Soylent – The End of Food? Not So Fast…

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Before I get into Soylent, I must first tell you about “meat shirts.”

You see, my brainy husband, Mike, once semi-joked that Big Food should develop nutrient-laden shirts that a person could wear to absorb their nutrition via their skin, rather than eating.  At the end of the day, you’d just throw the nutrient-depleted shirt away. He mentioned this to our fabulously beautiful and always skinny friend Cherie who doesn’t cook. She instantly replied, “I’d totally buy that!” 

220px-Soylent_greenEnter another science fiction-style food thing from someone else who doesn’t cook: Soylent. The food world is abuzz about this new product, essentially a smoothie made from pure nutrients. A coder named Robert Rhinehart developed it when he tired of taking the time to prepare and consume food while working on a California high-tech start-up. He researched what his body actually needed in terms of food. He ordered the nutrients and whipped them up in a blender. Then he put his findings online to open source his new super-nutrient drink he dubbed Soylent.

Of course, everyone thinks Soylent Green, but as noted in a piece in The New Yorker, the inventor said that he took the name from the book Make Room! Make Room! that inspired the famous movie. In the book, the term “Soylent” was short for a nutrient-dense food substitute made from soybeans and lentils. Soy-lent. I’m such a geek that I read that book as a pre-teen. Unlike the movie starring Charleston Heston, the book doesn’t require humanity to resort to cannibalism to feed itself. Just soybeans and lentils. 

King William II find it hard to think of Soylent as earth-shattering in terms of an invention, or the “end of food” as it’s being heralded. Nutrient-heavy liquid meant to sustain you? Um, let’s see there’s already Medifast, Almased, Shakeology, at least a dozen others. A yoga teacher told me she lives for days at a time on Vitamin Water. King William I of England reportedly went on a year-long liquid diet to trim his girth so he could literally get back into the saddle of his horse. Of course, his “liquid” was liquor, but even so he managed to survive on it and slimmed down enough to get back on his horse — and then fall off, sustaining internal injuries that killed him. So I suppose one must consider that a failed diet.

Soylent does still derive some of its nutrients from actual food since its made from maltodextrin, rice protein, oat flour, canola oil, fish oil and some versions involve chocolate, spinach, peas and other foods. There’s something to be said for finding an alternative to traditional food sources, as a story in the American version of Al Jezeera notes: 

soylent packages“Food today is more expensive and environmentally inefficient than it needs to be. Agricultural production saps 70 percent of our fresh water. Livestock generates around 20 percent of greenhouse gases from human sources. Combined, both sides of the food production system dominate 40 percent of the world’s land surface.
The proliferation of meal replacements can change that equation. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” Rhinehart told The New Yorker. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Soylent is already fairly cheap, but with economies of scale through more centralized, public-driven production, it could be made for pennies. This would not only free up land and resources to comfortably sustain more human life, but it could provide a way out of backbreaking farm work for the first time since the Neolithic revolution.”

soy_1809278aVirtually every socioeconomic study on nutrition in America finds that the poor get the shaft in terms of nutrition. All that engineered shelf-stable fare produced by major multinationals is by design much cheaper than the lush repast of organic fruits and vegetables that can be enjoyed at the tables of those financially able to afford it. I remember a time in college when I had $9 to eat for a week. (Of course, money went further then, since it was 20-something years ago.) What did I buy? Two pounds of beans, a pound of brown rice, a half dozen eggs, four potatoes and two boxes of Kraft dinner to break up the monotony. I lived on some variation of this more often than I want to remember.

I was lucky; I could cook and I had access to a kitchen. With no money, no kitchen, no cooking skills, too often people end up subsisting on starch-based sugar-salt-fat convenience crap produced by big corporations. 

Julia Beck, associate editor of The Atlantic,lived on a DIY version of Soylent for a week last year. She told the Huffington Post:  “I can’t say it was the most pleasant experience I’ve ever had,” Beck said. “The reason that it may not catch on super widely is because humans generally don’t like monotonous diets and if you’re using that for every meal, it gets pretty old pretty fast.” Hence why people who have tried the likes of Slim Fast don’t cling to it forever, and that plan even allows you to eat a “sensible” meal along with two chemically-enhanced shakes.

rob with soylentCulinary icon Ruth Reichl, took exception to the whole concept. “We don’t need to be looking into a weird sci-fi food answer when it comes to cooking.” She believes that movements that bring people back to the origins of food, that allow kids to drink real milk and that focuses on real food from farmers is not only noble, but part of what makes us all human. She also feared it could lead to an economic and cultural chasm. “You’re also looking at a possible future where poor people are drinking Soylent and you [nodding to the moderator] and I are eating sushi.” 

I get all of that. But given there’s a major cultural and sociological chasm between how the wealthy and the poor eat already, it’s somehow hard to argue that something like Soylent is bad in terms of feeding the undernourished world population – including the one out of six kids in the United States who live in “food insecure” households. I’d rather see a poor kid drink something like Soylent at least once a day and get actual nutrition than subsist on fast food and convenience options that could possibly shorten his or her life. I’ve been in Ethiopia when a food aid truck arrived with a form of gruel to feed a crowd. The worst part of that scene? Knowing that prisoners in most industrialized countries eat better. Talk about a chasm. 

Nettle cream soup

Stinging nettles -> nettle cream soup. Click the image for a recipe

I love food. I love cooking. Eating is pleasurable, sharing a table is often meaningful. Culinary anthropology suggests that one reason humans dominate the earth is because at some point, we learned to boil water to make it safer to drink. When humans began cooking food, that act exponentially increased our chances of survival by expanding the realm of what we could eat; for instance, we can’t digest raw nettles, but we can when they’re made into soup. So I don’t believe food or cooking are going away.

I wish that everyone had enough to eat, had the ability to cook and the money and access to great food. But it’s impossible to ignore that our current form of agriculture isn’t sustainable for 7 billion people — and another million pets — that live off it globally. So before people demonize or shrug off something like Soylent, it’s important to realize that we need a better system to nourish all of us. Maybe it’s Soylent, maybe it’s something else. Maybe meat shirts? Or a combination?

One thing that I can’t explain. How did anyone let the actual name of this product end up being Soylent? Everyone knows what it’s made from… “It’s people!” 

About katflinn

Kathleen Flinn is the author of "The Sharper Your Knife, the Less You Cry," "The Kitchen Counter Cooking School" and "Burnt Toast Makes You Sing Good." All are published by Viking/Penguin.


  1. Barry 'CB' Martin says:

    A deliciously smart article. thanks

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