In the hothouse world of young would-be millionaire tech industry entrepreneurs, "Soylent" is a familiar word. Much has been written about this open-source published yet mysterious powdered food extract + oil + water thing that substitutes for regular food but is ready to eat in a jiffy and no chewing required. We'll round up some coverage over the last years or so in a moment. But putting last first, it hit the media bigtime this week in a story that is both fascinating and disappointing, sort of the news-biz equivalent to empty calories:
- New Yorker – Lizzie Widdicombe: Annals of Gastronomy/ The End of Food / Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals?
Here is what I think happened. Writer Widdicombe – she specializes in popular culture stories for the magazine – got so deeply inside the brain of her protagonist and into his story of his invention that she got lost in there. There is almost no outside expertise (ie science) consulted, little resembling a solidly-bolstered fact that gets to the core of the issue: is this stuff called lightheartedly but eerily Soylent sustainably cheap, easy on the environment, and nutritious (plus tasty) enough to sustain a person for months or even years without the bother of cooking anything or even owning a spoon, knife, fork, or dinner plate? A blender, a tall mug, and you're fed and rarin' to go (but if you commit to it be prepared to fart for a week or so till your gut adapts).
You must read it if you have not already, especially if (as had I) you have managed to get this far without hearing about this new product. It is shipping to customers for the last month or so. It has been a hot topic and target of do-it-yourselfers for about a year among impoverished digerati. It is deeply fascinating to be introduced to a subclan of young strivers, working on skimpy start-up money in San Francisco, so broke and working so hard they had neither time nor budget to eat properly. So one of them, Ron Rhinehart, took time to inhale a pile of literature on human nutrition and find out if he could make a cheap powder that looks something like ovaltine with no cocoa but all the amino acids, oils, vitamins, minerals, carbs, etc. that a healthy body requires long-term.
Rhinehart tells her he feels terrific, is healthier than in the old ramen and corn-dog days, saves a ton of money off the food budget, and just plain feels far better and is more energetic. His dandruff is gone! It is delicious, says he. Not only that he thinks his product could stave off famines yet to come, providing inexpensive sustenance to billions when standard farms fail to keep up. Reminder: Inventors of products do not tend to be the most objective judges of their merits. The story's writer and the magazine’s editors seem remarkably incurious about facts. IS he healthy, and healthier than he was? Widdicombe did speak with nutritionists and physicians who know a lot about it, but how about HIS doctor? Has Soylent-man had blood work, what are his vitals before and after? Are this teeth really whiter? Does he even have a doctor (an overworked tech industry man in his 20s? Maybe not). The writer or the magazine's editors could have offered, at least, to sign him up for Obamacare if necessary and send him to a clinic for a full panel, pop him on a cardiac stressing treadmill, something. Bring some data to bear on the question! Either that or declare forthrightly that, so far, no studies have been done on him or a well-selected set of people to verify a word that this clever man says about the crowd-funded product he and a few pals are selling by mail order. Some experts tell the writer they wonder if the stuff's lack of phytochemicals or flavanoids will backfire. That angle is then dropped. Surely, academic nutritionists have not failed to take note. Somewhere a bone fide expert or more must have protocols in the works, perhaps already in trials. They cannot be that hard to sniff out. And how about all the other products, Infant formula for one, that try to do about the same thing? So many questions.
Some of these holes have been tackled by other media, although none have made a persuasive case that the product is all that it creator says it is or, for that matter, that it is not. Below is a roundup. If you read them and the comments that accompany many of them, note that a lot of regular people including some with a foodie penchant are positive this stuff is bad for you. Many have semi-magical reasons such as the mysteries of digestion, the ineffable qualities of regular foods and their complex chemistries, made-up assertions about how we've evolved to eat 'real' food so no bunch of extracts can possible stand in, how this will bollix our gut microbes, and other other such vaguely-expressed popular lore.
- The Atlantic – Julie Beck: Soylent, Meal Replacements, and the Hurdle of Bordom / Humans don't like monotonous diets – which means Rob Rhinehart's supposedly nutritionally complete beverage Soylent has a lot to overcome if it's to catch on ; Ms Beck tried it for a week herself, and consults the ubiquitious Mary Roach ("We, as humans, seem to have this need to chew," she said). Story has lots of background on other efforts to make meals-in-a-blob and their shortcomings. But no overt new science to offer.
- Atlanta Magazine – Chris Davisson: Whatever happened to Soylent? Soylent v1.0 is now shipping across America ;
- Shane Snow (via Tim Ferriss's Four Hour Workweek Blog): Soylent: What Happened When I Stopped Eating For 2 Weeks ; It is just a sample of one, and only two weeks, but this blogger, and journalist, Snow at least got a lot of blood work and other medical measurements made before and after his trial with Soylent. The trend lines were good. Scientifically inconclusive but intriguing.
- Ars Technica – Lee Hutchinson: After Months of delay, Soylent finally ships / Multimillion dollar crowdfunded project finally delivers future food to backers ; Hutchinson has been following the product for months, including in September "Ars does Soylent, the finale: Soylent dreams for people." He, too, tried it out. The story includes links to his whole series. He delves into other products sort of like this and why Rhinehart thinks his is disctintly news. He writes that he served some up for friends who tended to sort of like it, but said they prefer to eat just about any other standard foods, "and then we proceeded to cook up the BBQ, crack open the beers, and carry off Labor Day in fine style."