Nutrition

Not Green, Just Soylent: Is This the Future of Food?


A still from "Soylent Green" with Charlton Heston, 1973

Photograph by Everett Collection

A still from "Soylent Green" with Charlton Heston, 1973

Just before it was lunchtime on the West Coast on Tuesday, Rob Rhinehart went on Twitter to seek donations for something called Soylent. He describes it in the pitch video as “an efficient form of fuel for humanity for the first time in history.” By the time Silicon Valley’s office workers had gobbled down their sushi or sandwiches two hours later, supporters had pledged more than $100,000 to manufacture Soylent.

The substance is intended to provide all the nutrients and calories a human body needs—in other words, to replace food. Mix the powder with water and drink. Rhinehart says he’s been living mostly on Soylent since February. “It’s very sweet,” he told me. “It tastes almost like a succulent cake batter.”Rhinehart says he's been sustained mostly by Soylent since FebruaryCourtesy Rob RhinehartRhinehart says he's been sustained mostly by Soylent since February

Supplements and nutrition shakes are nothing new. But Soylent (a nod to the 1973 sci-fi film) reflects something about the culture right now. We’re not just too busy to cook and clean up. In Rhinehart’s view, the act of eating is a task that technology can make more efficient—or eliminate entirely. It also reflects fears about scarce resources: the worry that we may not have enough food, or the infrastructure to distribute it, to feed Earth’s growing population reliably.

Rhinehart, 24, studied computer science and electrical engineering at Georgia Tech. He joined the Y Combinator accelerator last year to work on a wireless startup. He says Soylent was inspired by how much time and money he was spending on food that wasn’t very good for him. “This is an old problem for bachelors,” he says.

He buys most of the 32 components of Soylent in bulk from chemical supply companies, synthesized in forms the body can absorb. (He detailed the formula on his blog.) Some of the chemicals are derived from real foods (olive oil supplies the fat), but many aren’t. “The calcium I eat comes from limestone,” he says. Beyond solving a problem for bachelors uninterested in cooking, Rhinehart envisions Soylent nourishing hungry people in the developing world.

The dream of replacing food has been around for hundreds of years, popular with science fiction writers and utopian communities, says Amy Bentley, an associate professor of food studies at New York University. “In the 19th century, Victorians talked about the meal in a pill,” she says. While the idea may appeal to a small group of people who find eating to be a chore, she says, “for better and worse, most people find food pleasurable.”

It’s also not clear that a single substance can replace food, says Maudene Nelson, a dietician at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition. “Nutritionally I don’t think you can make a food that delivers everything,” she says. “This is an obsessive way of making food choices. It’s not obsessively overeating. It’s obsessively micromanaging.”

Rhinehart got regular blood tests when he switched to eating Soylent to see how it affected him at the molecular level. The experiment had some hiccups. On his blog, he described getting joint pain after three months, which went away when he added sulfur to the mixture. He says he still dines on traditional food with friends for about two meals a week. Other than that, he drinks Soylent. “It’s been intensely liberating,” he says. “I never have to worry about food.”

Others are trying to reengineer how we eat. NASA is funding a company trying to synthesize food with a 3D printer. Concerns about raising enough meat to satisfy the global hunger for protein have prompted rising interest in eating bugs. And if the thought of assembling food from chemical components seems bizarre, don’t look too closely at factory farms and fast food.

Rhinehart encountered some backlash, and to be clear, he’s not suggesting that everyone eat Soylent. He doesn’t expect most people would want to consume as much as he does. But he says the “emotional bias” for food doesn’t make sense. “Most of our most useful things are pretty far removed from nature at this point,” he says. “We still use this very ancient version of food.” That is, the kind that comes from plants and animals.

He’s not the only one who thinks so. Rhinehart’s crowdfunding campaign brought in another $100,000 overnight. More than 1,000 backers pledged $65 for a week’s supply. He plans to use the new funds to manufacture Soylent in industrial quantities. In his pitch video, he says, “we need your help to create the future of food.” Just don’t look for it on the shelf at Whole Foods (WFM).

John_tozzi
Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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