Replacing food: An engineer's approach to body fuel
By Loz Blain
May 28, 2013
There's a romance to food. It's one of life's great sensory and social pleasures. But a lot of us don't eat healthily, and a lot of us don't enjoy the process of preparing food, especially when we're eating alone. Furthermore, the way we eat today is incredibly wasteful throughout the entire production and consumption process, to the point where it actively damages our bodies and our planet. Enter Soylent: a food engineered to efficiently deliver 100 percent of the healthy body's needs with minimal waste, junk food-beating convenience and a very low cost, or, as the inventors put it, "creating an efficient form of fuel for humanity for the first time in history." Food has always been sexy, and this sounds about as exciting as artificial insemination. But when you check out the details, this ambitious plan actually makes a lot of sense.
This is a tough project to look at objectively, because food ranks alongside sex and sleep as one of the great pleasures of life. The subtle dance of flavor and texture, the mystery of the exotic, the social ritual of the shared meal that has glued families, tribes, friends and clans together for hundreds of thousands of years.
But if you can look past the romance and think about food rationally, there are some pretty significant problems with the way we eat in the developed world. For starters, it's wasteful. If two things cost the same and one is bigger, we'll go for the bigger one, all else being equal. American restaurant serving sizes have taken this to its logical conclusion. The result is either overeating or perfectly good food going in the bin, not to mention the packaging waste of all that extra food.
Secondly, a lot of us aren't very good at it. I'd be fascinated to know what percentage of the population genuinely eats well, according to what the body needs, as opposed to overdoing it on the sugars, or salts, or carbs, or fats, or simply leaving out important nutrients because we felt like eating something else that day.
Thirdly, and more broadly speaking, there are supply chain issues. Steak, many people agree, is very tasty. But the land, water, feed and emissions cost of producing it is massive. As we have noted before, the calorie yield of a piece of meat is typically around one fifth of the calorie yield of the grain you've fed to raise that cow. Every time I eat a steak, I'm effectively throwing away four times that amount of calories. So I'm prepared to go along with Rob Rhinehart when he says there's got to be a better way.
Rhinehart is an electrical engineer and computer scientist whose main project coming out of college was a start-up focused on building cheap wireless networks for developing countries. During the process of trying to get the business going, he found himself increasingly frustrated with how much of a hassle it was, and how much time it was taking out of his day, to deal with food.
So he took the engineer's approach to solving the problem, asking what does the body need to survive and thrive? It doesn't need fruits and veggies and meat, they're just the way we usually ingest vitamins, minerals, amino acids, carbohydrates and fats.
Rhinehart decided to get to work identifying exactly what nutrients the body loves and needs, and try to put together a super-food compound – a long-lasting, cheap, easy to use food replacement that could give him 100 percent of his daily recommended intakes, without him ever having to give food another thought if he didn't want to.
And thus was born Soylent. No, not the Soylent that's made of people, Charlton Heston need not worry. Through a bunch of research and experimentation, Rhinehart has arrived at a basic formula for healthy, no-fuss eating.
It lasts for years without refrigeration, preparing it is as easy as measuring out your daily dose and mixing it with water, and according to Rhinehart, it tastes nice too. Here's the ingredient list:
- Maltodextrin (carbs)
- Oat Powder (carbs, fiber, protein, fat)
- Whey Isolate (protein)
- Grapeseed Oil (fat)
- Potassium Gluconate
- Salt (sodium)
- Magnesium Gluconate
- Monosodium Phosphate
- Calcium Carbonate
- Methylsulfonylmethane (Sulfur)
- Powdered Soy Lecithin
- Choline Bitartrate
- Ferrous Gluconate (Iron)
- Various vitamin and mineral supplements
Sounds exciting, right? Still, the idea of a scientifically formulated, cheap, easy body fuel is one that a lot of people would find very attractive. Soylent takes care of all your nutritional needs, it's very easy to decide exactly how many calories you're taking in if you want to gain or lose weight, and "normal" eating can become more or less a social thing you do with your friends. "Eating to me is a leisure activity [now], like going to the movies. But I don't want to go to the movies three times a day," Rhinehart recently told Vice.
So Soylent takes care of what you need, but you can still eat normally whenever you feel like it. You spend less on food, there's no cooking or dishes to do, which saves you time, water and power, and you can be confident that your diet is healthier and more nutritious than that of most, if not all, of your neighbors. There're no toxins, no allergens, and no carcinogens. Oh, and since it's just a big paste, you can easily tailor the mix if you have unusual dietary needs.
That actually sounds pretty good to me. And it sounded pretty good to Y Combinator, too, which backed Rhinehart's original, failed wireless network project but has decided it's also on board for Soylent. (The biggest business pivot in YC history?)
Rhinehart is now gearing up to take Soylent to the market, using crowd-funding that has already covered its humble US$100,000 target more than three times over. For $65, you get enough for a full week's meals, so your entire diet comes in under US$10 per day.
Unfortunately, it's only available in America for the moment. But as much as Soylent seems to take the romance and mystery out of food, it looks like a brilliant way to get large numbers of people eating healthy in a way that's (dare I say it) even cheaper and more convenient than junk food. And that's one heck of a significant thing to achieve.
Check out the Soylent crowd-funding page for more information or to get yourself on the list for the first deliveries in August this year.