The new revolution in food just might be in powder form. Or at least that’s what Rob Rhinehart, the 25-year-old engineer and creator of the headline-grabbing food-replacement product Soylent, would like us to believe.
Rhinehart, a California engineer, found fitting in three healthy meals a day to be too much of an effort, not to mention expensive. So after scarfing down one too many frozen quesadilla meals, he decided to treat the problem of eating as he would an issue faced at work — he reverse-engineered it.
“I just thought ‘why couldn’t there be a more efficient way to eat well?’” says Rhinehart. “What if we used our understanding of nutritional biochemistry and food processing and tried to make a better staple meal?”
Rhinehart broke down all the nutrients the human body needs to function to their purest form, creating a powder out of them. He began to subsist on Soylent (named with a humorous nod to the 1973 Charlton Heston movie “Soylent Green”), changing the formula according to how he felt. After a month Rhinehart posted a blog entry titled, “How I stopped eating food.” It went viral, and soon techies across the globe were working with Rhinehart to improve the formula.
Soon after, Rhinehart launched a Crowdtilt campaign and made $2.1 million from 20,000 fans eager to try Soylent. He also received $1.5 million in seed funding from Andreessen Horowitz, Lerer Ventures and Y Combinator.
Some media outlets declared Soylent to be the future of food, while others branded it an unappetizing Ensure rip-off.
“There has been a lot of press, “ says Rhinehart, “because I think this is an idea whose time has come. It’s incredibly important for the population to be well-fed, and the food companies of the past have not done an adequate job.”
Rhinehart now operates Rosa Labs, which creates Soylent and will eventually produce other “future foods.” I was lucky enough to receive one of the first shipments of Soylent and, perhaps foolishly, decided to live on it exclusively for a week (well, five days).
Why would I do this to myself? I’m certainly a lover of solid foods but I’m also oddly attracted to this Jetson-esque food-drink. There are times when managing meals is a hassle, and as a 20-something living in New York City, it can be hard to find the perfect nutritional balance. I was ready — and excited — to become a Soylent Pioneer.
Taking the plunge
A week's worth of Soylent costs $70. My seven bags of Soylent arrived in a white, branded box and immediately drew the attention of my coworkers. People congregated around my desk, taking Soylent photos to post on Twitter (TWTR) and Instagram. To make my first batch, I mixed oil (which is provided) and water into the powder et voilà, I had a meal. It’s recommended that you leave your Soylent in a refrigerator overnight in order to let the powder and water combine more thoroughly, so I put a “Do not eat!” sign on my pitcher and left it for the evening.
It’s a woman thing
You’re advised to consume one 2,000-calorie pouch of Soylent daily, but I’m a woman who sits at a desk all day so I measured out a bit less than that.
Soylent is made by a man, and optimized for one as well. There have been complaints on Soylent forums that the community surrounding it isn’t exactly women-friendly. Timothy Fabiniak, a Soylent supporter since May 2013, described the target demographic as “29, male, engineering degree.”
It makes sense, as Silicon Valley as a whole seems to have issues with gender equality. But Rhinehart disagrees: “We know from our use-data that there are plenty of women and men [using Soylent] and that the skew isn’t heavily towards one way or the other. Soylent is for everybody.”
The first day of my new diet had come and I was becoming nervous about what was ahead during this Soylent-fueled week. But then I took my first taste — and it really wasn’t bad. It’s a bit like a combination of pancake and cake batter — not flavorsome but not offensive either. It’s neutral. And that’s just as it’s supposed to be.
"The taste is such that it’s very broad and not overly specific or stimulating, so that you don’t get tired of it,” Rhinehart says. “So people who have complained that it’s not incredibly stimulating or beautiful or tasty – that’s not really the problem that we’re trying to solve. In the future I think we’ll be able to have it all, but for now we’re trying to make a very efficient, practical, utilitarian product.”
One coworker compared the taste to cookie dough, another to a melted milkshake.
Jonathan Van Clute, who has been living on Soylent for a month and runs the website IAmSoylent.com, has a theory: “It has this weird property in that it almost tastes like whatever you’d expect it to taste like.”
By my third day on Soylent I actually started to crave it. I tried to imagine my initial return to food — would it be barbeque? Mexican? Somehow the idea wasn’t as tantalizing as I had expected. I would sometimes lust over my coworkers’ lunches or my boyfriend’s dinner but not because I was actually longing for solid food. I just didn’t want to miss out. Call it food FOMO.
You should not be hungry on Soylent. It’s not designed as a weight-loss product, and you can always just drink more if you’re not feeling sated. It also doesn’t have to be eaten exclusively; most users chose Soylent for 50%-90% of their meals.
What was difficult was finding the right amount of Soylent for me. I don’t have much practice listening to my natural hunger cues — typically, lunch is at noon, dinner is when I get home, and I often head to the kitchen when bored. Getting back in touch with my instincts was a struggle.
My face is numb
I did initially experience some odd effects on Soylent. I couldn’t stop clenching my jaw, and felt a bit speedy for the first few days. I was lightheaded, and at one point my face and hands felt numb. I worried I was allergic to an ingredient or was doing real damage to myself and considered ending the experiment, but in the end I decided to follow through.
On the forums there’s discussion of these side effects; one user thinks there’s too much iron in the formula. Most say these just happen as your body is getting used to it. I did feel significantly better by the third day and back to normal by the fourth. Even with these problems, I felt sharper than I had in a while, and better rested.
Many have complained that Soylent leaves them with an upset stomach. I don’t typically have a strong stomach, but for some reason I felt fine on Soylent, maybe because there’s no dairy. I read that sipping your Soylent instead of gulping it down helps, so that’s what I did; this also helped keep me full for longer.
But the truth is that no one knows if we actually need solid food or not — some believe there are benefits that come from solid food that we’re not yet aware of. Rhinehart has been living on Soylent for a year-and-a-half and gets his vitals and blood taken regularly. So far he’s remained in great health. Journalists who have experimented with Soylent have also gotten a clean bill at the end of their trials.
The formula behind Soylent is open sourced and many make their own mix with adjustments. If users come up with a better formula, Rhinehart wants to know. “I wanted to get the community involved in its development, and I want to be very open and honest about everything that’s in there and why,” he says. Soylent is also working closely with Dr. Pi-Sunyer, a professor at Columbia’s school of Human Nutrition and chief of endocrinology, diabetes and Nutrition at Mount Sinai Hospital.
Soylent has withstood FDA-compliant testing but some doctors are concerned — they say Rhinehart, who has no medical training, isn’t quite sure of what he’s doing and is making things up as he goes along.
The biggest problems I faced during my Soylent experiment were social. No dinners, no brunches and constantly having to explain myself. It was unbelievably tiring having to defend my use of Soylent multiple times each day.
I allowed myself to drink alcohol on Soylent and did force myself to maintain a social life; I even tried a Soylent and beer mix (surprisingly good). Still, when people around me munched on hors d'oeuvres or decided to grab a quick slice, I felt ostracized.
Soylent is different, very different. And if you commit to it, you also commit to being, “that Soylent lady.”
The future of food
Rhinehart has big plans for Soylent; he’s upping distribution in the United States but, more importantly, he wants to expand internationally to food-scarce areas. Could this be an answer to famine? Maybe, but that’s in the very distant future.
Rhinehart wants to make sure he can figure out a way to go into other countries sustainably first: “We need to make sure that we integrate with the local production, so it will be a process.”
Rhinehart also has some large partnerships in the works with NGOs, governments, and aide organizations.
It’s hard to know if Soylent will be a big deal, or just fizzle out. I think of it as the bitcoin of food, something big in the tech world whose future is still TBD. But I can say I tried the stuff and, hey, it wasn’t terrible.
In fact, even now that my experiment is over, I sometimes crave the stuff. I made a cup recently because a friend wanted to try it; I took a sip and felt a wave of comfort run through my body – I finally got my Soylent fix.