I have been following the journey of Soylent: a meal replacement drink for sometime from when it only existed as a self experiment by Rob Rhinehart. If you haven’t yet heard of you are likely to soon as it is going mainstream with billboards and a huge online following. How this differs from a protein shake in a packet marketed at dieters is that it claims to be completely nutritionally complete and thus has the potential to entirely replace solid food. It is also not focused on marketing to dieters or people bed ridden and fed through a tube (as a nutritionally complete liquid meal long existed for them), but usually to busy people annoyed by the hassle of preparing and eating regular food, and to those who honestly believe they cannot manage to eat a healthy diet without it all being provided for them in powdered or liquid form (either through lack of knowledge or control or those who believe they cannot afford a healthy diet otherwise).
I have been completely fascinated by this cultural phenomenon and I am geeky enough to have got all the sci-fi references. I however love food, probably too much and exist on the complete opposite end of the spectrum trying to grow much of my own food, preparing most of what I eat from scratch and believing that ideally fresh, organic whole plant foods is by far the healthiest foods possible to eat. I also feel fantastic when I follow that advice (although don’t always perfectly).
In many ways I think the popularity of Soylent is because it is antithesis to the whole-food organic local, slow food movement. Clearly not everyone enjoys obsessing (sometimes to the point of orthorexia) about their foods origin, and phytonutrient content or if they have had enough superfoods in their day. And if you haven’t yet found what works for your body diet wise in a sustainable long term way it is completely confusing with so many competing schools of thought even within the whole food, local, slow food kind of movement (think paleo, vegan, raw vegan, vegetarian, macrobiotic, i quit sugar, nourished traditions, eat a bit of everything in moderation, flexitarian etc). Handing over the mental load of choosing what to eat in a world of almost unlimited choices, is actually somewhat attractive.
Soylent also takes the extreme opposite approach to most food companies publicly embracing GMOs and processed food and nutrients which may also appeal to tech types. Because for the most part Soylent which comes either in powdered form which you prepare in a shaker or in pre-packaged single serve bottles (the waste of this frustrates me) is made of a mixture of isolated nutritional supplements very far removed from real food, some would never ever been part of an organic living thing ever to begin with.
From a minimalist perspective if food is not something you enjoy or gives value to your life then Soylent is the perfect alternative. You could do what Rob Rhinehart and many other fan do which is consume the drink at home and save real food for social occasions out with friends.
Personally however I do get a lot of enjoyment from real food and food preparation. I’ve shown you guys my kitchen before and it is one of the few places I do own quite a lot of stuff that gives me the ability to make almost anything from scratch which I really enjoy. As the daughter of a nutritionist though and also as someone who has actually read quite a lot on the subject i’d be quite concerned about the drink as actually being a healthy complete food source. It is true it is probably better than frozen pizza or any other number of processed unhealthy foods that probably many of the Soylent fans did subsist on for the majority of their diet. However food is not the sum of isolated nutrients. Colin T Campbell’s book Whole is a perfect scientifically based example of this. Food contains many highly volatile compounds such as phytonutrients that do not function in an isolated form and only give us the benefits they have been demonstrated to have for things like fighting cancer if they are untampered whole food form. Clearly there are many things we do not yet know about the interactions of these nutrients in food and since our bodies and the food we eat are the result of billions of years of evolution it is arrogance to think that a few years of tinkering in a warehouse with a few powered supplements could recreate all the benefits of food in its whole form. Rhineheart has previously addressed this (common) criticism saying we should try anyway as that is science, and i agree with that, but i’m not willing to be a guineapig quite yet and don’t think he has got there yet either on the completeness of his product (it also changes very regularly as he discovers this too).
As Soylent has boomed in popularity and as it is open source (which is nice) in true tech company style there are many other alternative soylent style companies that have popped up and even encouraged to exist by Rob Rhineheart. He after all is leading a movement or cultural revolution and rightly believes that by encouraging other companies to create a similar product will spread the idea and philosophy of eating far and wide as it has a greater availability. The upside though for people wanting this style of minimalist eating but aren’t comfortable shunning real food for chemicals is that among some of the alternative companies (eg Joylent and Ambronite) are a few that make a more premium whole-food based drinks. Their ingredients include things like ground up nuts, oats,chia seeds and superfood powders. Personally i’d be happier having this if I wanted a fast hassle free meal replacement drink.
Personally though if i want a quick meal and don’t have time to prepare anything more elaborate, a green smoothie is my go to meal. And in many way it does exactly the same thing. If you are so inclined to care about it being perfectly nutritionally exact for your needs (I usually don’t as i have a varied diet so know i’ll hit everything i need from different meals) here is a recipe that might work for you. This is one i made for my own personal needs as a woman requiring 1800 calories a day using the Australian dietary guidelines as the RDI for nutrients. This is just for 2 meals (assuming you have 3 meals a day with no snacks) and you but can pre-prepare all the dry ingredients ahead of time in bulk if you wish for even easier preparation. Pretty much any protein powder will do for that ingredient. Yes that part is processed and probably the soy milk but the rest isn’t. Also regular milk would work to, it just needs to be a milk or milk substitute that has calcium in it.
I wouldn’t recommend you only live on this though as a varied diet is going to cover things that aren’t even listed in the Australian dietary guidelines. But for an occasional meal or part of the day it would do just fine (better if things like the greens and fruit was varied from smoothie to smoothie too for more variety in phytonutrients which don’t have known RDIs).
The other thing of note is that probably for many people like me, food plays such a central role in their lives both in relationships with other people and as a hobby and source of enjoyment. If it was cut out replaced by a drink or meal square or whatever, i think i’d be lost and with a lot of time on my hands I wouldn’t know what to do with i think. I think this is part of what attracts me to the idea of Soylent and why i’ve been so fascinated with it – the freedom from thinking about food. I’m curious to see what that would feel like, and have experimented a bit with replacing 2 meals a day with the smoothie recipe above. The problem is though for me it was too easy to overeat on top of the smoothie in my final meal as it didn’t really satisfy the more psychological aspects that food provides. I also tend to use food as procrastination especially around lunch time. It was good as a breakfast though as i’m too busy in the morning to think about food. My thoughts on this are that I obviously have food issues to work though and therefore if you are anything like me, Soylent or whole food substitutes like my green smoothie recipe can’t free you from food – you already need to be there psychologically to be able to use it effectively.
All of this has me thinking about whether or not a love of food and everything that surrounds it is actually compatible with a minimalist philosophy. While for me it is clearly something i enjoy and have argued has value to my life, as essentially a consumptive practice does it really have value compared to a pursuits that have a more long lasting effect? Certainly a large number of Soylent fans are work-a-holics and enjoy it for the extra time it gives them to do what they are working on. On the other hand though the preparation of a good meal can also be viewed as creative art, be it a ephemeral one and the sharing of a meal with family and friends an act of love and connection. For me I think I am far too engrained in this world and practice to be able to be able to consider this clearly enough.
I certainly thank the Soylent community how what they are doing has made me ponder more deeply these aspects of my life and it is certainly something I should explore more. But am I going to ever live on Soylent or a whole food equivalent for a major part of my dietary needs? No. it doesn’t work for me, at least for now.
What do you think about this interesting and controversial new culinary movement? And what would you do with all the free time you’d have if you didn’t have to prepare food?
Postscript: This post has received criticism from many Soylent fans along the lines of “if you haven’t tried it personally, how can you make a judgement!?”. My statement to this is you really haven’t read properly and understood my post. It does not matter what one person’s experience of trying something is, even when it is yourself. That is not how science is done. Whether or not something is healthy (and i maintain my argument that Soylent is less healthy than a whole foods balanced diet) is not judged in the world of nutrition by one person ‘feeling good’ or even blood results from one person. Nutrition looks at the long term and looks at populations of people, not anecdotes. There is more than enough science out there for the benefits of things like pytonutrients when they are contained with whole (not isolated vitamins) foods and i did already give you all a reference to a scientific summary of all the research for that, so that statement was not without evidence to back it up. There is also no evidence of the long term effect of Soylent, it hasn’t been around that long.
The other aspect of a clear misunderstanding of my post is that it’s purpose was to provide me as space to reflect on my own relationship with food. This is a thought experiment and I certainly do not need to drink soylent to have an opinion on how I emotionally react to the idea of replacing real food from my life with this drink. I did try my wholefoods smoothie replacement to get into this aspect further (without having to subject my body to the highly processes isolated nutrient concoction that is soylent, or the expense of obtaining it as an Australian with less access). From this i firmly established that for me I do not want to regularly replace real food with a drink, even a wholefoods smoothie. As this is my blog i get to use it as i wish and many times i use it for self-reflection on a variety of stuff, this is just one example. As this is about my own mind it therefore can’t be critiqued by anyone. I’m not saying you are all the same, that you have my mind. You get to reflect yourself about your relationship with food in your own time. The only aspect of what i said that can really apply to you is my critique of nutritional value of Soylent in comparison with whole foods. Unfortunately for you if you are a member of the cult of Soylent, science is on my side for this aspect. That being said as i previously said the experiment i think is interesting, I don’t think soylent is necessarily worse than many other things people eat that is less than optimal. I just object to all the propaganda that is put out there about how people think it is ‘so healthy’ as this provides just yet another confusion about what a good idea to eat and there is enough of that already provided by a whole host of other wacky diets.