Could 'Soylent' replace food? The drink that claims to contain all the nutrients the body needs
Rob Rhinehart likes to joke that
he’s entirely made up of Soylent. That’s because the 25-year-old
entrepreneur has been living off his chalky “food substitute” invention
for almost a year now.
He likes to think that all his body’s cells have regenerated from the
nutrients it provides, but what is perhaps more certain is that his Los
Angeles-based company is set to make him rich, with tens of thousands
of orders for his potion, a $1 million venture capital investment and
reports that it’s to be tested by the US military.
If this sounds
like a sinister plot from a dystopian film, where the joy of food is
banished, that’s because in its name at least, Soylent was inspired by
the dark 1973 science-fiction film Soylent Green.
for Soylent’s investors, its customers don’t seem to be making the
playful link with Soylent Green, where Charlton Heston discover a new
“high-energy plankton” feeding the starving masses in a futuristically
bleak New York, is actually made from human flesh.
modern drink is a refined version of Mr Rhinehart’s homemade combination
of carbohydrates, fatty acids, protein, fibre, potassium, phosphorus,
magnesium, vitamins and zinc. His company website boasts this provides
all the essential nutrients “required to fuel the human body”.
a big claim for an electrical engineering graduate who hasn’t studied
food science, but Mr Rhinehart goes on to details how that the drink
will, for just £40 a month, provide a healthy “food substitute” that’s
far cheaper than real food and can be prepared in minutes.
Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart holds a bag of finished product (Getty)
And this month, in a move that will put that claim to the test, the
firm shipped the first 30,000 units of factory-made Soylent. One of the
first recipients was Jennifer Roberts, a playwright from the San
Francisco, who already on her sixth day of a Soylent diet.
says, “I liked what he [Mr Rhinehart] had to say about efficiency of
getting everything you need for your body without the time-consuming
hassles of shopping and planning for, and preparing meals. I often found
myself either skipping meals because I was either writing or not
prepared to stop and fuel or too busy to get or make healthier food
choices. It's frustrating how much time is spent on dealing with food.”
that frustration is why she doesn’t mind the “neutral taste” of
Soylent, which she compares to drinking “an un-sweet cake batter”. The
same can presumably be said for the 10,000 customers a day now placing
Shipments to Britain are reportedly in the
pipeline, but despite this Mr Rhinehart declined to be interviewed for
this story. However in a long profile in the New Yorker
earlier this week, he recounted how he first developed Soylent after
the cost of food became a “burden” while working for a cash-strapped
tech start-up in California.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he says his
potion, which he created after reading up on nutritional data from the
American Institute of Medicine and US Food and Drug Administration
websites before buying the ingredients online, “changed his life”. And
in his blog he says that drinking it for the first time left him feeling
like the “six million dollar man” with “clearer” skin, “whiter” hair
and a “notably improved” physique.
The logic, he told the New
Yorker was that, “you need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself” and
“you need carbohydrates, not bread”. This food eccentricity apparently
extends to his personal life too, where he posts comedy sketches and
images of kittens on his blog and reportedly only wears two pairs of
jeans and orders cheap T-shirts from Amazon.
early customer drawn to this eccentricity is David Cox, an academic at
Harvard University in Massachusetts, who has already placed an early
order for a supply of Soylent. He says, “I’m drawn to charmingly
eccentric and austere vibe that goes along with Soylent - the idea that
we can overcome the tyranny of food. At the end of the day, it's not so
different from meal replacement shakes for the elderly or for body
builders, but it's tailored for normal adults.”
are so excited by the prospect of the drink that they have taken to
so-called DIY Soylent websites to share recipes and create their own
formulas. In the spirit of “open source” software and following the idea
of “life hacking” to liberate yourself from humdrum tasks, this is
something that Mr Rhinehart has embraced.
Potassium gluconate on a production table at Soylent HQ in California (Getty)
That’s not to say there are not sceptical scientific voices though.
During the early development of the drink, Mr Rhinehart blogged that “I
started having joint pain and found I fit the symptoms of a sulphur
deficiency. This makes perfect sense as I consume almost none, and
sulphur is a component of every living cell.”
Sulphur has since
been added to the product, but Noel Cameron, professor of human biology
at the University of Loughborough School of Sport, Exercise and Health
Sciences, says this error is a sign that the project is “unbelievably
He says: “How can you on one hand say this drink includes
everything you possibly need, then admit you’ve forgotten to add
sulphur? On what basis are you creating this drink then?
to test all these things is a randomised case controlled trial. Test it,
to see if it works. Don’t give it to your mates as he’s done, to see if
it works. It seems like Soylent is a group of blokes from university
who have got onto a bloody good wheeze.”
It’s not just the
marketing or youthful nature of the project that Professor Cameron takes
issue with though: “We are fast learning that control of appetite is
quite a complex process, and it’s not just to do with the stomach
filling up. It’s a much more complex system that, which included things
like the movement of your mouth and mastication to release hormones.”
Blackshaw, a professor in enteric neuroscience at Queen Mary,
University of London, is also sceptical. He’s an expert in how food
intake sends signals through the body and his major concern is that “all
sorts of trace elements and phytochemicals, such as lycopene which is
found in tomatoes, are missing” from Soylent.
These elements, he
explains, are often found in plants and many are just beginning to be
understood. Lycopene, found in tomatoes but missing from Soylent, for
example, has been linked to lower rates of prostate cancer.
Professor Blackshaw has even more serious concerns: “There’s the issue
over the link between the efficient bacterial fermentation in the colon
and cancer. Everything in there is very finely balanced and out gut has
evolved over millions of years, and if I even had a suspicion of a
history of colon cancer, I’d stay away from a product like this.”
striking for many though will be the idea of abolishing enjoyment food.
“There is more and more work being done on the links between food and
mood,” says Professor Blackshaw. “A shortcut like Soylent throws all
that out the window. We have to remember comfort food isn’t just a
luxury to spoil ourselves with, but something that scientifically, we
are increasingly seeing as something that should be part of our daily
Edited by PurplePhase - May 07 2014 at 10:31pm