In the world food has always been a necessity, but for most it represents a ritual, a pleasure, our culture. For many of us it’s synonymous with celebration and often associated with some of the happier moments in our lives – but do we need it? One man, Rob Rhinehart has embarked on a new life, without the need for solid food. He has created a product named Soylent (I know what you’re thinking, like that sci-fi book right? We’ve all heard of Soylent Green), which is an entire food replacement powder. Just mix this in with water and a few vitamin supplements and you’re good to go; you never have to eat again. But does it work? Is it safe? Is this the future of food?
Well, what Soylent actually consists of theoretically is everything that our body should need as humans to function and survive. 252g of carbohydrate in oligosaccharide form (a small chain of about 3-9), 114g of protein present as the 9 amino acids the body is unable to produce – Histidine, Isoleucine, Leucine, Lysine, Methionine, Phenylalanine, Threonine, Tryptophan, and Valine. Throw in 65g of fat (the original soylent recipe uses olive oil) and 27g of fibre along with essential chemicals and vitamins and you’re away. If you’re interested in the full and final recipe it’s on the Soylent website.
It seems it’s actually feasible to survive on this stuff; Rhinehart himself has been living on the product for a while now, eating only two meals every week. He likens this new way of life to ‘drinking water most of the time, but wine or beer when you’re socializing’. One of Rhinehart’s main selling points for the continued development is that ‘with Soylent you can be in peak mental and physical condition for less than $2/day’ which means that if this stuff actually could be created on a mass scale and not in a rented office space somewhere in America it could really make a difference to the starving, the homeless, and just the plain lazy.
But can humans really thrive on this day by day, what kind of drain would this be in our psyche? The psychology of food is an
interesting topic and while nutritionally Soylent may be a welcome step away from the current trend of gorging on quick fix foods stuffed with additives, the effects on society would be astounding. We would no longer go out for meals to socialise and catch up, families wouldn’t congregate around the dinner table each night, no longer would we be able to impress that guy with our gourmet cooking. Food is a part of our culture, our customs and our history. Imagine living on gloop for the rest of our lives – by day five I know I’d be dreaming about lasagne. But we’re all different. We need different flavours and textures in our lives and while there is space to expand or develop Soylent depending on nutritional needs or life goals we would simply be BORED. Not to mention our need to chew. Rhinehart has to carry gum around to make sure he still gives his jaw a work out.
Humans have a constant internal battle between what we need, and what we want. A study from 2000 examined the‘effects of a nutritionally adequate, liquid, sweet, monotonous diet on food cravings in young and elderly adults – very much like Soylent. It found that there were significant differences between age and gender groups when they examined the number and type of food cravings the subjects experienced, with elderly men reported no cravings at any time. Young people also found the food replacements to have a more chemical taste, but this was reported less in older adults. In contrast to predictions, cravings for sweet foods did not increase significantly, and how much people liked the diet did not change either. There may also be a problem with calorie control on a ‘restricted’ diet like this as a 2011 study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found. When put on monotonous diet of the same foods women tended to take in fewer calories, seemingly because food wasn’t a choice anymore to them.
So, is Soylent really the future of food? While an interesting and economically pleasing idea which could help in the correct nutrition and health of millions is it likely we’ll get the majority of the population on the meal replacement anytime soon? Probably not. In his quest for the most pure and simple way of taking in the nutrients we require Rhinehart seems to have overlooked one every important fact: we’re people not robots. Humans are not machines that are always looking for a cheaper and more efficient fuel. Food for most is about more than just ensuring our bodies function properly-it’s something that’s a pillar in our society and helps in not just bringing people together but as a large part of our economical function as consumers too. Even though we can viably live on Soylent (according to the information we currently possess) we need to look more into the longer term effects on not just the body but the mind- which has led us to where we are as a species, and yet somehow can be all too easily forgotten in the adrenaline of new scientific developments.
References and interesting pages:
The 2000 article on cravings on a monotonous diet
Pelchat, M., & Schaefer, S. (2000). Dietary monotony and food cravings in young and elderly adults Physiology & Behavior, 68 (3), 353-359 DOI: 10.1016/S0031-9384(99)00190-0
the 2011 study on calorific intake on a monotonous diet
Epstein LH, Carr KA, Cavanaugh MD, Paluch RA, & Bouton ME (2011). Long-term habituation to food in obese and nonobese women. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 94 (2), 371-6 PMID: 21593492
Rhinehart’s personal Blog about his time on Soylent:
An interesting motherboard documentary on Soylent