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This is Soylent, and It's Not People

By Wesley Fenlon

Soylent hopes to be the first sole-source dietary solution that can replace food three meals a day--indefinitely.

Soylent is not people, but it is now backed by $1.5 million in Silicon Valley venture capital. If you're unfamiliar with Soylent, it's the recent creation of software engineer Rob Rhinehart, who finds eating, except as a social exercise, a bit of a bother. There's all that buying and cleaning and cooking food and washing dishes and blah blah blah. Who has the time? It would be cheaper, and easier, he reckoned, to create a nutrition sludge containing all of the vitamins and minerals essential to life. So he spent months researching nutrition and came up with the soylent mixture of carbs, protein, fat, and a whole lot of other essentials.

Image credit: Warner Bros. Home Video

Soylent's name cheekily draws on the famous Charlton Heston sci-fi film, though it's actually inspired by the soya and lentil concoction from the book Soylent Green was based on. It's flesh-free. And the idea certainly isn't anything new, which Rhinehart has been happy to admit. Single-source food shakes like Ensure and SlimFast have been around for decades. For most people, a liquid diet doesn't really stick. But Rhinehart's been living off of Soylent for months, documenting the results, and he and other testers have been tweaking the formula to be better.

Now here's the weird thing about Soylent: It's got some people really mad. Take the comment in the Wired story, for example, which calls Soylent "everything that's wrong with the tech industry, in one neat example. Dehumanization, ahistoricism, authoritarianism." That seems extreme. Worst case scenario--assuming no one tries to live off of soylent for years and somehow ends up dying as a result--is that the concoction turns out to be ineffective over the long term. Rhinehart and the people he's working with are hoping to design Soylent as a food that you could completely subsist on, or could combine with a diet of solid foods as well. Current meal replacements don't offer the balance of nutrients necessary to live on forever, which is Soylent's goal.

If Soylent actually attains that goal, the benefits could be huge. Best case scenario, Rhinehart has created a food substitute that can feed the poor on $5 per day and give people too busy to prepare proper meals a much healthier diet. If it doesn't work as intended, the naysayers have something to gloat about.

Photo credit: Soylent

There are, of course, concerns about Soylent from real experts. io9 writes: "We reached out to a handful of nutritional scientists to get their opinions on the product, and they were generally surprised that anyone would want to replace their food with a single mixture. Their opinions of Soylent were overwhelmingly negative. Steve Collins, founder and chairman of Valid Nutrition, a company that manufactures Ready to Use Foods for the prevention and treatment of malnutrition, said, speaking through a colleague, that, except in exceptional circumstances, he felt that trying to replace a diverse diet with a single product was misguided. Susan Roberts, Professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, likened Soylent to already available nutritional shakes. While there might be some benefit to Soylent's low saturated fat content, she said, there are certain risks inherent in a non-food diet. '[T]here are so many unknown chemicals in fruits and vegetables that they will not be able to duplicate in a formula exactly,' she said in an email. She says that, if Soylent is formulated properly, a person could certainly live on it, but she doubts they would experience optimal health. She fears that in the long-term, a food-free diet could open a person up to chronic health issues."

Rhinehart has been open in inviting scientific criticism of Soylent, but has tried to rebuff criticism that simply state humans need to eat fresh foods to live healthy. "At this point I think scepticism is completely reasonable," he told Vice. "There isn't a lot of data right now, but I hope to change that. Interestingly, a lot of academics, nutritionists, MDs and biologists have contacted me and been very optimistic – it's the organic foodies who call me nasty things. Good scepticism is things like, 'You're not getting any Boron and there is evidence Boron is an essential nutrient.' That's helpful, and I certainly advocate supplementing Soylent with conventional food. Bad scepticism is stuff like, 'This is stupid. You can't live on powders and chemicals, you need healthy, fresh food!'

"Some people seem very invested in the idea of the sanctity of nature, natural food and some idyllic view of farming, so find this idea very offensive. I don't think that's an evidence-based viewpoint. There's no evidence organic food is healthier than conventional food, and you just can't feed the world without efficient farming techniques."

Rhinehart also points out that all of Soylent's ingredients are individually vetted by the FDA. The drink is perfectly safe and healthy--the question that remains is how effective it will be in the long term, and whether it's going to be the first mixture to fully replace food as a single-source diet. The ingredients in Soylent are already publicly available, though not their exact amounts--those amounts are likely still changing as Soylent undergoes continual testing,

Even if Soylent turns out to be a failure, it will at least push forward research into vital nutrition. Rhinehart has even chronicled some of that on his blog; after three months on a Soylent diet, for example, he wrote "After three months I should be finding deficiencies, and I did. I started having joint pain and found I fit the symptoms of a sulfur deficiency. This makes perfect sense as I consume almost none, and sulfur is a component of every living cell. Sulfur is hard to miss in a typical diet so the FDA would have little reason to recommend it."

Before its VC funding, Soylent had already raised over $1 million in a crowdfunding campaign, largely from backers pre-ordering a week's or month's supply of Soylent powder. Soylent remains available for order and will start shipping out en masse in early 2014.