Soylent is a technologically novel food that its makers say offers the complete set of nutrients the human body needs for survival. Photo: Getty
I just spent more than a week experiencing Soylent, the most joyless new technology to hit the world since we first laid eyes on MS-DOS.
Soylent is a drink mix invented by a group of engineers who harbour ambitions of shaking up the global food business. Robert Rhinehart, the 25-year-old co-founder and chief executive of the firm selling the drink, hit upon the idea when he found himself spending too much time and money searching for nutritious meals while he was working on a wireless-tech start-up in San Francisco. Using a process Rhinehart calls “scientific,” the firm claims to have mixed a cornucopia of supplements to form a technologically novel food that offers the complete set of nutrients the human body needs for survival.
You can live on Soylent alone, Rhinehart claims, though in practice he said customers would most likely use it to replace just their “staple meals,” by which he meant most of the junk you eat every day to fill yourself up. Rhinehart argued that Soylent, which costs about $3 per serving, is cheaper, easier to prepare and more nutritious than much of the food that makes up the typical American officer worker’s diet today.
Robert Rhinehart spent months living on nothing but Soylent and claims it improved his health. Photo: New York Times
About a week and a half ago, I began drinking Soylent every day. I can’t recommend that you do the same. For a purported breakthrough with such grand plans for reshaping the food industry, I found Soylent to be a punishingly boring, joyless product. From the plain white packaging to the purposefully bland, barely sweet flavour to the motel-carpet beige hue of the drink itself, everything about Soylent screams function, not fun. It may offer complete nourishment, but only at the expense of the aesthetic and emotional pleasures many of us crave in food.
And although the drink is tastier than its horror sci-fi name implies, the whole idea of replacing lots of your meals with the same stuff day after day is a nightmarish prospect. It suggests that Soylent’s creators have forgotten a basic ingredient found in successful tech products, not to mention in most good foods. That ingredient is delight.
Most whiz-bang technologies don’t sell themselves on function alone; they’ve got to offer pleasure, too. My favourite recent example is the ride-sharing service Uber. Sure, hailing a cab on your phone is more convenient than waiting for one on a street corner. But that’s not the main reason people love Uber. They love it because Uber lets you feel like the boss: A car rushes to pick you up, and when it drops you off, you jump out without ever reaching for your wallet, as if you own the town. Uber isn’t using technology to sell convenience. It’s selling addictive thrills. It’s selling joy.
Besides offering no joy, Soylent presented other troubles. For much of the time I used it, Soylent produced gastrointestinal symptoms ranging from mildly irritating to perilous. Judging by other users’ online descriptions of my experiences, my gut’s reaction wasn’t unusual, but Rhinehart said it was likely to be temporary, the result of my body adjusting to the government-recommended amount of fiber in Soylent.
I believe him, but there are still questions about Soylent’s healthfulness. Though Rhinehart spent months living on nothing but Soylent and claims it improved his health, the firm has not performed any large-scale studies to show that drinking Soylent over an extended period of time is good for you, or even that it’s not bad for you. Rhinehart said the firm was conducting a large study, but he declined to divulge any details or a timeline for when it might post results.
Soylent’s biggest failing, though, is its stultifying utilitarianism. Even Rhinehart describes Soylent mainly in terms of its functional promise. “The most important aspect of this product is simplicity,” he told me. “We’re trying to abstract away the complexity. Here’s this drink that has everything you need, so if it’s your go-to meal, you don’t have to worry about anything else.”
But there is something troubling about the notion of a “go-to meal.” During the last week and a half, I consumed Soylent for most, but not all, of my meals. There were a couple of days when more than 90 percent of my calories came from the powder. At first, as Rhinehart promised, I did find Soylent to be extremely convenient. It alleviated some of the stress I often feel when I’m pressed for time on a busy workday and need to find something healthy to eat.
That feeling faded. The longer I used it, the more Soylent began to feel like a chore. I began to yearn for the mechanics of solid meals — chewing, swallowing, using my hands and silverware and experiencing a variety of textures and temperatures. I missed crunchy foods, salty foods, noisy foods and hot foods. (Soylent, like revenge, is best served cold.)
Most of all, I missed variety. Soylent’s instructions suggested adding peanut butter, fruit, vanilla extract or other flavourings to the drink. I did, but still, Soylent tasted pretty much the same from day to day — like gritty, thinned-down pancake batter, inoffensive and dull.
Rhinehart offered a canny defence for the criticism that Soylent is leaching the joy out of food. “Obviously there’s a lot more to food than nutrition,” he said. “We don’t expect people to live on this entirely. In fact, we think this elevates food into more of a leisure activity. You can go out with your friends or family, and if your default, staple meal is very healthy and sustainable and balanced, you can enjoy your other meals even more, because you don’t have to worry about how healthy they are.”
But as soon as I began using Soylent, it dawned on me that Rhinehart’s entire premise of dividing food into “staple meals” and “leisure meals” was suspect.
It’s true that people sometimes eat meals that are mainly for sustenance (cheap frozen dinners, dried ramen, corn dogs) and other times we’re looking mostly for pleasure (72-hour short ribs). But I suspect that most of the time, for most meals, we want both sustenance and pleasure.
Soylent’s fatal flaw is that it can’t offer both. It optimises for total sustenance at the expense of any pleasure. So while the drink might be nutritionally preferable to eating a diet of pizza, ramen and frozen dinners, I doubt it would be more pleasurable than doing so. There’s a lot of variety in pizza and ramen (try each with a fried egg). Soylent, meanwhile, will always be just the same.
What is Soylent?
There are over 30 listed ingredients in the shake. The vast majority of it is carbohydrates, fats and protein:
Over half is made up of oat flour and maltodextrin, a starchy substance that comes from corn.
About a quarter is protein derived from brown rice.
A significant portion is also made up of fatty acids that come from canola and fish oils.
The shake includes several vitamin and mineral supplements, like vitamin C, zinc, potassium and calcium, plus small amounts of more surprising ones:
Copper, which works with iron to help the body form red blood cells.
Iodine, which helps the body metabolise nutrients.
Sources: Soylent, National Institutes of Health
The New York Times