Food tastes better than Soylent. On that, there is universal agreement. Bland in flavor but audacious in concept, everything else about the beige food replacement is fiercely contested. Foodies decry the decline of experiential eating, cultural critics bemoan the loss of communal mealtimes, and others warn of techno-hubris. There have also been questions about Soylent’s nutritional content, and yet, the company’s proprietary mix is almost certainly an improvement on the average North American diet.
Exploring the frontiers of medicine
Last summer, a ready-to-drink “magical milkshake” called Soylent 2.0—developed by Los Angeles startup Rosa Labs in consultation with a Columbia University medical school professor—promised to provide all the elements of a healthy diet.
The original project aimed to eliminate the need for food, turning eating into an optional, recreational activity, but those claims have been dialed back. “While not intended to replace every meal, Soylent can replace any meal,” reads the promotional material. Despite these warnings, many of the Soylent staff are reputed not to eat much. Soylent proponents argue that even the healthiest selection of fruits and vegetables at a local farmer’s market represents a wasteful culture. With almost seven-and-a-half billion people to feed on the planet, we may no longer be entitled to consume the products of agriculture full time.
Large-scale agriculture is implicated in antibiotics resistance, environmental destruction, greenhouse-gas release, and other pollution. Animal husbandry’s ecological footprint is of particular concern. Each of us eats 200 pounds of meat each year (a historical high) and 30 pounds of cheese. For these reasons, Soylent drinkers are willing to bet the future is mostly vegan and dirt-cheap.
This is not the first time the full complement of nutrients has been attempted in a single drink. At intensive care units around the world, for example, up to 40% of patients are malnourished, which leads to weakened breathing and immune function. Patients incapable of feeding themselves are tube fed with polymeric enteral formulas. A standard formula is enriched with nutrients specific to the patient’s needs—fish oils for respiratory distress, glutamine for severe burns, motility agents, and immune-enhancing additives.
If food as we know it is a luxury, will it be mostly algae for us from now on?
Soylent is promoted on a platform of personal responsibility. The idea is that the gluttonous variety of the grocery store is not only destroying us health-wise, it also represents the decadence of a society in decline. The fact that more than 70% of American adults are overweight is just a symptom of our broader overconsumption of resources.
But creating a full, healthy long-term diet for an active person is a larger challenge. Soylent’s attempt at reinventing this particular wheel produced quite a different model. While hospital tube feeding products often resemble old-school baby formula—milk powder, sugar, some form of oil—Soylent is all vegan. The liquid version is based on tapioca-derived starch, soy protein, algal oil, and beet sugar.
There are exactly 25% of recommended nutrients like vitamin A and chromium in each of the four daily meals. This suggests that instead of being assessed by nutritional testing, the recipe itself was designed according to the test criteria. In criticism of this approach, numerous nutritionists have decried the arrogance of reducing the needs of humans to the list of currently understood nutrients. Since the first ship captain loaded up a ship’s cargo with biscuits and then wondered why his crew came down with scurvy, diets have mostly been a trial and error experiment—physiological understanding is improving all the time.
What those nutritionists don’t mention is that they wouldn’t touch today’s standard diet with a ten-foot pole either.
North Americans are simultaneously overweight and malnourished, and a diet like Soylent, for all of its flaws, provides less of the problem ingredients like sugar and cholesterol and more of the nutrients. With clinical studies still pending, no responsible nutritionist could or would approve Soylent more strongly than the recommended food group guidelines. But a review of the ingredients reveals that the liquid concoction conforms to Michael Pollan’s health advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” That is, if you can call it food.
For someone who eats the average amount of added sugars as part of their diet—more than three times that recommended by the USDA—it stands to reason they would see a reduction of their fasting glucose levels. Likewise, triglycerides and LDL cholesterol should respond, when Soylent’s vegan algal profile is compared with a greasy American diet.
Eating the recommended volume-per-day would also be expected to lead to weight loss, given that the average American caloric intake is just under 2,700 per day. The mean weight for a man is now more than 195 pounds and his height is less than 5’10.’
From a nutritional perspective, it is hard to imagine how the same diet day in, day out, could possibly provide the variety of nutrients needed. But again, the average North American diet is hardly diverse. A number of surveys show that fewer than ten meals, in regular rotation, form the entirety of many diets.
Unsurprisingly, the monotony of a single, unvarying meal is a common theme among Soylent’s critics, though some Soylent-drinkers do spice up the flavor with additives. On the other hand, a joyless existence without flavor might be offset by the reduction in misery from the health consequences of crappy eating.
It’s also cheaper. Much cheaper—just over $200 for a month’s-worth, even at the current small scale of production, whereas the average American spends about $600 per month on food.
So Soylent is more healthy than junk food. Does that mean we should all replace our meals with “meal replacements”? Of course not. That Soylent is healthier is more of an indictment of our broken lifestyles than it is a reason to slurp sludge, day after day. “Better than junk food” is a low bar to set, but no lower than our standards for anything else we put in our mouths.
If food as we know it is a luxury, will it be mostly algae for us from now on? One thing is certain: Whether or not this start-up has hit on the magic formula for perfect nutrition, it’s a sure bet that society at large hasn’t.