by Philip Menchaca
When I learned that Soylent, a food substitute created in Rob Rhinehart's Silicon Valley blender, began shipping to U.S. consumers this month, I had only one thought: they can pry my food from my cold, dead hands. Admittedly, having spent the afternoon boiling a ham bone, I was overexcited. I fixed myself a snack and went through some breathing exercises to calm down. Able to think rationally once more, I turned my attention back to Soylent and still, in less shrill tones, I found myself asking: why? Why would anyone want to replace food?
Rhinehart began his attempts to replace food in 2012, following the failure of a startup. He ordered thirty-five nutrients in powder and pill form, combined them in a blender, and began living off of the slurry. On February 13, 2013, he published a blog post entitled “How I Stopped Eating Food”. He writes that within 4 days, he went from not being able to run a mile to running 3.14 miles nonstop. After a week, he was hooked. “All I crave is soylent,” he writes. It was a bold statement for something with a taste that has been described as akin to liquid PlayDoh.
To me, innovations in food that do not entail improvements in flavor or experience come only from heretics. Such innovation creates things like the canned hamburger. Efforts to make food last longer, cost less, and be more convenient invariably seem to sacrifice taste. Indeed, Rhinehart’s goal was never to create something tasty. He wanted to eliminate the inefficiencies of food. Farming requires vast resources, relies on unpredictable and uncontrollable weather patterns, and results in products that require an additional investment of time and money by consumers who must also evaluate the items’ widely varying properties before making the decision to invest their resources in food. And with the disruptions that climate change will bring, food will only become more expensive. As Rhinehart writes, the food industry is “an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications…In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation.”
Soylent comes from the Food is Fuel school of thought and for that purpose, it shines. Mix a bottle of Soylent in the morning and you don’t have to think about food for the rest of the day. You can stay at your desk, working away uninterrupted by the irritations of basic biology (well, one of them anyway). In Rhinehart’s vision, food as we know it could become a true hobby, a recreation reserved for weekends, and Soylent would be our daily fare.
Soylent’s slick website advertises that it costs less than $10 per day and provides all the essential nutrients required to lead a healthy life. It hints that the possibility of a cheap, allegedly resource efficient and nutritionally complete food source could change the world, or at least your life. Unlike medical foods, created and marketed for specific uses, Soylent claims to eliminate the need for traditional food, for everyone and anyone. And for those who cannot always afford to buy enough food (approximately 14.7% of the population in New York) Soylent promises a cheap and healthy solution.
While Soylent undoubtedly hides behind a thick curtain of marketing puffery (the longest human trial of Soylent comes in the form of anecdotes from its inventor), Rhinehart’s vision does seem plausible, if not probable. In a world already engaging in panicked speculation about the end of Chipotle guacamole, the possibility that food will become a luxury item and humans will have to find an alternative, more resource efficient means of nutrition does not seem too far-fetched. But is a thick beige drink really the solution? Is the future Soylent? Hunched over my pot, lost in gloomy rumination, I stirred my ham bone and looked into the past.
One day, Philip Menchaca would like to eat the world.