Why the hell would anyone want to live on Soylent?

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Soylent has become a mainstream topic, mostly thanks to a recent feature article in The New Yorker.

For those who don’t know about it, Soylent is a nutritionally complete drink invented by Rob Rhinehart, a Bay-Area engineer and entrepreneur. It comes as a powder you mix with water and oil. Theoretically, it contains everything the body needs to thrive, without much of anything else.

Rob announced his invention in a blog post a year ago, entitled How I Stopped Eating Food, claiming that he had not eaten a bite of food in 30 days and felt better than ever.

After a lot of experimenting and refining, Soylent is officially on the market now, and customers are now experimenting with it. It’s early, but their results seem generally positive.

I first heard about it late last year from a friend of mine, who’s different from most of us in that she often finds eating to be a chore. She doesn’t particularly like preparing food for herself (although she does like preparing it for others) and usually only eats for sustenance. So to her Soylent sounded like a dream come true, and she’s been following its progress ever since.

When she told me about it, my reaction was, “That’s neat, but no thanks. I like food.” In fact, I like food so much that I want more opportunities to eat it, not fewer. Why would I want to waste a chance to eat by filling myself with an engineered bio-fuel, when I could be making a curry or fresh bread? Later I would find some compelling reasons.

The most hated beverage on the internet

After reading the New Yorker article, I spent quite a while on the web reading people’s opinions of Soylent. They seem to be mostly negative (although the accounts of early users are mostly positive.)

In the gloves-off world of internet “discussion,” most of the criticisms were, predictably, empty ad hominems directed at Rhinehart and the people who like his idea — “Too lazy to cook,” “Hate life so much they detest even food,” “Self-loathing hipsters who would give up their last remaining joy to find 90 more minutes a day to work on their iPhone app,” and even, “Just eat. Stop normalizing anorexia.” 

Over the past week I’ve read every article on Soylent I could find, and their mostly-venomous comment sections. I was looking for the smartest arguments on both sides, but I couldn’t find a lot of anti-Soylent commentary that didn’t amount to flippant and fallacious remarks — appeals to tradition and nature.

Soylent is made from a long list of ingredients with long names, which I’ve been taught is “bad” but I’m not sure I have a clear reason to think that.

The typical dismissal of Soylent amounts to something like this: “real food” is what humans should be eating and that’s just the way it is.

I’m now more skeptical of this attitude than I am of Soylent. A lot of people claimed what we call “real food” is crucial, but few of them could be specific about how they’re certain of that. As one supporter on Soylent’s official forum wrote, all objections to the product seem to be a form of one of six arguments:

  • “It’s a liquid diet, human beings require solid food, we have to chew,” etc.
  • “It’s not natural, it’s synthetic chemicals, you don’t know what’s in that stuff,” etc.
  • “It’s going to destroy society and culture, it’s the end of food,” etc.
  • “We don’t know enough about nutrition to possibly create something that is safe, therefore it’s not,” etc.
  • “Humans have been eating “real food” for thousands of years, don’t mess with what works,” etc.
  • “It has the look and consistency of semen, is absolutely disgusting tasteless slurry, nobody sane would touch that stuff,” etc.

None of these seem to worry most of Soylent’s supporters, and in my reading I didn’t find any convincing versions of these objections. A long-term liquid diet doesn’t sound appealing to me, but most users (including Rhinehart) still eat solid meals at least a few times a week anyway, and that seems to be the product’s value for most people — it allows you to not make a big deal out of most of your feedings, if you don’t want to.

The name itself might be the most common point of criticism, because of its association with cannibalism in the movie Soylent Green. This was a conscious choice by Rhinehart, and probably a brilliant marketing decision.

The appeal of “Real”

“Michael Pollan’s ‘real foods’ are like Sarah Palin’s ‘real Americans,’” says Rhinehart in a blog post, and I agree with what he’s getting at. Many of our “real” foods are unrecognizable from their wild origins. Nature did not make strawberries the size of golf balls, or corn cobs larger than your pinky, and certainly didn’t create the kinds of flours, dairy products and domesticated meats that many people consider to be good old fashioned real food. Nature, even prior to our modifications, includes toxins and carcinogens too, and there’s no reason to presume that anything “natural” is categorically good for us (or that the reverse is true.)

The “Stay away, this isn’t natural!” sentiment seems to be convincing enough to many people. But it’s exactly this vagueness and fundamentalism that makes me believe the boys behind Soylent are onto something, at least in their doubts about our conventional beliefs about food.

Not all the criticisms are mindless though. People are asking reasonable questions, particularly the question of how a person would fare over the long term on a 100% Soylent diet. I suppose a lot of the unknowns about the physiological effects of Soylent are inevitably going to become known over the next year. I understand not wanting to be a test subject, as Soylent’s current customers effectively are, although you could say the same for a lot of human-made products we are currently eating, using or living with.

It has also been pointed out that Rhinehart is an engineer, not a scientist. Outside the last year or so he has no background in food science, although in the mean time he seems to have done the necessary homework, and has enlisted help from doctors and other advisors.

It’s also true that our knowledge of nutrition is famously murky – we don’t know everything about the body’s needs, and so something important could be getting overlooked. Soylent is supposed to contain all nutrients known to be needed by the human body, but some say there may be certain phytochemicals in plants that we need but don’t yet know we need.

The big question: Why?

Aside from the mindless flaming, the most common reactions to the idea seem to be, “Why the hell would anyone want to eat that stuff instead of actual food?” and “Don’t we already have meal replacement shakes?” (As one commenter said, “Congrats bro, you just invented Slim-Fast.”)

“Why?” is a totally reasonable question, and as someone who does find Soylent appealing, I’ll try to answer it.

One recurring criticism of Soylent (which is actually its purpose) is that it only attempts to address the nutritional side of eating. We all know there are many other reasons we eat — social, cultural, emotional, and recreational reasons, and other practical reasons not related to nutrition. It seems to be healthy to take a break from work at certain intervals, and regular mealtimes provide that. Some meals are a convenient chance to bond with people.

But these other reasons also make our relationship to food quite complicated, and often troublesome. In particular, our nutritional motives for eating are often at odds with our recreational motives. For many of us, food is something we relate to primarily as a pleasure object, but which also happens to be how we get our nutrition. There’s a certain vigilance we need to exercise in order not to eat too much (or at least too much of the wrong things) and to eat foods that contain the things we’re not getting enough of (even if we don’t like them.)

Balancing the pleasure we seek in food with our needs to take certain substances in and keep others out can be a stressful and difficult task for many people. For many it’s a lifelong struggle. Even though we need food to live, we often regard the food in our lives as posing a certain ever-present danger, and often it does.

If you’ve ever found it difficult to reduce the number of calories you consume, or reduce your sodium intake, or to optimize your fatty acids ratio, or to get enough iron or calcium, consider that it may be a lot easier to do those things when most of your meals aren’t simultaneously counted on to be entertaining. There’s no reason every meal needs to be beautiful, or fun, or social or otherwise gratifying.

Trying to balance nutrition with the gratifying element of eating may have never been a problem for you, but it has been for me and probably hundreds of millions of others, even if they’ve never thought of it that way.

This is the main reason why I’m so interested to experiment with Soylent. I like the idea of separating the occasions when I eat for pleasure from the occasions when I eat for nourishment. I don’t need to be entertained by my food every time I eat, and I suspect it’s healthier not to be.

The option of a simple, balanced, culinarily uninteresting staple — that isn’t relied on as a source of entertainment, or an emotional refuge — could reduce or eliminate a lot of the troubles many of us have with food. If most of my meals were just utilitarian refuellings, then the times that I eat normal food, I could make it all about the social and sensory pleasures, without ever courting the gratification/nutrition tightrope at all.

There’s also the simple factor of time saved. Occasional breaks from activity are probably healthy, but I don’t always want to spend them chopping, frying, baking or eating something. I spend a couple hours a day on food currently, and over a lifetime that constitutes years that I might have found a better use for.

We make a big deal about the social value of eating, but the reality is that many or most of our meals are completely forgettable and unsocial, and depending on your values and interests, might not provide any benefit other than the intake of nutrients.

Your lifestyle might be totally different than mine, and standard meal breaks might serve you perfectly well. But there are certainly many of us who, if given the option, might choose not to make eating a ceremonial, day-splitting event, at least most of the time.

I want to see, in a Soylent trial, what I learn about these complicated relationships to food. They’ve been invisible to me most of my life because I had taken for granted that every meal must have these multiple, and sometimes conflicting, purposes.

“Congrats bro, you’ve invented Slim-Fast”

As many have pointed out, meal replacement powders and shakes have been around for decades. So why aren’t people already living on Slim-Fast and Ensure?

Rhinehart is well aware of the fact that Soylent isn’t the first beverage designed to replace meals. He considered using Ensure for his initial no-eating experiment, but found it much too expensive, too sugary, too unpalatable, and sub-optimal in its ingredient make-up.

The differentiating factor seems to be in the intended purpose. Meal-replacement shakes have never been presented as a food — something that you could (or might want to) live on for an extended period. The existing products are marketed as supplements for people with medical issues preventing solid food intake, or who want to lose weight by consuming a low-calorie drink instead of their usual solid meal.

The existing drinks are a lot more expensive per calorie than most people’s food, and probably too sweet for most people to tolerate for long. Soylent is meant to be drinkable but neutral-tasting, so that you don’t get sick of it. Reactions to the taste are mixed, skewing towards the “not great, but pleasantly surprised” side.

I will do a proper experiment whenever I get a chance — it’s not available in Canada yet. I’m following the experiences of early customers on their blogs and Youtube videos. I want to see not just the effects on their health, but also on their routines, their expenses, their social lives, and their beliefs about food.

I have no idea whether it will change the world or be a huge flop, or something in between. Maybe it will help a lot of people. Or maybe it’s overlooked something crucial. Perhaps it won’t be viable for some reason we haven’t thought of — some property of the human body we’re about to discover.

The big-picture implications are also interesting. Rob Rhinehart definitely has grand ambitions for this product and hopes it will play a role in alleviating hunger. Widespread adoption of something like Soylent could have world-changing effects on agriculture, ecology, social norms, and economics, and it’s hard to know whether it would make things better or worse.

In the mean time, it’s just another product on the market, and I completely understand that most people will have no interest in using it. But from what I’ve been seeing, non-supporters generally aren’t uninterested, they’re irate. If you read some of the discussions on the web about Soylent, you’ll notice it seems to inspire unusual amounts of hostility and ridicule, even for the internet.

This reaction only makes me more interested. This idea is so offensive to some people, and so appealing to others, that I can’t help but think we’re about to make some very revealing discoveries about the nature of nutrition and our beliefs about food.

What do you think? Does Soylent excite you? Worry you? Why?

UPDATE: I’ve started my experiment. I’m consuming a home-made DIY soylent recipe for about 70% of my daily calories. It’s already very interesting. I’m logging my experience here.

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Photo by Francis Storr

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Tim W May 27, 2014 at 8:35 am

First, to the author of this piece, I’d like to say ‘well done!’. I like how you grabbed me with that headline but ended up answering that question with an open-minded attitude.
As for me, I’m still eagerly awaiting my first shipment of soylent. This stuff sounds like a no-brainer to me for numerous reasons, all of which have probably been debated in this comments section. I really see no downside to the genius idea behind soylent and am suprised at a lot of the negative reactions.
I plan on using it as my day-starter and eating a regular meal at dinner. If it works as intended, I might finally lose those few extra pounds and hopefully have more energy than I’m used to. If not, no big deal. I don’t really feel any more the guinea pig than if I were eating something off the shelf with a half-mile ingredient list(half or more of which I’ve never heard of). Really, some of the arguments against this stuff are just childish and ignorant. But eventually, they’ll all come around…they always do…..mwah hahahahahaha!!

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David Cain May 29, 2014 at 10:03 am

Thanks Tim.

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one-timer May 27, 2014 at 10:49 am

Time. I hate spending time getting food, preparing food, eating food. The next thing I wish there was a soylent for (or whatever it’s called), is sleep.

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Mike Grillo May 27, 2014 at 1:29 pm

His product and thought-process, in my opinion, is spot on. The name of the game in today’s day and age is time efficiency. Time is finite, and you need to choose wisely as to how you spend it. So why spend 30-60 mins preparing food (a chore in some people’s eyes) when you can bang out a meal that will be ‘just as good’ (to be determined) for your body in under 5 minutes?

A few shortcomings:
- not every looks at food preparation as a chore. I for one look at it as a labor of love, and as a therapeutic activity after a long day at the office. For some, a pantry full of ingredients is an artist’s palate and you can drum up some pretty creative and tasty (and nutritious) dishes.
- not every body is the same. Age, sex, height, activity levels, pre-existing medical conditions, etc. all come into play. A “one-size-fits-all” approach has never and will never exist in the nutrition realm. I applaud the product as a starting point, but it is by no means a cure-all for each and every person.
- you only get one body, so i’m interested to see who the guinea pigs will be. Without the benefit of knowing and understanding the long-term effects of a Soylent-based diet, the inventor/entrepreneur will be a little more hard-pressed to find an audience who will embrace the product with open arms.

In my opinion, I think Soylent will function more like your standard Ensure or meal replacement drink, rather than an “all-or-nothing” type of diet. The clinical research of the drink’s safety is not available, and without knowing the long-term ramifications of this type of diet, I just don’t see it taking off as much as the inventor hopes it will.

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Rklawton May 27, 2014 at 2:30 pm

I love to eat, I love to cook, I love to entertain, blah blah. But I found Soylent tremendously exciting, conceptually.
- when I don’t have time to cook, I still get a decent meal
- I expect it will improve my nutrition overall
- it’s a lot cheaper and healthier than fast food
- AND it’s lighter, easier to store, easier to transport, doesn’t spoil… so it should be great for backpacking!

I ordered a week’s supply immediately after reading the New Yorker article. It’s due to arrive in August.

My only other question is – how do I invest?

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Soylent Fan May 27, 2014 at 4:43 pm

Soylent will be very usefull for good purposes like reduce the hunger in the world, help to feed people in natural disasters, wars, refugees camps, etc.

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Ghendi May 28, 2014 at 2:00 pm

I see (only) problems with this kind of innovative food (sorry for my rigid english and long comment):
- non organic food – humans are not plants which feed directly from soil and use everything nature can offer to transform it. Humans (and most of the animals) eat food that is or was at some point ALIVE. I can’t really understand how this can be overlooked.
We don’t eat dirt and I don’t think our organism supports that. As I know there is lots of evidence when creating medicine out of chemicals that should be the “same” as their organic counterpart but with no effect or with opposite effects. I’m pretty sure it’s the same case with food. And I see another aspect, I think our humanity itself is influenced by the things we eat although this is not an easy subject to go into. Basically all the actions we do have an effect on us whether we realize it or not.
- eradicating hunger – this is a utopia, there are enough resources to feed all the people of the world but it does not happen because of economical interests, culture. This kind of solution would just bring a new product on the market which creates the illusion of a quick cheap solution but there is no such thing. Good, healthy products which integrates correctly in the human society and in the surroundings do not just pop up from the soil, they require hard work, implication, experience. To eradicate hunger we don’t need miracle products we need to fix what we currently do wrong.
- no time for cooking, not enjoying eating – I can understand people wanting to go faster, to skip unpleasant things, to have no problems whatsoever – because that’s the direction in this case. However I think deep inside people embracing this kind of solution with no second thoughts already lost their inner direction and sense of reality (or maybe they never had it) and this would be one more try to have that, but actually would be one more step away from it. One must first recognize and accept the human aspects of life in order to achieve that. Running away from that it’s not a solution, on the opposite it’s often where you can recognize yourself as human. I see a different problem that emerges from these needs. So there must be an equilibrium between what humans are and what they want to do while they are alive.

This is a huge temptation and illusion specially with people seeking/finding self emancipation from own external conditions or own fears/problems. One could think – I managed to do this and this then I can/could do this as well. Maybe once maybe only sometimes when I really need it. Indeed. But is that really good? One can try it. One can learn from that. One can die from that. That’s how life goes. I do not fear about a hand of people trying this and having an experience out of which they’ve learned something valuable (this is where I see you). I’ve learned that nothing in life is easy and usually the simple solution is the worst. Once you have enough experience you learn that there is no such thing as a simple or fast solution. If something appears like such is because there was a lot of effort done into that at some point by someone.

As said I’m not afraid of some people trying it. I worry that at some point this kind of illusory solutions could be “forced” into the society and usually most of the people will not have other choice or solutions than to embrace it (due to lack of knowledge, social conditions, not knowing otherwise, general tendency, etc) and this is what I’m really against. There are lots of these solutions already in the world and creating collapse after collapse from many points of view and I don’t think I’m pessimistic but realistic. I see humanity is at the point where it has little knowledge but thinks it has enough to make important decisions/changes in all aspects of life, it has power and not much responsibility (morality). It has discovered new things and is making lots of assumptions and decisions based on that without having much experience and insights. And I see this in most of the fields of science.
So this whole idea it just seems immature and potentially destructive to society to me.

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Trixie May 29, 2014 at 9:06 am

There’s an article in the New York Times (online version May 29) about a writer’s experiment with Soylent entitled “the Soylent Revolution Will Not Be Pleasurable.” I don’t think I need to tell you his conclusion:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/29/technology/personaltech/the-soylent-revolution-will-not-be-pleasurable.html?emc=edit_th_20140529&nl=todaysheadlines&nlid=39846329&_r=0

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David Cain May 29, 2014 at 10:01 am

Thanks for the link.

Baffling article though. His criticism is that Soylent has a “fatal flaw”, which is that it isn’t delightful to eat. That’s the whole point, and I’m not sure how a professional reporter doing a story on this stuff could somehow not know that. Embarrassing piece for the NYT.

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Trixie May 29, 2014 at 11:45 am

As I read the author’s criticisms and your post about Soylent (which I hadn’t heard of until you wrote about it), I thought of a former boss who told me her husband hated to eat (she and I used to go out to lunch a lot as she didn’t share his opinion). She told me that if he could take a pill and be full, he’d be happy. He might be one of the types of people who would love Soylent.

Even though Soylent doesn’t appeal to me, I’m tired of the notion that we all have to like the same things. Of course, I’m the first to admit my hypocrisy, as I often proclaim, “How can anyone like _____?” (Fill in the blank with almost any reality show, mindless movie, generic music, etc.) For years, my mother-in-law has been drinking Slim-Fast for breakfast instead of making a meal, and it hasn’t hurt her a bit!

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The Bottom Line May 30, 2014 at 8:25 am

David started out his article discussing six common objections to Soylent, and discussing those objections and the social implication of this new product.

The comments show very detailed (and sometimes somewhat heated) discussions on the merits and demerits of this product.

I think we can identify 3 further objections (beyond the original 6) to Soylent here :

OBJECTION 7 : Our current knowledge of what nutrients the body itself needs as well as what intestinal microbes need for our all-round health is by no means complete. This represents unacceptable risk for any product that seeks to be a food substitute in any sense of the term (as opposed to a once-in-a-blue-moon drink/food). The FDA’s jurisdiction on this seems unclear, but clearly the ethically and medically responsible position would be to defer public sales and public consumption before validation of the product through years of clinical trial.

OBJECTION 8 : There appears to be a concerted campaign to highlight social advantages of this product, such as its potential for tackling hunger in general, such as higher production efficiency per calorie, such as better overall nutrition in many cases, and so on. None of these social advantages are proved ; and in some cases, for instance the tackling of hunger in general, the pricing of the product runs actually counter to that philosophy (although it does follow accepted pricing policy for regular businesses). Thus, all these extra social angles that are being highlighted need to be seen for what they are : unsubstantiated efforts at promotion of the product through social media channels (or, if not that, then unwarranted enthusiasm on the part of naïve social media types).

OBJECTION 9 : This product is neither the first nor the only one in its current category. It is very probably not going to be the last, unless the whole product category itself fails to take off. Individual users may try it, certainly, provided they are willing to risk ingesting a product that has not seen adequate clinical trial (and the risk is compounded if the quantities ingested are anywhere near the large amounts that the company envisages and tries to sell, as opposed to sporadic trial) : but to see this as anything other than simply another commercial product would be naïve, and to promote it as anything other than a commercial product is potentially unethical.

Let’s leave the markets to either make or mar this product, as it makes or mars so many other products that people make and sell. Let’s stop giving free publicity to this purely commercial product, which is being made and sold primarily to earn profit (like any other product in the market)! Above all, let us keep our eyes and ears wide open, so that we are not gypped into embracing the consumerist agenda of those with vested interests (even if those interests appear legitimate according the standards of a consumerist paradigm).

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Joe June 8, 2014 at 7:40 pm

I guess my avoidance of news is more effective than I thought. This is the first I have heard of this! Anyhow, it is intriguing. I have no desire to be among the early adopters of this sort of idea, but I have to say it is interesting to hear of someone trying to tackle this.

It’s sad there’s so many people who think that it is simply a scam and react so viciously about it. Everyone makes their own choices and if there is any sort of “mind games” going on here, it is simply because people allow themselves to believe it.

Will I be trying it? Hardly. I look cooking and eating real food too much. But, I can see the market for this kind of thing. Time will tell.

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ashley June 24, 2014 at 9:51 am

I would have to disagree that Soylent is made from a long list of ingredients with long names. As a personal trainer, this post made me very curious, as I’d never heard of Soylent before. I read through the ingredients and I didn’t find them to be very bad. A large majority are just vitamins, minerals, and proteins. The other few ingredients are mostly just different variations of sugar that you will often find in protein powders. I certainly wouldn’t start telling people to go on at only-Soylent diet, but I really don’t see much wrong with consuming these in general.

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Deb July 1, 2014 at 4:21 pm

I have a genetic muscle disorder which requires that I eat a high protein, high-potassium, low carbohydrate diet. My partner has a form of muscular dystrophy, celiac disease and seizures brought on by certain food additives so he requires an entirely different diet from me. (It had to be karma, we’ve been together 49 years.)

I’ve come to the point where shopping is extremely difficult and there are always three or four days of the week when I am too physically weak to make *any* kind of meal, let alone one which fills our individual needs. The “meal replacement” drinks like Ensure are far too high in carbs for me and have additives that give him seizures. Plus they would gag a maggot.

But a DIY soylent mix could be extremely helpful for us. There are days when eating itself, even just swallowing, is work. After all the hand-wringing I went over to look at the actual Soylent recipe, which is basically rice protein, oat flour, maltodextrin (a starchy sweetener made from rice or corn), and exactly the same additives and conditioners you get in a loaf of commercially baked whole grain bread, plus a vitamin pill. So I am at a loss at what the fuss is about. It’s basically gluten-free bread, without the yeast or the baking.

My *personal* opinion (I studied nutrition and have taught nutrition at the community college level) is that the carbohydrate ratio is too high but I have bought all of the necessary ingredients to make the “original” Soylent (minus the vitamin pill) in the local health food store’s bulk food section. If you have ever baked gluten-free bread, as I have, you’d have used them. And if you’ve ever taken a vitamin pill you’ve taken all the “scary-sounding” chemicals.

Looking at the DIY recipes I see that, with help, I could make two individualized mixes, one for me and one for my husband, to keep on hand. Right now on the days I can’t cook he eats canned pork and beans. I either eat soft fruit or I microwave a bean burrito, which fills my stomach but does not meet my nutritional needs. With the DIY mixes we could at least have decent nutrition on the days when I can’t cook.

As I have grown older I’ve discovered that “solutions” are rarely black or white. One solution never fits all, and even then the “right” solution might not fit all the time. As far as I can tell no one has suggested everyone is going to be force fed Soylent in lieu of their nutritious Big Macs or Double bacon Whopper combos. It’s another choice, if you don’t like the idea, don’t try it. If it meets a need for enough people it will last, if it doesn’t it won’t.

I wouldn’t live on soylent either, but I might find it useful in the toolbox of “How to deal with getting food in us today, when my body isn’t cooperating.”

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Pedro Palhoto July 23, 2014 at 4:46 am

For me, it boils down to having more options available. That doesn’t mean I am forced to choose an option.

What about food stamps turning to soylent stamps (or other social security nutritional aids)? It may remove other “natural” options from people in need, though at least it would also remove the possibility of poor choices with food high in fat and sugar.

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