Soylent, the soy supplement that can apparently replace food– is all the rage nowadays in Silicon Valley and on college campuses. However, the concept of a liquid diet replacing solid food has definitely come under attack from skeptics. Is Soylent really all it’s hyped up to be? Or may the critics actually have a point?
In 2012, Rob Rhinehart was an electrical engineer living in a cramped San Francisco apartment with a few buddies. While working on their start-ups, they found themselves conducting countless conversations concerning biology and nutrition over ramen and Costco frozen dinners.
It was hard, they thought, to simultaneously eat well and cheaply. They also began bemoaning all the hassles that come with food preparation and consumption.
There must be a better way, Rhinehart espoused. He decided to tackle it food engineer style, and immediately began scouring biochemistry textbooks, FDA and WHO diet recommendations, and eventually compiled a list of around three dozen nutrients required for survival. Then he began tinkering.
Rob Rhinehart, Founder of Soylent
Image credits to VICE
After a while, he had a house-paint-beige colored powder that, when mixed with water, turned into a sludge that he said could supplement one’s diet entirely. He decided to live on the concoction for thirty days, and wrote a blog post about his experience. “How I Stopped Eating Food” quickly went viral.
Four years later, Soylent has gone from a half-baked — or rather, non-baked — idea to the largest crowdfunded food project in history (with the firm raising over three million dollars on the site now known as Tilt, shattering its original goal of a hundred thousand) to a mainstay in the lives of people in San Francisco and beyond.
“Soylent is something that actually began in the Bay Area,” proudly noted McCormick sophomore Brian Gonzalez, a Burlingame, California native and avid Soylent drinker.
Gonzalez, a slender, goofy kid with tufted brown hair and a permanent smile, was a fan long before it found its way into the Northwestern lexicon. Interning at a start-up the summer after his freshman year, he saw his boss drinking Soylent and got hooked. He emailed them out of the blue in mid-July asking to become the campus rep at NU. They politely declined, but he’s still a feverish proponent. “It’s a big cult thing in Silicon Valley.”
Brian Gonzalez’s newest obesession, in powder form.
GIZMODO, the tech blog who recently referred to Rhinehart as “some sort of creepy nerd messiah…[with] all the hallmarks of a future cult leader” would probably tend to agree. Indeed, Rhinehart’s so-called “pseudoscientific bullshit product” is not without its critics.
“The Soylent Revolution Will Not Be Pleasurable,” proclaimed one headline in a May issue of The New York Times. Many assail the product for its bland taste and milky consistency, condescend the paradoxical notion of a food-free diet, or shudder at a scenario without their favorite cuisine rituals.
“Soylent doesn’t really taste that good, a lot of people ask me that — how it tastes — but I’m not really drinking it for taste is the thing,” grinned Gonzalez. “It’s just an extraordinary tool to me.”
“It was designed to have a neutral flavor profile, so you don’t tire of it but it also hits every aspect of your palette, with the exception of bitter, so your brain doesn’t tire of it as well,” explained Nicole Myers, Soylent’s director of communications. “It hits all your tastebuds. If you have a strawberry shake or a chocolate shake everyday, those tastebuds are going to tire of it and tell your brain that you’ve had enough. You won’t have that problem with Soylent.”
[Soylent] was designed to have a neutral flavor profile, so you don’t tire of it.”
Many believe the ramifications for the product extend far beyond Silicon Valley. “I think that beyond just having the ability to really increase productivity, it has potential to solve a lot of the world’s hunger needs,” said Gonzalez. “Imagine being able to ship in massive loads of Soylent to impoverished areas.”
Providing humanitarian relief is a clear priority for the company, but they plan on focusing on domestic problems before focusing on issues abroad.
“Everybody has to eat, everybody needs proper nutrition, and that’s something that most people lack,” said Myers. Really, [almost half] of our country is a food desert. Something like one in seven or one of eight families don’t know where their next meal is coming from. A lot of people don’t have access to fresh produce, fresh meat, fresh poultry.”
“It’s definitely something that’s on the forefront of our mind. Right now we are working on becoming as price competitive as we possible can here in the United States,” she continued. “Moving forward from that, becoming as price competitive as we possibly can for developing nations as well.”
In October 2015, the firm debuted Soylent 2.0 — all the nutrients of the original product, premade in a neat, white, 400 calorie bottle.
Soylent 2.0 comes in a neatly packaged bottle.
Image Credits to Life After Food.
“One of the things that our customers were really asking for is again, an even simpler way you can do Soylent,” said Myers. “We made it just that much easier with a ready-to-drink bottle. It’s so simple if I’m hungry, I have a need and I can’t leave my desk, I grab a bottle of Soylent, it’s 400 calories, I crack it open, I drink it, and I’m satisfied for hours.”
Many Soylent drinkers use the product only as a supplement — say, grab it on their way out in the morning because they don’t have time for breakfast — but several (including the firm’s founder) loudly sing the praises of drinking five bottles of the stuff a day.
“A huge misconception about our company: We don’t want to replace all food. Our cofounders: they’re foodies. They love food,” said Myers. “That sad sandwich you buy from the convenience store, that sad salad, or fast food in general — that’s what we’re competing with, not dinner with your friends, or Thanksgiving dinner, or a really amazing three Michelin star dinner.”
“For me, I’m Italian, I grew up in a kitchen,” she continued. “[Soylent] makes me appreciate really good food more. It also allows me to think about those instances as special, and not something that I have to have every day. There’s no pressure to be a world class chef, and make sure you’re making yourself those meals, or going out all the time. And I know I’m getting nutrition.”
Wall-E, the 2008 Pixar movie that depicted a future with sedentary humans fed through a tube.
Image credits to SciFi Interfaces
“A lot of people are scared of it,” said Gonzalez, “Because it’s that whole Wall-E scenario, where everyone is fat and sitting in a chair and like fed through a tube, but I think that [Soylent] is really something that in ten or fifteen years is really common place.”