How would you feel about giving up food? Not for a fast, not for a cleanse, but giving up food completely and instead consuming pure nutrients in a daily “smoothie.”
That’s the idea Rob Rhinehart and his team stumbled upon when they were working on a technology startup at the end of 2020. Funds had run low, and they realized food costs were draining what little funds they had left.
He added he tried cheap food options, but they weren’t what he needed. So he decided to approach food like he would any other engineering problem.
“You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said in an interview with the New Yorker. “You need carbohydrates, not bread. Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re mostly water.”
“It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile.”
So he invented Soylent, a mix of raw chemical components (35 to be exact) combined them into a “smoothie.” Since then, he’s been living on it. Just a few days ago, the first units of commercially made Soylent were shipped out.
The product seems to work for Rhinehart, but what about everyone else? We talked with Mary Hartley, RD, about Soylent, and what it can mean for the future of food.
Overall, she thinks people could probably be healthy relying on Soylent for their nutrition needs, if nothing else.
“In general, an individual probably has a chance of being healthier on a defined formula liquid diet compared to a diet of his own haphazard design,” she said, and added patients in vegetative states who are fed through tubes are often in better nutritional shape than other patients.
“But, in reality, people fall into two buckets: ‘live to eat’ or ‘eat to live.’ Soylent would appeal to the latter and never to the former.”
Hartley makes a great point. Sure, food provides nutrition, but eating food can also provide social and emotional benefits. Hartley pointed out that shared meals have helped people meet their needs for communication and bonding since the beginning of time. She also said that could change.
“As Rhinehart says, we could see a separation between eating for utility and function and eating for experience and socialization. Cooked meals could be reserved for fun and Soylent for the rest.”
However, there’s still the relative mystery of what exactly we get from food. While people may adapt to eating cooked meals only for fun instead of necessity, would we really get everything we needed out of Soylent?
“In the 30 years that I’ve been a nutritionist, hundreds, even thousands, of nutritionally-active compounds have been found,” Hartley said. “Nutrition is a young science and we don’t even know what we don’t know.”
When it comes down to it, Soylent is not yet the end of food as we know it. Too much about nutrition is still unknown, and many of us view the act of eating food as culturally significant. That could change in the future, but right now our reality is tied to food and eating.