The slow-food movement may be well-established, but not everyone cares that much—or hardly at all—about food. Enter Soylent: a complete food substitute, capable of supplying the entirety of the body’s nutritional needs. That’s right, you could survive indefinitely on this beige, vanilla-flavoured liquid, should you so choose.
Soylent was created by Californian software engineer Rob Rhinehart as a means to curtail most of the time, money and effort required to make food. (None of those involved with Soylent were available for comment when requested.) Rhinehart developed Soylent through self-education and experimentation, using himself as a guinea pig: he added and reduced quantities of various nutrients based on his body’s reaction (a sulfur deficiency which caused joint pain prompted the addition of methylsulfonylmethane, for example).
Rhinehart relied on crowdsourcing to raise the funds for a commercial version of Soylent and the results were shockingly positive: to date, Soylent has more than 20 000 backers and has raised more than $2 million, rocketing past the initial goal of $100 000. Clearly, plenty of people are either interested in the product themselves—or believe that enough others will be.
Not everyone thinks Soylent is the “solution” to the “problem of food” (or even that food is a problem in the first place), however. Typical knee-jerk reactions range from confusion to outright disgust, or even dismissal as a sure hoax—after all, food is quite literally what keeps us alive, and why would anyone want to deny themselves the pleasure of a good meal?
“My general feeling about meal replacements is that they’re generally not very palatable in the long term,” says Audrey Inouye, a registered dietitian with Edmonton’s Simply Yours Nutrition. “People don’t get a lot of enjoyment from drinking their food, so something like this is not very sustainable.”
Inouye agrees that time (or lack thereof) is the primary reason her clients indulge in unhealthy eating habits. Meals are admittedly an easy place to cut corners, but Soylent has taken this to an extreme.
“It would be rare to see somebody who doesn’t want to eat any solid food and would like to just take five minutes to drink their shake three times a day,” Inouye says. “And for someone who does desire that, I would be interested to see if they could maintain it for the long term.”
Aside from the questionable sustainability of a long-term liquid diet, Soylent’s nutritional value is also suspect. For reasons other than the ironic name, which is taken from the 1973 film Soylent Green based on Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room! Make Room! (The irony being that in both film and novel, a dystopic society survives on a food ration named Soylent Green, which turns out to be made from people.) Three servings of Soylent has the correct proportion of vitamins, minerals and calories that one’s body needs in a day (and it’s also vegetarian; vegan if the fish oil, which is mixed in separately, is omitted). But Inouye is not convinced that it is actually healthy.
“There are a lot of things in real food that you wouldn’t find in processed, man-made items—like antioxidants, which are important for cancer prevention and heart health,” she states.
Maltodextrin, a highly processed carbohydrate derived from corn, is Soylent’s main ingredient and responsible for half of its caloric content. Aside from the significant environmental damage caused by large-scale corn crops, Inouye notes that it’s never a good idea to put all your nutritive eggs in one basket, so to speak. Humans evolved as omnivorous grazers; there’s a reason we should switch up our daily diets.
Another alleged benefit of Soylent is weight loss, commonly cited by its adherents.
“Weight loss is a very complex process which extends well beyond liquid meals,” Inouye says. “It even extends beyond nutrition. We know the evidence around weight loss includes nutrition as one component, physical activity as another component and cognitive/behavioural therapy is actually very important as well. To say that adopting liquid meals will help with weight loss is oversimplifying weight-loss management, for sure.”
An entire month’s supply of Soylent costs $255 USD, or $3.04 per meal, which seems quite cheap—though Inouye stresses that with a little planning ahead and avoiding meals out, $255 is actually plenty of cash for your monthly grocery bill. However, while this is a reasonable price tag for North Americans, it is ludicrous to millions of others in developing nations—yet the Soylent website states that one in seven people globally are malnourished, seeming to imply that Soylent could be a solution.
“I can’t see a rural family in India Fedexing their package of Soylent to their village,” Inouye says wryly.
The Soylent website also lumps several other food statistics together in a hodgepodge meant to highlight all the problems with the current state of the food industry, and showcase Soylent as the ultimate solution: 50 percent of food produced globally is wasted. Two million people are killed annually by smoke inhalation from indoor cooking stoves. Agriculture is the most dangerous industry to work in based on occupational injury and, bewilderingly in that same sentence, obesity in on the rise. (How are farm accidents related to obesity, exactly?)
Despite the obvious problems with stripping away the context from these extremely complex issues and mashing them together without any clear logic, it’s obvious that Soylent is a First World product designed to solve very First World problems: people with the means, but not the inclination, to invest more than the bare minimum in keeping themselves alive. While becoming a slow-food devotee is certainly unnecessary in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, I would challenge everyone as to whether they truly are so busy that they never have time to prepare food at home. Sure, we all have busy days, and on those days, meal replacements, perhaps even Soylent, could be a viable option. But are you that busy, really?
Put another way: if a guy can teach himself how to make a complete food substitute through the Internet, don’t you think you can learn how to whip up a quick stir fry?