Health

A Silicon Valley company claims it can solve world hunger and obesity with just an oily thickshake. 

By Gillian Terzis.

Are Soylent’s square meals a bit hard to swallow?

Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart with a bag of his finished product.
Credit: JOSH EDELSON/AFP

I waited more than seven months to receive a three-day supply of Soylent. Plenty of time to take in the global reaction to the marketing of this synthetic, open-source dietary supplement made of industrial nutrients and oils. A significant proportion of the Reddit community has been abuzz. Articles around the world speak of a “Soylent revolution”; some pontificate about whether it spells the end of food, while others dismiss it as repugnant. Many persuasively articulate the product’s upsides: that it is time-saving, nutritionally complete, and could provide health benefits to those who needed them most at a lower cost than the various processed options at the supermarket.

Rob Rhinehart, the 25-year-old software engineer who founded the company, has said in the past that Soylent has the potential to solve three of the world’s most intractable problems: world hunger, obesity and land preservation. He believes that food production – how it is made, manufactured and exists in the Western world – is at the heart of these issues, and that a replacement that reliably delivers nutritional needs is the solution, by bypassing the desire for variety. “It’s all about efficiency; it’s about cost and convenience,” he argues on his blog.

Each 444-gram bag of Soylent powder contains three meals of 670 calories. It is mixed with filtered water, ice and a canola and fish oil blend (the only animal product). Each serving provides you with about 28 per cent of your recommended carbohydrate intake, 33 per cent of potassium and 36 per cent of the recommended requirement for dietary fibre. 

Promotional material makes Soylent look like watered-down milk while pictures on community forums suggested a viscous beige gloop. Its taste and appearance is divisive among many users. The odourless concoction is best drunk chilled after vigorous shaking. When left to sit, the contents begin to separate, and the oils rise to the top to create a greasy film.

What might such a product say about the future of food and our relationship to it? I decided to sample it, but just for a few days of consumption. I wanted to see how practical the product was as a meal substitute, if it satisfied me on a physiological and psychological level, and what its popularity could signal for Silicon Valley’s cultural and social aspirations. 

Shipping delays to customers – or “backers”, as the start-up has it – are rife, and recent email updates eventually revealed that investigation of reports of benign side effects had been causing the hold-ups. Some users have reported mild physical reactions, including excessive flatulence and dehydration. “The flatulence issue seems to most drastically impact backers going from never having Soylent to immediately using Soylent for >60% of their diet,” the company reported. 

Still, enthusiasm for the product hasn’t waned, and the company is said to make about $10,000 from new orders each day. 

I soon noticed that an increasing number of the start-up’s early backers were offloading the product onto eBay, which is how I eventually got my hands on some. The guy I bought from was an enthusiastic lifehacker from Vermont who had bought several months’ supply but was starting to tire of it. He described the taste as “average”, but what seemed to be the bigger problem was the monotony of eating Soylent day-in, day-out. “I missed chewing most of all,” he said. 

To endure this self-imposed anhedonia over a period of months seemed grim. But my few days on a Soylent diet was manageable. Feeling rather like a body-builder, drinking my powdered meals each day, I found the taste somewhat like a heavily malted thickshake, with a slightly sedimentary mouthfeel. Rhinehart sees the neutral taste as a benefit that makes the product harder to actively dislike. It was filling and useful for early starts at work when I couldn’t be bothered to make breakfast, but despite feeling satiated switching to it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, not a pleasurable experience.

When compared with most meal replacement products, Soylent is nutritionally generous, even if it lacks some phytochemicals and trace elements found in fruit and vegetables. Rhinehart claims that a month on Soylent made his skin “clearer, teeth whiter, hair thicker and dandruff gone”. By my third day, I was suffering from some painful abdominal bloating – as well as boredom. Soylent’s utilitarian function felt oppressive, in an almost dystopian way.

Perhaps that’s fitting, as it’s a common misconception that Soylent got its name from the hammy ’70s sci-fi thriller Soylent Green. The film imagined a future so overpopulated and bereft of natural resources that food had to be rationed in the form of green wafers of dubious nutritional content (that is, human remains, memorably revealed when policeman Charlton Heston cries out, “Soylent Green is people!”). Rhinehart’s website drily observes that “Soylent is not people”. 

Instead, the name is derived from Harry Harrison’s 1966 dystopian novel Make Room! Make Room!, upon which Soylent Green is loosely based. It also explores the consequences of unchecked population and consumption growth on society, though its ubiquitous soylent steaks are less grotesque – they’re made from soy and lentils. The steaks are an increasingly scarce commodity, and food riots ensue.  

It’s a provocative name for a product meant to address global hunger – and Soylent contains but a minute amount of soy lecithin – but it’s certainly memorable, and Rhinehart wants to protect it. A DIYer in the Netherlands has recently created Joylent, a banana-flavoured powder he ships exclusively in Europe. While Soylent is open source and unpatented, Rhinehart has warned the community not to infringe upon the company’s proprietary trademark. “It is unwise to enter into direct competition with us,” he said. 

Liquid meal replacements are hardly a new concept. Australians spent more than $1.5 billion on weight loss and protein shakes in 2013, and similar supplements are used in hospitals worldwide – even at Guantanamo Bay to force-feed detainees. 

But feeding the world a diet of Soylent sounds like a particular kind of technocratic thinking deployed by Silicon Valley start-ups to solve complex issues. Evgeny Morozov, a polemical tech critic and the author of To Save Everything Click Here: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, interrogates the notion that technology is an uncritical proponent of social change, a corrective for a supposed market failure. He objects to the way that such failures (world hunger, or dating, for instance) are narrowly presented as the result of fundamentally inefficient or unproductive frameworks. That Soylent promotes maximum nutrition with minimum effort and at a decent cost is not the issue. It is, however, unclear how giving the world Soylent will untangle, for instance, the messier structural forces to blame for food’s oversupply and underdistribution to those in need. 

And it may be too much to expect Soylent to solve a developing-world problem when it is unlikely to do a good job in countering First World ones. We don’t eat simply for survival but for pleasure. Foodie culture has become mainstream, and various movements – molecular gastronomy, slow food, paleo, organic – have shaped our relationship with what we eat, adding emotional connection to the physiological. The endorphin-rush of dark chocolate, the light intoxication of a sugar hit, greasy food during hangovers: meals can be nutritionally deficient but also sustain us, albeit in different ways. 

Soylent’s website poses a provocative question: “What if you never had to worry about food again?” But do we think of food in this way, as a source of tyranny and fear? Shopping for groceries can be time-consuming and occasionally dull, but is it robbing us of properly full lives? The joy that comes with preparing and cooking your own food might be one of the few truly pleasurable forms of labour. And the communal rituals of sharing a meal with friends and family are also compelling to many of us.

Anyone who’s been on a diet or joined a gym will be familiar with the concept of food as fuel and the old adage of “eating to live” as opposed to “living to eat”. In an interview with The New Yorker, Rhinehart took this idea to its extreme conclusion: “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” But in our food-centric culture, such mantras seem unduly austere. 

Research is only just beginning to uncover the links between food intake and mood. Professor Ashley Blackshaw, an enteric neuroscientist at Queen Mary University of London, says that comfort food is not just an indulgence, but “something that, scientifically, we are seeing increasingly as something that should be part of daily life”. 

Journalist and noted omnivore Michael Pollan has long railed against the engineering of food throughout history. He observes that most people today don’t actually eat food, but cheap “edible food-like substances”. That’s not a bad descriptor for Soylent. Rhinehart agrees with Pollan, writing: “Practically everything has gotten better over the past century, but food has gotten worse. This is because food is a haven for reactionaries.” His solution, though, is the opposite of Pollan’s rallying cry to return to unprocessed foods. An explicit product of food science, Soylent seeks to provide a taste of liberation from the tyrannies of food production, in a measured dose of convenience.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 26, 2014 as "Square meals". Subscribe here.

Gillian Terzis
is a San Francisco-based writer.

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