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.