Soylent was designed for efficiency, for body hackers who want to spend their twenty waking hours hacking industries and building empires – because if you sleep more than four, you’re not disrupting enough. Rob Rhinehart, CEO and founder of Rosa Labs, which has been distributing Soylent commercially since 2014, explained his relationship with food this way: “I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor.”
Many have criticized Soylent and Rhinehart’s attempt at engineering a more perfect fuel for the human machine with his highly nutritious synthetic food substitute, as antisocial, unhealthy, and restrictive. As someone who was once a subscriber to Soylent 2.0, I can defend its nutritional validity as a meal replacement, but concede that it’s also one of the loneliest things you can eat.
Once a month, a cube of matte white bottles with black tops filled with 400 calories of liquid Soylent each was delivered to my door in San Francisco.
Soylent box and bottle via Soylent
Once a month, a cube of matte white bottles with black tops filled with 400 calories of liquid Soylent each was delivered to my door in San Francisco. At the time I lived with a software engineer who was also devoted to the Soylent lifestyle (and quite possibly still is) during what I believe historians will call the city’s second (or third, or hundredth) gold rush.
Everyone we knew was in a startup or tech company, and building their own company or app on the side; everyone was trying to eke out a few more hours every day to work on their personal projects that would propel them to Zuckerberg levels of success, or hustle at a second job, because even in 2014 the cost of living was astronomical. We were both in that grind-or-die mindset: cutting corners on time and money any way we could.
The original formulation of Soylent was a powder which was to be mixed with water and oil to form a shake that you were supposed to carry around in a BPA-free thermos all day. Our household decided nobody had time for that (efficiency = king!) and started ordering after Soylent 2.0 was released.
In what’s either fantastic marketing targeted directly at us Silicon Valley tech nerds, or simply Rhinehart’s robotic way of seeing the world, iterations of the Soylent recipe are numbered like software updates
In what’s either fantastic marketing targeted directly at us Silicon Valley tech nerds, or simply Rhinehart’s robotic way of seeing the world, iterations of the Soylent recipe are numbered like software updates, including release notes and a changelog of the nutritional tweaks for each iteration. 2.0 was the first version to be packaged as a liquid, pre-mixed.
Various media outlets tried the “I ate only Soylent for thirty days” stunt, derived from Rhinehart’s claims that he lived on it exclusively for as long before releasing the first version of the formula to the public. As far as we know now, in 2016, Soylent is nutritionally stable. Can our bodies reliably absorb all these synthetic nutrients and vitamins suspended in algal gloop? It seems like yes, but only more time will tell.
There are people who have lived on it, or used it as a meal replacement consistently, for years at this point, with no obvious repercussions. This isn’t to say it’s perfect, or even safe: Rosa Labs’ latest product, Soylent Food Bars, were recalled in October of 2015 for making several consumers violently ill and have yet to be re-released. (In my personal experience, however, 2.0’s product quality was very reliable.)
The digestibility was one of the most talked-about features of a Soylent diet in the media: some people had terrible, noxious flatulence. I have a pretty sensitive stomach and after the first time that I felt like vomiting after chugging a bottle (I later learned to grab a straw and sip at it instead of downing it all at once, because the body is not equipped for absorbing 400 calories of complete nutrition at the same time) I did not have any gastrointestinal issues. Without getting too gross, my digestion was optimal.
Products labeled as “liquid diets” and “meal replacements” are fraught with social baggage that usually associates them with women
Products labeled as “liquid diets” and “meal replacements” are fraught with social baggage that usually associates them with women, and with foods that are designed to change the composition of your body. The Soylent brand has faced criticism saying it’s no different from what women have been drinking instead of eating for decades, but because it’s “now made by and for men, so we call it tech.”
What makes Soylent different from its meal replacement counterparts marketed towards women, however, is that Soylent is not designed to change the composition of your body. This is where the feminist outrage should be directed, towards a market that believes women don’t need or want complete nutrition, that we will accept insufficient amounts of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, or sugars because it will make us look good. Losing or gaining weight by drinking Soylent instead of eating real food is not the goal – the goal is simply to maintain your body with as little thought as possible. Of course, removing all the thought from food also removes all the emotion.
The goal is simply to maintain your body with as little thought as possible
The taste is not optimal. Some describe it as unoffensive but bland, like corn flakes or unsweetened soy milk. I thought 2.0 tasted like something unmentionable, but less salty, and totally repulsive. I learned from /r/soylent, the subreddit for Soylent users, what mixed well for flavoring, and found I could use two pumps of caramel coffee flavoring syrup to make it drinkable.
The community around Soylent discuss mixing it, hacking the formula, and ask each other nutritional or allergy-related questions, but to an outsider, their communications often read as bizarre and sad.
Thread titles like “Has anyone else noticed a shift from ‘Cheerio Milk’ to ‘Water filtered through a bunch of dirty cardboard’?” “Does food ever stop smelling amazing?” and “Do people worry about you?” reveal that although a supportive Soylent-eating community exists, they are still very separate from society, and suffer from the lack of pleasure from food, the lack of social contact, and whatever professional or personal goal is driving them to cut enjoyment of food out of their lives, which may not be worth the trade off.
Soylent pour via Futurism
The dream of Silicon Valley’s tech workers is that they’ll work so hard now, in the right place and at the right time, that they’ll never have to work again. For now, forego food and social interaction, forget about work-life balance, because once you sell your app or your company, you can live on the beach or travel all over the world and pursue your real passions (which probably include eating real food).
Tim Ferriss is a classic example: he claims in The Four-Hour Workweek that anyone can build their own company in their free time that will allow them to leave their office job and live an experimental lifestyle. After building a supplement company and releasing his book, he’s built a personal brand around life- and body-hacking for peak performance, but even he doesn’t endorse Soylent. His blog features a guest post titled “Soylent: What Happened When I Stopped Eating For Two Weeks,” where Shane Snow, not Tim Ferriss, tried living on it for only 15 days.
Because the bottom line is, working that hard sucks and very few will strike gold in Silicon Valley: over 1.3 million copies of The Four Hour Work Week have been sold, and we do not have a million tech millionaires.
Because the bottom line is, working that hard sucks and very few will strike gold in Silicon Valley: over 1.3 million copies of The Four Hour Work Week have been sold, and we do not have a million tech millionaires. A journalist writing for aptly-named blog The Hustle, who admitted their blood tests confirmed that they were healthier after a 30-day Soylent diet, recalled a quote from a hospice nurse in a book called Regrets of Dying, who said “All of the men I nursed deeply regretted spending so much of their lives on the treadmill of a work existence.”
And that has to be the final word for my Soylent experience: regret. When I think about the times I replaced my dinner with Soylent because I was working too hard on the personal projects that were supposed to propel me into a world of financial and personal freedom to stop and eat, I can see now that those were the most depressing meals I hope I will ever have.
Life is too short, and while there’s nothing wrong with working as hard as you can to achieve your goals, neglecting your own enjoyment of life in service of them to that extent is just sad.