Technically, Soylent isn’t really a food at all. It’s a drink mix designed to replace actual food in order to make your diet easier, cheaper and more convenient. Soylent was created by a 25-year-old software engineer named Rob Rhinehart, as a solution, in part, to his own dilemma. The entrepreneur was on a tight budget, which meant subsisting on a steady diet of ramen noodles, fast food and frozen burritos. In search of something healthier but even cheaper, he started researching nutrients and eventually came up with this concoction of protein, carbs, fats, fiber, vitamins and minerals.
The name — which sounds about as seductive as the beige beverage looks — derives from a 1960s sci-fi novel in which a soy and lentil product is pitched as the solution to the overpopulated earth’s food shortages. (The novel was the basis for the ’70s sci-fi film Soylent Green.) Rhinehart claims to drink Soylent in place of most of his meals, and the homepage of the company’s website asks the provocative question, “What if you never had to think about food again?” While that prospect may be exciting to Rhinehart and others who are apparently too busy to eat (let alone cook), it’s a less-than-enticing thought for anyone who actually enjoys food.
“I don’t want to live in a world in which eating is perceived as being that inconvenient,” says Hugh Acheson, a chef and restaurant owner in Athens, Ga. and author of A New Turn in the South: Southern Flavors Reinvented for Your Kitchen. “Dinner is about the only time most Americans spend together, and even if it’s over a bucket of chicken, at least they are all there.” It’s hard to envision the family sitting down to slurp their Soylent together.
And although the company literatures assures that the product provides “all the elements of a healthy diet,” some nutritionists will beg to differ. While it’s true that certain people with medical conditions can exist for long periods on liquid diets, it’s not necessarily optimal, says Martica Heaner, PhD, a nutritionist and adjunct assistant professor of nutrition at Hunter College, in New York City. “Living on a supplement alone means potentially missing out on some nutrients found in foods, such as the phytochemicals in plants that have been shown to have many health benefits,” she says. “We are anatomically designed to eat real food, and we probably should.”
According to food historian, Andrew F. Smith, Soylent’s marketing gimmick falls right in line with the direction the fast food industry has been heading for years. “It speaks to people who have limited time,” says Smith, who teaches Food Studies at the New School, in New York City. “Who cares what it tastes like? Just get full, move on and do other things.”
Utilitarian for sure, but what are you missing out on when you replace real food with what Acheson calls “a nutritional Pop-Tart?” Soylent’s marketing materials herald the product “as a way to get all the nutrients needed by the body without the time, money and effort that usually goes into preparing food.” To which foodies the world over respond with a collective sigh. “I think it only makes the chasm bigger in terms of the lost connection to real food and our proud culinary heritage,” Acheson says.
Sally Wadyka is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist who writes about nutrition, health and wellness.
Photos courtesy of Soylent/Rosa Labs.