FUELLING A MULTI-STAGE ULTRA FOR VEGAN RUNNERS
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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
LYO EXPEDITION

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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X

Fire­pot

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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
Tent­Meals

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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
Exped­i­tion Foods

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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
REAL Tur­mat

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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
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.

Fuelling A Multi-Stage Ultra for Vegan Runners Ultra X
Over­all Ver­dict

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.