Robert Rhinehart was an electrical engineer who was not satisfied with the state of our food. Every new day meant a new effort to find and prepare nutritious meals. When you live in the city, that means planning meals, making store trips, and ordering out a lot; activities that require time, thought, and effort. Rhinehart fantasized about a new superfood that was nutritionally complete, easy to prepare, inexpensive and, above all, convenient. Poring through research on nutrition in textbooks and journals, he developed a formula for a food replacement called Soylent, a cheeky twist on the 1973 movie Soylent Green, starring Charlton Heston.
In one of the most successful crowd-funding campaigns of 2013, Rhinehart raised nearly $1.5 million from investors including Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, and the venture capital firm behind Twitter, to start a company to manufacture a commercial version of this new superfood — and generated over a $1 million in presales. The launch was so successful that, as of this writing, the company is still 10-to-12 weeks behind on processing orders.
Soylent itself is a utilitarian marvel of simplicity; food that’s reduced to its basic components of protein, sugar, fats, vitamins, and minerals. All of those components are blended in a carefully balanced formula, and reduced to a beige, chalky fluid that tastes a little like the milk replacer we used to feed baby calves growing up on the farm. People are definitely not flocking to Soylent because of the taste — there are survival rations that taste better — yet Soylent’s popularity is nothing short of explosive.
Soylent is so popular, it has attracted a vast array of people who want to tinker with their own formula, called DIY Soylent. As part of my research for this article, I ordered the components for this Soylent recipe, which included whey protein isolate, oat flour, a glucose-like sugar called maltodextrin, and a bewildering array of vitamins, minerals, and supplements. The recipes come complete with the nutritional breakdown and a list of suppliers, which is being constantly updated by community users to find the best prices.
There are many people living exclusively on Soylent and publishing their experiences and blood work online. Most of these “all in” experiments run from a week to two weeks, with a few as long as a month. For most people, including myself, Soylent was never intended to be a complete replacement for food, but an alternative when more traditional food was inconvenient.
My experience with the DIY Soylent has been mostly positive. I used it to replace roughly 60% of my calories, and the first week has been a breeze — though I would caution that transitioning to the full RDA of fiber can be an adjustment if your body is not used to it. I’ll spare you the details, but if you’re short on fiber, you may want to take it slow. The only quirk that takes getting used to when drinking a serving of Soylent instead of eating is the odd sensation of your stomach being empty yet you’re not really hungry. It’s the same sensation I had in the hospital when I had to live for five days on ice chips and intravenous fluids.
Nutritionists legitimately question the utility of Soylent, and even some of the company founders have experienced deficiency symptoms. Those tinkering with Soylent should be aware of the signs of deficiency, and be careful when tweaking Soylent formulae that you don’t get too much of a particular vitamin or mineral, which can become another set of problems.
Why do it then? Why take the associated risks with your health, and reduce your diet to the culinary equivalent of beige carpet? For me it’s convenience, and it changes food from a chore to a marvelous luxury. At $1.81 per meal, which is my actual cost, it’s the cheapest food in my diet. Soylent is also precise; I know exactly how many calories I’m getting, and the exact proportions of fat, fiber, protein, and carbohydrates.
I’m going to stay with the Soylent trend for a while and see how it goes. When the commercial Soylent arrives, I’ll compare it to my DIY recipe, and in six months I’ll get a full panel of blood work done and make sure everything looks right. With some people using Soylent for 80%-90% of their calories for over a year now, I’m not terribly worried. There are a lot of commercial meal replacements and food substitutes out there, in my book Soylent is just another evolution of those products.