Soylent and the False Equivalency of Food and Nutrition

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown
Soylent and the False Equivalency of Food and Nutrition

image by: Bryan Ward

A food-replacement product is getting a lot of buzz. But for all that might be gained by maximizing the efficiency of one's nutritional intake, so much more might be lost.

You don't have to be a scholar to recognize the truth of the old Latin aphorism: De gustibus non est disputandum. There is no disputing taste. We like what we like.

That applies as much to eating as it does to art. When it comes to pleasing your palate, you are the only judge. Nutrition may be a matter of science, but gustatory pleasure is a purely personal art. And that's to say nothing of joys of eating that transcend the taste buds.

So it is with a measure of dismay that I see the meal-replacement product Soylent getting so much attention from media heavies like The New Yorker and the New York Times.

Not that all the press has been positive. Times staff writer Farhad Manjoo calls Soylent "a punishingly boring, joyless product." But if any press is good press, the makers of Soylent (which takes its name from the sci-fi film famous for Charlton Heston's melodramatic utterance, "Soylent Green is people!") must be pleased as punch, as undoubtedly exposure will translate into orders from readers curious to see just how bad the stuff really is.

Besides, not everyone is likely to agree with Manjoo. In her exhaustive article on Soylent (both company and product), Lizzie Widdicombe described her first sips of Soylent as providing "the not unpleasant sensation that I was taking sips from a bowl of watered-down pancake batter" (although she reports that some of her colleagues described various Soylent varieties as ranging in taste from “crappy brownie mix” to "Naked protein shakes that are made of husks” to "[o]ne step better than what you drink before getting a colonoscopy”).

But where are my manners? You and Soylent haven't even been properly introduced. Reader, meet Soylent, a smoothie sort of concoction (oat flour, maltodextrin, and brown-rice-derived protein make up 75% of the stuff "designed for use as a staple meal by all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort."

It's the brainchild of 25-year-old Robert Rhinehart, who had the epiphany that (to quote from Widdicombe's article) "food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive"—that what our bodies need are carbohydrates, proteins, lipids, vitamins and minerals, and not the natural packages in which they come.

So Rhinehart gave himself a crash course in nutritional biochemistry, coming up with a list of 35 nutrients necessary for survival, which he acquired piece by piece—pill by powder, actually—over Internet. Combining the life-sustaining stuff in a blender, he fabricated his proto-Soylent and in early 2013 did a sort of 30-day clinical trial on himself, documenting the experiment on a blog post entitled "How I Stopped Eating Food."

A year-and-a-half later, Soylent the company is looking in the rearview mirror crowdfunded over $750,000—over seven times their goal—and shipped 30,000 bags of Soylent powder + oil (you just add water—no fuss, no muss—with each bag said to provide a day's worth of nutrition), reportedly with $10,000 worth of orders coming in each day.

Soylent's tagline, "Free your body," is a bit misleading, since the body needs what the body needs. Rather, Soylent's selling points pivot on freeing up other aspects of your being. It's only $3 to $4 per "meal," its makers say. It saves you all that food-prep time. Your caloric intake is automatically well balanced. "What if you never had to worry about food again?" they ask.

But Soylent is operating under a premise that largely misses the mark when it comes to the value of food. No doubt that criticisms of the food industry are just as easy to find as nutritional flaws in the average person's dietary intake. But eating is a life process, one that far exceeds the bounds of the utilitarianism that seemingly shackles the Soylent peddlers' vision. "[E]verything about Soylent screams function, not fun," writes Manjoo in the Times. "It may offer complete nourishment, but only at the expense of the aesthetic and emotional pleasures many of us crave in food."

Not to mention the communal pleasures. Come have a beer with me. Let's grab a cup of coffee or a beer. Thanksgiving dinner is at Ma's house this year. Breaking bread together is one of the ways in which Homo sapiens bond, a transcultural truth phenomenon.

There's plenty of room in the world for efficiency. There may even be a place for Soylent. But "freeing" humans from food is a misguided goal. That might be a profitable line for Soylent to take, but what profits the soul cannot be reduced to dollars, any more than it can be to a formula for maximizing efficiency. We are far too nuanced creatures for such reductionism. Chew on that.

About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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