Maybe you’ve seen the ads on the subway, on the news, or peeking out on your browser as you surf the web. I’m talking about Soylent, the food start-up launched in 2013. Despite its futuristic aura and post-modern packaging, it essentially qualifies as a meal replacement–like Slim Fast of yore.
Rob Rhinehart, the founder and inventor of Soylent, first garnered notoriety by publishing a blog post about how he stopped eating food. His idea and invention was motivated by his lifestyle as a software engineer at a startup; working crazy hours and trying to optimize all use of time as well as money, he felt that food was a big burden. At the time, his diet was mostly ramen, corn dogs and quesadillas, complemented with vitamin C supplements, which he deemed too expensive. He tried to live on McDonald’s for a week but didn’t feel it was sustainable from a health perspective. Nor was the one-week kale diet he tested.
So he went on a quest and dove into the world of biochemistry and nutrition to find out which substances the human body absolutely needs to survive. He deemed eating food as an inefficient way to get vital nutrients such as amino acids, lipids and carbohydrates. Food became an unnecessary shell, and he needed to get to a way to optimize eating. He concluded that there were 35 vital nutrients that the human body needs to survive and proceeded to order them in pill or powder form. He then went to pour it all into a blender and mix it up into a super nutrient “smoothie.” Rob decided to live from the brew for 30 days and document his results.
Rob felt better than ever after a month. His skin was clearer and his hair thicker. He had more energy than ever and was able to reduce his food expenses dramatically from $400 to $50 per month. He proceeded to raise over $100,000 from a mix of crowdfunding and venture capital money.
Soylent has been praised as a huge success, a real life hack. But I find myself really struggling with the hype around it profoundly.
While Soylent is 100% vegan, I have profound issues with the concept of a meal replacement. Some people eat 5 meals a day, some prefer 2. Some of us snack, and some don’t. There is no single right or wrong way to eat, meaning the number of meals, quantities and ways to consume food vastly varies from person to person and depends on gender, age, level of activity, etc. But I do believe that not actually eating at all profoundly goes against our nature. This is true both from a physical and mental health as well as from a social perspective.
When it comes to health, there is a reason why we have teeth and are able to chew food. When we take a bite of something, enzymes in our saliva start digesting the food and send signals to the stomach to announce that food is on its way. Most foods come packed with fiber, which helps to keep you full and contributes to regular bowel movements. So it’s not just about the actual nutrients we consume, but also about the process by which we consume them. In addition, Soylent contains processed oils as well as artificial flavors, both of which have been linked to weight gain and inflammation. It also contains maltodextrin which, similar to glucose, spikes your blood sugar.
When it comes to the psychology of eating, Soylent supports an already unhealthy food culture that is driven by diets, protein shakes, processed foods and a lack of focus on nourishment and the pleasure of eating. Having moved here from Europe, I have instantly picked up the disturbed relationship America has with food–obsessed about calories, macros, counting and weighing. There is something deeply rewarding about preparing a beautiful meal, that has different colors, shapes and textures. You will never get that visual nourishment from a bottle of nutrients.
From a social perspective, Soylent is a disaster. Taking time to break for a meal, preparing a dish, sitting down without distraction and eating lunch or dinner with family or friends is one of our most important rituals we practice as humans. People are getting sick and gaining weight because they eat on the go, or while distracted by TV, the computer or other things. A 400 milliliter drink that comes packed with processed ingredients and 400 calories cannot be good for you long term. By consuming calories in this way, you are supporting our society moving further and further away from a normal relationship with food and you are supporting the idea that taking breaks for vital habits is overrated.
Ultimately, the idea of drinking a highly processed meal instead of consuming real food is simply sad. Besides the fact that the plastic bottles and monthly deliveries are far from being environmentally sustainable, it also raises the question why we would spend so much energy and money ‘hacking’ the food system when eating actual food remains the most valuable option. Shop locally, support your farmers market, eat plants and take breaks to enjoy meals and you will be a happy and healthy human.
How do you feel about Soylent?
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