In May 2014, The New Yorker published an article titled “The End of Food.” Rob Rhinehart was a member of a tech startup that was running out of money. Rhinehart determined his biggest expense was food, did some research, ordered supplies and developed a powdered food to provide all of his nutritional needs.
After he developed the formula and lived on it for a month, Rhinehart published a blog post, “How I Stopped Eating Food.” He wrote, “I feel like the six million dollar man. My physique has noticeably improved, my skin is clearer, my teeth whiter, my hair thicker and my dandruff gone.” In the spirit of open source, Rhinehart published his recipe, which spurred online communities to debate and tweak the composition.
Rhinehart was on to something – at some point he realized his idea could become a company. He called the product Soylent, which is arguably brilliant AND stupid (most common witticism when I mention the name: “I hear that’s people.”) The New Yorker piece came out shortly after the first batch of Soylent was shipped. Because it was The New Yorker (not Men’s Health), I was intrigued. I went online and ordered a week’s supply, for $70.
My first shipment of Soylent didn’t arrive until late October. The company was overwhelmed with orders and couldn’t meet demand. By the time mine arrived, Soylent was on version 1.1. (Rhinehart’s group of engineers tweaks the formula relentlessly, and includes a change log in every box.) I waited a week to try it, because I was performing in a show and didn’t want to risk an upset stomach. Specifically, I was nervous about going from 0 to 60 on my fiber intake.
New Soylent customers are given a pitcher for mixing. The process is simple: open a pouch, pour powder into pitcher, fill halfway with water, seal and shake, top off with water and shake again. Refrigerate for two hours before consuming, to improve texture. I’ve tweaked the process a bit – now I include six ice cubes before I add the powder, which allows me to drink sooner. Each pitcher is 2000 calories, basically a full day’s food for one adult.
“The End of Food” has proven a durable, irresistible headline. Most stories also can’t resist the 1973 movie reference, a sci-fi dystopia where the huddled masses eat Soylent Green, which is (spoiler alert) literally made from people. Those who write about Soylent usually try some, then compose unimaginative descriptions that are misleading at best and usually off-putting: “Pancake batter;” “Cake mix without the sugar.” Nutritionists are sometimes consulted for articles, which makes sense. Their comments reveal more about their alarm at losing their jobs than anything else: “The best thing I can say about Soylent is it probably won’t kill you;” “No way can Soylent provide the same nutrition as a diet filled with brightly colored fruits and vegetables.”
Rosa Labs (Rhinehart’s company name) shares press coverage via social media, no matter how negative or pedantic. A lot of what’s written misses the point. When I drank my first Soylent, in November 2014, I was long accustomed to energy drinks and vile protein powder additives. I couldn’t believe how smooth and pleasant Soylent was. It wasn’t like anything I’d had before. Not gritty, not cloying or gag-inducing. A pleasant glass of nutrition. (Bonus: Soylent is vegan.)
Here’s the appeal: Soylent has a long shelf life, it’s quick and easy to prepare, and requires minimal energy/resources to store, prepare, and consume (no power needed for blender or stove; even cleanup is extremely basic.) Rosa Labs continues to make the product more sustainable and strives to minimize environmental impact – they’re on version 1.5 (the sixth iteration), and just announced version 2.0 (a pre-mixed, bottled version). I don’t know if Soylent provides the best possible nutrition, but it provides better nutrition than I’m otherwise likely to get, left to my own whims.
Eating well takes significant time and money. I’ve tried. Usually, my weekly shopping focuses on dinner – the family’s primary meal. I’ll get breakfast foods for Susan and Sarah, and some basic lunch supplies. I buy fresh fruit and vegetables, but I don’t have storage or budget for what nutritionists recommend. My average weekly grocery bill is $170. Because I don’t plan breakfast or lunch, I don’t always make healthy choices.
Enter Soylent. My typical use is to consume 3 glasses over the course of the morning and afternoon. I’ve found it easy on my stomach (no surprises), and it provides level energy throughout the workday – no peaks and valleys. I’ve put it in an insulated bottle and consumed it throughout the day when I’ve worked on stage shows, which I used to survive on coffee and donuts. Soylent is just better – no over-full, bloated feel after a glass, and no hunger pangs, either. I can’t report the same miracle health results as Rhinehart, but I’m happy with the evidence of my experience: good energy, clear head, satisfied stomach… In some ways, Soylent is the ultimate comfort food – you know it’s better than whatever else you might have grabbed at the moment.
Still, my family won’t touch Soylent. “I can’t get past the texture,” both Susan and Sarah say. Most articles about Soylent discuss what people add to it, to make it more palatable. Online user groups seem to prove this is how most people use Soylent – they add flavors and ingredients to modify the nutrition profile, or the texture. Of course, it becomes much less convenient and more expensive, depending on what’s added.
We have expectations for what food should be that go way beyond nutrition. We want an experience. When I describe Soylent to friends, they invariably ask, “But don’t you miss food?” I wondered if I would, so in May I decided to eat almost nothing but Soylent for the entire month. 1 pitcher per day, no alcohol, lots of water, with 2 shots of espresso in the morning to stave off caffeine withdrawal. After 14 days I missed beer, so allowed myself a few during the third week. In the fourth week, I worked a show in Syracuse over several days and didn’t bring enough Soylent to last, so the “nothing but” experiment went aground. Although I have anecdotal evidence that I function better on Soylent, and I like the way it tastes, my brain got bored. It wanted variety. I returned to my normal intake pattern, which continues to provide a nice balance.
I think it’s relatively easy to overeat on Soylent. I consume three glasses, around 1200 calories per day, and I sometimes exceed the remainder of my daily caloric requirement when I’m not careful. Again, the mind plays tricks: “You’ve only had three glasses of Soylent all day. You can handle a second helping of potatoes (or dessert) at dinner.” But this isn’t a problem I expect Rhinehart to solve, or even be concerned about – it’s my issue.
I don’t know if Soylent is people. The movie connection makes it easy for people to dismiss the product as a joke, or something to be suspicious of. Of course, Apple took a lot of heat for iPad, and now the name is synonymous with “tablet computer.” I hope Soylent can do something similar. I don’t think Soylent is the end of food, either – it’s a type of food, which is easy to ship, store, prepare and consume. The implications for helping those who don’t currently have a reliable food supply are huge, and Rhinehart has plans. I don’t think nutritionists should worry, either. They’ll keep making pronouncements, and changing their mind every few years about what’s healthy and what isn’t. (I’ve lost track of whether coffee and chocolate are good for me; it doesn’t matter, because I’m going to keep enjoying both.)
The bottom line: I’m a Soylent fan. It’s fair to say I love the product, and the team that constantly improves it. More than most companies, they seem to have a vision beyond “let’s get as much as we can out of this,” or “hey, we had to [do some greedy thing] for the shareholders…” If you want to eat better, even if you’re just curious, give it a try.