Environment & Health HKFP Voices

Food forever: Why Soylent doesn’t stand a chance

“An engineered staple food to provide maximum nutrition with minimal effort” – Soylent Press Kit

The economy is online and global, consequently workers face competition from near and thousands of miles far. The pressure is on, but where can we find more time? Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart points to the hours spent buying, preparing, and eating food. Out of work and short on money, Rhinehart studied the human diet to find a way to save some of the cash and effort spent on preparing meals. Experimenting on himself to fine-tune the proportions, he created a home-brew of 40 ingredients. He named it ‘Soylent’.

soylent

Soylent. Photo: Wikicommons.

Inspired by the tech industry, Soylent aims to ‘hack’ daily routine to increase productivity and efficiency. Rhinehart says drinking it saves time and money, with the added bonus of a reduced footprint from not using meat. The connection to tech even extends to how Soylent is formulated – there is no fixed recipe, rather an open source formula subject to user reviews and suggestions. For example, online complaints about the infamous gassiness experienced by dedicated drinkers forced a reduction in soluble fiber. In an effort to build its user base, Rosa Labs, the company behind Soylent, supports DIYers concocting their own nutritional brews. A growing community of motivated diet optimizers has emerged, constantly looking to create recipes to match their lifestyles.

The first Soylent iteration was a pack of powder and leaky canister of blended canola and fish oil that when mixed with water, turned into a thick, odorless, tasteless, off-white goo. It was so unappetizing it had to be tried, launching waves of bloggers drinking nothing else for weeks. Despite the poor reviews, it has attracted a devoted following and more recently serious funding. Soylent continues to evolve in nutrition and form, as seen in Soylent 1.4, which ditched the leaky oil mix for powdered oils. Hoping to increase accessibility beyond the DIY crowd, the 2.0 iteration will be pre-made, moving it into the reach of the casually curious.

Although classed by the FDA as food, Soylent is barely recognizable as such, with next to no grown ingredients other than oat flour and rice protein. What remains is maltodextrin, vitamins, and minerals. Disconcertingly these are sourced from a lab rather than a field. One pack of Soylent is around three meals for an average adult, and clocks in at 2,000 calories with little added sugar, saturated fat, or cholesterol, falling well within U.S. health guidelines for an adult diet.

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Joylent – the European equivalent. Photo: HKFP.

On paper this constitutes a nutritionally balanced, safe, and healthy meal. As a result marketing materials proclaim it the future of food. However, this falls short in light of the reductionist concept it pushes: food is simply a vehicle for necessary chemicals. Following this reasoning, if the chemicals needed for bodily function are known, then we can replace food with purer, more concentrated solutions of nutrients and vitamins. If this sounds too good to be true, it is.

Food is irreplaceable, apart from its superior taste and texture, because we’re not even sure of what it does – but we do know it does it well. This uncertainty explains the dizzying rate at which diets, super fruits and vegetables are touted and then quickly discarded. Michael Pollan in his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto says food science is mostly based on breaking down the chemistry of a food and then testing each nutrient to see the effects when a lot or a little is present. But the complexity of food is such that, even if we know the effect of individual nutrients, we don’t know how they operate when paired with others. This also assumes a food is eaten in isolation or even in its natural state. Context can’t be ignored. Tomatoes for example are baked, boiled, eaten raw, and sometimes mixed with oils and herbs. How we eat them, and with what, changes the impact of nutrients and our metabolism of them.

Humans have evolved to derive greatest nutritional value from food we grow or raise, and that can’t be ignored yet. It seems foolish to engineer a tasteless gloop for the sake of efficiency. Instead our efforts should be turned to improving the global agricultural system so that products that truly were tailored for our consumption are available for all.

Food forever: Why Soylent doesn’t stand a chance