As I write this, I’m sipping from a glass of beige ooze which is, theoretically, lunch.
It’s Soylent: a no-frills blend of protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, and minerals. In theory, four glasses of this stuff per day contains everything you need to be an FDA-approved person – all the way down to chromium and molybdenum.
Soylent is often described as a milkshake, but that’s not quite right. For starters, there’s no milk in it; more importantly the word ‘milkshake’ is going to give you entirely the wrong idea. Soylent tastes and feels more like a watery batter than a shake. Most of the protein in the mixture comes from oat flour, which seems to dominate the flavor profile. You know when you’re making oatmeal cookies and you taste the dough before you add the sugar? It’s a lot like that. It’s not unpleasant, but it’s also a far cry from delicious.
I have most of a week’s worth of this stuff in my pantry – almost 20,000 calories – and I plan to buy more. I have friends that are months into their Soylent regimes. The stuff is practically taking over silicon valley. And plenty of people are wondering… why? Why would anyone choose to consume the human equivalent of dog food?
The answer comes down to a somewhat unique vision of what food is, and how it can and should fit into our lives.
A Juice-Cleanse for Nerds?
You can understand a little more about the popularity of Soylent by looking at its demographics. If I say the words ‘startup,’ ‘Libertarian,’ and ’emacs’ really fast, the stereotype that pops into your head is about right. There’s some data on this: a quick survey of Soylent enthusiasts turns up plenty of programmers (and few women). There’s no rigorous data on political leanings, but trust me when I say strong opinions about the Federal Reserve are over-represented.
The common theme here (I suspect) is an unusual personality type that crops up in certain areas of nerd culture. People who lack the normal allergy to silly ideas. People who, when you tell them something that sounds crazy, patiently hear you out. Then, if they can’t think of a counter-argument, they say ‘okay’ and proceed to completely reformat their lives around the thing you just said.
Stuff like “maybe we should all strap phone screens to our faces instead of going outside” or “if we deregulated every industry, it’d fix a lot of problems” or “AI is probably going to destroy the planet in the next century or so.”
Or “maybe we should replace all of our meals with nutrient sludge.”
This is the personality type that dominates the Soylent community (including an enthusiastic, if probably doomed DIY subculture). It’s the same personality type that produces effective altruists and suicide bombers. If you’ve got a crazy idea, the guys are your foot in the door. They aren’t always right (see: the Segway), but they are always first.
And now they’re excited about Soylent. So, you have to ask yourself… are they right this time?
The Case for Bachelor Chow
The argument for Soylent goes something like this:
Yes, eating is fun. But it’s not the only fun thing you can do – and it consumes a ridiculous amount of time, money, and energy.
From a survival perspective, we’re awful at it. Millions of Americans are both seriously malnourished and struggling with obesity. In the US, this tragic irony has become a leading cause of death. Why? Because in order to save precious time and attention, we routinely opt for the convenience of fast food, giving us more calories than we need, and far fewer micronutrients. So, say Soylent advocates, why not take the meals where we’re paying good money to poison ourselves because we don’t care, and swap them out for beige ooze?
Soylent is cheap in bulk (around $2.30 for a 500 calorie meal). It’s nutritionally balanced and zero effort to prepare. You can drink a meal’s worth of calories in ten seconds, and you’ll be full for hours. If fast food is heroin, Soylent is methadone. It’s not as fun, but it prevents the cravings – and it isn’t actively killing you.
Future Food, Present Problems
Now that you’ve heard the pitch, let’s talk about how it works out in practice. Soylent has, in theory, existed since it was crowdfunded in 2013. However, it’s only recently that they’ve cleared their enormous waiting list, and enabled ordinary people to buy it in a reasonable time frame. I got mine in ten days, after a minor issue with their shipping system. It looks like the average is closer to five. That’s down from several months the last time I checked in last year.
So how does Soylent hold up as a consumer product?
The first drawback that I noticed, at least in the short term, is the shock to your digestive system. Most people do not subsist primarily on oat flour and powdered oil, so your gut flora is not adapted to it. That means that for the first week or two, there’s going to be some trouble.
I’m talking about farting. You’re going to do a lot of farting.
Fortunately, I’m told this passes with time as your gut flora adapts. Rosa Labs, the company that manufacturers Soylent, recommends slowly ramping up your consumption over the first week or supplementing with over-the-counter digestive aids to compensate.
The second drawback: it’s boring. The flavor does grow on you – I went from mild distaste to mild appreciation over the course of a few days. But nobody would call it tasty. If a significant fraction of the fun volume in your life comes from food and you switch to a 100% Soylent diet, you’re going to have a bad time. Mixing in some juice or cocoa adds a little flavor variation, but not enough. I find it’s best just to slam a whole glass in one go, and then chase it with water or coffee. That way there’s no time to get sick of it.
Personally, I’d suggest eating at least one meal a day of real food. This helps fight flavor fatigue, and it stops your microbiome from fully adapting to a Soylent diet, which might make it hard to switch back to normal food. It also gives you an extra level of insurance, in case Rosa Labs’ nutritionists missed some crucial micronutrient.
Mixing is also more complicated than it probably needs to be. If you make Soylent with cold water, you get weird clumps.
Warm water seems to fix this, but then you’ve got warm Soylent, which almost everyone agrees is pretty awful. The best solution seems to be to make Soylent the night before you need it and let it chill overnight. That’s not a big deal, but it is an extra step that’s easy to forget when you stumble in at the end of a long day.
All of these complaints are more or less quibbles. On the whole, I was pretty sold on Soylent from day two on. At this point, it’s just a question of convincing the rest of the world.
The Future of Soylent
Once you drink the weird, sludgy Kool-Aid, you start having ideas pretty much immediately. Soylent has a lot of useful properties. It’s compact, it’s cheap, it’s got a long shelf life without refrigeration, and it doesn’t need heat to prepare. That makes it nearly ideal for military rations (or astronaut-food, for that matter). It would also be a good survival food, replacing more expensive (and more unhealthy) MREs.
On a larger scale, Soylent seems like the final answer to questions of emergency food aid. Is there a better food to drop onto disaster areas? Soylent is already the cheapest mass-produced nutritionally complete calorie you can buy, to the best of my knowledge. And the cost right now could probably come down considerably with competition and new technology. If FEMA and the red cross aren’t looking into this, they’re missing an opportunity. Even if Soylent just starts selling the stuff around the world, I could see it seriously improving third-world nutrition. Ease of shipping makes that more practical than it sounds, although marketing would be an issue. In the long run, the inventory of Soylent, Rob Rhinehart, wants to genetically engineer algae to produce Soylent out of whole cloth, drastically cutting the cost of production. Instant, nutritious food – just provide sunlight, air, and seawater.
For now, you can subscribe to monthly Soylent shipments at soylent.com. I suggest making the minimum order to make sure you like it before you spend hundreds of dollars on it.
Will Soylent catch on? I’m not sure. There’s a lot about it that makes sense, but it’s a pretty tough sell.
What do you think? Are you ready for a nice tall glass of ooze?