Soylent: Food Solution or Chemical Panacea Sham?

If there was a product that could replace food entirely for $3 per meal would you try it?  Ever since the notion of good nutrition has existed, people have searched for a way to improve their health through diet modifications. Some have suggested drinking a glass of red wine with dinner. Others claim that paleo diets, raw diets, veganism, and a slew of other fads are the answer to optimal nutrition and health. In 2013, then 24-year old software developer, Rob Reinhart developed Soylent in his home kitchen sparking a revolution which could effectively end world hunger. After synthesizing the first version of the product, Reinhart resorted to very modern means of starting his company:  crowd funding. The campaign attracted over 20,000 contributors who pledged a record-breaking $1.5 million in total, affirming that Reinhart’s Soylent is a viable product and would not only fill a niche in a market, but a need in the world at large. In fact, the company has made a commitment to end world hunger through various partnerships. Soylent has had some missteps in its four-year history resulting in a couple of recalls, but their humility and transparency with the media, the public, and especially their customers, have cemented Soylent’s place as the food of the future. As with any new product development, Soylent has had its share of critics and detractors, but the introduction of similar products only proves that this company has recognized and filled “the need for a simpler, more efficient food source.” (Soylent.com)

First, let us examine what Soylent actually is and the different versions and flavors of the product. Reinhart began by researching the nutritional needs of the human body on a chemical level. He explained Soylent’s genesis to Gawker’s Adrian Chen in a 2013 article in this way, “I researched every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial, and purchased all of them in nearly raw chemical form from a variety of sources… The first morning my kitchen looked more like a chemistry lab than a cookery, but I eventually ended up with a thick, odorless, beige liquid.” (Chen) Reinhart was so confident in his product that he posted the chemical recipe for it on his blog for anyone who wanted to try making it for themselves. On the company website, Soylent is defined as a “complete meal that is enjoyable to eat and contains the vitamins and nutrients your body needs.” (Soylent.com) More specifically, the product contains “plant based protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. It has all the elements of a healthy diet without excess sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol.” (Soylent.com) To prove its viability to sustain human nutrition, Rhinehart used himself as the test subject for the product’s first iteration. In a 2013 interview with Pimm Fox for Bloomberg, Reinhart described his initial experiment. “For 30 days, I abstained from food entirely. Only Soylent and water. And, uh, for the past four months, it’s been the vast majority of my diet, 90 percent of my meals.” (Bloomberg) At the end, Reinhart looked at the unbiased results. “By day 30, he had lost weight, had better-looking skin, and his body, as measured by blood tests he took pre- and post-Soylent, was as healthy as it had ever been.” (Cara) The first version of the product was a powder one could mix with an oil blend and water to create a sort of watery, milky shake. The consistency and color discouraged many from trying it. Some even took the opportunity to criticize it by likening it to bodily fluids. Adrian Chen expressed it this way, “The combination of its off-white color, opacity and viscosity made it look—sorry to be gross here—like watered-down semen.” (Chen) Regarding the taste he wrote, “Soylent tastes like the homemade nontoxic Play-Doh you made, and sometimes ate, as a kid. Slightly sweet and earthy with a strong yeasty aftertaste.” (Chen) Since the inception of the concept, Reinhart has championed a collaborative spirit in the development of Soylent. And with this attitude, it has progressed into a shelf-stable, ready-to-drink bottled product which provides the consumer 400 kcal. in 14 oz. liquid portions. In addition to the first liquid iteration which is purposefully nearly-flavorless, the company has developed flavored versions, cacao and nectar, to round out their Soylent Drink line. A second line of caffeinated beverages cleverly titled Soylent Café currently offers vanilla, chai, and ‘coffiest’ flavors. For their DIY customers, the original powder version, an airtight pitcher and even a measuring scoop are also sold on the company’s minimalistic website.

And what about that peculiar name? The word Soylent may bring to mind that 1973 Orwellian cult classic “Soylent Green” which starred Charlton Heston or the source material for the movie, Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel Make Room Make Room. The reason is that Reinhart is a big fan of science fiction. He cheekily named his product Soylent as a nod to the food shortage problem outlined in the book and the movie. However, once Reinhart and his co-founders “realized that this experiment solved a problem not only for themselves but for thousands of people around the world,” (Soylent.com) the name became a clever, geeky double entendre. In fact, it was the name that initially attracted many of Reinhart’s Silicon Valley colleagues, doomsday preppers, and other nerds looking for quick and easy meals to become early backers of the campaign. In its first year, Soylent was so successful with these groups that customers could “expect to wait 10-12 weeks to receive their first shipment.” (Beato) Another example of its popularity materialized on eBay, “where Soylent speculators are flipping their supplies to the highest bidder. In June [2014], a one-month supply with a retail price of $300 fetched $555.” (Beato)

Fast forward three years, and not only can consumers order powder or bottled Soylent on Amazon.com with available one-day shipping, it is even available as part of Amazon’s subscription service. Moreover, “in February Soylent hit No. 1 in Amazon’s grocery category, despite two product recalls since the Fall of 2016, one of which followed customer reports of intense gastric distress,” (Rosenblum) but more on that later. “This summer 7-Eleven announced that various L.A.-area locations would carry the product” (Rosenblum) to test market the sale of individual bottles near its Los Angeles headquarters. This all leads back to Soylent’s present-day mission to “Expand access to quality nutrition through food system innovation.” (Soylent.com) Furthermore, their future vision seeks “to use science, technology, and enterprise as tools to help make eating easier. We aim to create a portfolio of products that make eating an easier part of your day.” (Soylent.com) In fact, in an October 2017 interview with renowned astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Reinhart speculates on even further plans for Soylent. “Eventually we’d like to get to a pill.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson) Later on in the interview, Rhinehart describes even more grandiose ideas for “an engineered strain of gut bacteria” and “an at-home bio-reactor that would print nutritious food directly from sunlight, air and water.” Rhinehart summarizes the whole concept down to optimizing “what the body needs and how food is produced.” (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

Pairing this vision with the afore-mentioned collaborative spirit at the core of the company, Soylent has also committed to improving nutrition on a global scale by using a variety of ways to help address a problem that has plagued mankind for centuries:  world hunger, malnutrition and starvation. Since 2016, the company has partnered with “World Food Program USA in their mission to make hunger history” (Soylent.com) by “directing our funding to WFP’s Innovation Accelerator [which] … identifies, supports and scales high potential solutions to hunger worldwide.” (Soylent.com) Another example of Soylent’s humanitarian efforts is its relationship with food banks across the country. “Through both product donations and cash assistance to such programs as The California Association of Food Banks’ Farm to Family program, we aim to improve access to complete nutrition in our local community.” (Soylent.com) This remarkable product even has medical applications. “We are working with doctors in some of the most respected hospitals in the country to help their patients eat and maintain a complete diet.” (Soylent.com) Not only does this prove Soylent’s economic value and impact on the world, it invites those interested in getting involved “to participate in any of these programs by emailing [the company] at Good@soylent.com.” (Soylent.com) Imagine, a real end to world hunger for less than $3 per meal! After all, Soylent is actually cheaper to produce than conventional food which means Soylent could be the solution to that conundrum of why nutritious food costs more than unwholesome food which spells long-term sustainability one can truly rely on. Perhaps someday it could even be consumed in outer space.

Now, let’s address the afore-mentioned recalls and a few other hurdles in the company’s journey. Because Soylent’s formula has been an evolving work in progress since the beginning, the company has maintained a high standard of transparency with consumers and even invited consumer feedback to continue improving the product. So, when customers reported side effects of using Soylent including severe flatulence and intense gastric distress, Soylent listened. The company issued a recall, changed the formula, and even politely addressed the issue in its Soylent release notes of December 2016 for powder version 1.7 introducing “a few changes to improve consumer experience and bring the flavor closer to neutral.” (Soylent.com) The ingredient that had been removed was whole algal flour which had only been added in August of the same year. In March 2017, powder version 1.8 release notes touted “Soylent 1.8 swaps out a few ingredients in order to improve the digestive experience for some consumers.” (Soylent.com) The following month, the company issued a voluntary recall for 890 boxes of the powder version 1.8 because of allergen concerns. “This voluntary recall is immediately being initiated after it was discovered that the milk-containing product was handled adjacent to the production lines for Soylent 1.8 powder. Subsequent investigation indicated that the potential cross-contact was caused by a temporary breakdown in our 3rd party manufacturer’s production and packaging processes.” (Soylent.com) All of this transparency with its customer base has only increased awareness and popularity of Soylent as a product and as a company. And if there is one thing that dispels any residual negativity the recalls may have generated regarding Soylent, it is its imitators. Products such as Ketosoy and Ketolent, products that promote the current ketogenic fad diet which omit carbohydrates, have begun to emerge. Ambronite is another comparable product. It openly criticizes Soylent’s use of genetically engineered components and proud support of GMOs, and touts its green-colored product as “an all-natural, organic meal-drink that uses pulverized real-food ingredients.” (Sifferlin) Unlike Soylent, “Ambronite’s 20 blended ingredients include oats, walnuts, apple, spirulina, and seabuckthorn, and everything is organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, and with no artificial ingredients.” (Sifferlin) Unfortunately, when simply stirred with water, the drab green colored powder produced less than appetizing results for one intrepid reporter. “Bad idea. It was chunky, and tasted like nothing other than a hint of fishy spirulina.” (Sifferlin) A second try involving orange juice and plenty of shaking yielded, marginally better results claiming “it wasn’t so bad. In fact, it was really pretty good- though still a bit chewy.” (Sifferlin) Compared to the shining reviews of Soylent’s loyal following, Ambronite just does not measure up.

In conclusion, Soylent is a remarkable product that is revolutionizing not only convenience meals but how we view possible food sources. The company has “maintained consistent, strong sales growth. In the first quarter of 2017, net revenue nearly doubled over the same quarter in the prior year.” (Soylent.com) And the recent endorsement of tech billionaire (and Soylent user) Larry Page yielding a whopping “$50 million from Google Ventures in May,” (Rosenblum) is nothing to sniff at. Reinhart declares “the money will help Soylent and its parent company, Rosa Labs, move into their new headquarters in the rapidly transforming Arts District” (Rosenblum) in Los Angeles. All of this and the loyal following of droves of consumers throughout the globe only spell wild success for Soylent and hope for the planet.

Works Cited

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