protein, whereas the bean dish is very highly fat concentrated: just 8% carbohydrate, 75% fat, and 10% protein.
Value for money: Great value. Both meals are £5.50 for the regular size (91p/100kcals) and £7.75 for the big pack (just 78p/100kcal).
Ease of preparation: Clear instructions including fill lines on the packaging.
Taste: Very good. The pasta meal is especially hearty, with a small amount of spice and authentic flavouring. Heartier than other brands, perfect for topping up a depleted tank after that mid-week long stage run.
Verdict: Great all-round. With two tasty meals – a high-carb and a high-fat option – that both cost under £1 per 100kcals, Summit to Eat offer great value for money without shortcuts on quality. The best choice for the big eaters.
Overall, there are plenty of great freeze-dried and rehydrated food options available for vegans these days and, consequently, running a multi-stage ultra on a plant-based diet has never been easier (or tastier!)
The brands do vary, each specialising in their own way and likely appealing to a different customer base. Those with a refined palate will find themselves most gratifyingly satiated with what REAL Turmat and LYO EXPEDITION are cooking (though, as with all finer things in life, quality comes at a cost). The environmentally conscious will find their values echoed in the practices of TentMeals and Firepot; the big eaters will get their fill from the calorie dense meals of Summit to Eat; and the cost conscious won’t be disappointed with the high quality, natural, and affordable TentMeals range. Pushed to pick a podium, Firepot, LYO and REAL Turmat are ticking all the right boxes across the board.
Want more nutritional advice on multi-stage ultra running? We’ve published several articles, with tips on how best to fuel mid-race and during post-race recovery, and you can also download a free template nutrition plan here.
Thank you to LYO EXPEDITION, Firepot, TentMeals, Expedition Foods and REAL Turmat for supplying samples of their meals for this review.
*All prices correct as of 11th September 2019.
**Euro to GBP conversion based on 11th September 2019 conversion rate.
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