Main Course

Soylent Aims to Solve the ‘Problem’ of Food

Is food's future a batter-like beige drink?

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Back in 2012, tech entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart decided to stretch his food dollar — and simplify his life — by whipping up a cheap nutritional powder which, mixed with oils and water, he proceeded to live on for weeks. A subculture of folks started tweaking the recipe, and this spring, a commercial version became available for purchase online. Soylent is now one of the buzziest foodstuffs around, and over $3 million worth of it has been sold. This week, Soylent’s business VP, David Renteln, stopped by our studios with a sample … and to reassure those disturbed by the product’s sci-fi name.

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David Renteln: Yes, so in the movie with Charlton Heston, Soylent is made of people.  But our product contains absolutely no people.

Rico Gagliano: Happy to hear it. Tell me what is in this stuff? What are the ingredients?

David Renteln: There are a lot of ingredients. The largest percentage is oat flour, maltodextrin, canola oil, rice protein.

Rico Gagliano: First of all, who came up with those particular ingredients in whatever proportions you have them in?

David Renteln: It took a lot of product iteration. Rob, our CEO, came up with the original formula and he lived on it for 30 days.  So that’s where this all began.

Rico Gagliano: Sure, but I mean, where did he come up with it? Did he just kind of test out every possible combination of nutritional supplement until he came up with one he could live off?

David Renteln: So there are a lot of studies that show what ideal nutrient proportions are. Part of what Rob did initially was sift through all these studies and come up with the closest consensus of what would be most healthy, which we then confirmed with our medical adviser, Dr. Pi-Sunyer, who is the head of human nutrition at Columbia.

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Rico Gagliano: So you get this stuff. It’s a powder and oil, and you mix those with a certain ratio of water, and that is the proportion that everyone gets. It seems to me that everybody has different nutritional needs. Some people are iron-deficient, some people will naturally eat more of something because their body demands it. Is this really a one-size-fits-all substance?

David Renteln: It’s as close as one-size-fits-all can get. As far as iron deficiency or wanting to eat more, it has a ton of iron from added vitamins as well as natural iron in the rice protein. And as far as eating more, you can always mix up another bag of Soylent; it’s one calorie per milliliter. One of co-founders, John, is 6’8”, and he needs about 3,800 calories per day sometimes when he’s very active.

Rico Gagliano: Are there side effects? I had read somewhere that gas was an issue for some people.

David Renteln: That can be an issue for some people. And it was especially an issue in early iterations of the product, when high qualities of sulfur were involved. And that was quickly, er, addressed.

Rico Gagliano: I can imagine!  That’s what beta testing is for.

David Renteln: It is! There was a bug in the product.

Rico Gagliano: Are you subsisting on this entirely?

David Renteln: Not entirely; it makes up the bulk of my meals. I do breakfast and I do lunch pretty much every day. Especially weekdays. I find it very easy to wake up in the morning and mix up a pitcher of Soylent. I don’t have to worry about what’s for lunch or what I’m gonna get. I don’t have to leave my desk if I don’t want to. It’s a problem that’s just solved.

Rico Gagliano: But I guess that’s what gets me: this idea of stopping to eat food as a “problem” that needs to be “solved.” I understand that sometimes it’s an inconvenience, but, like your CEO, there’s a whole subculture of people who want to subsist on this for long periods of time. I don’t know why, but it feels worrisome to me. I think about the movie “Brazil,” where they’re in a fine restaurant and everybody’s ordering variations on the same lifeless paste. It’s almost like the definition of a totalitarian society. Is the goal here really to eradicate the need for food?

David Renteln: We’ve heard that concern before. It’s not so much us wanting to replace food as much as wanting to replace a staple meal and make food more convenient. And you can replace meals that you don’t enjoy. I don’t know what that I might be for you.

Rico Gagliano: Oh, there are no meals that I don’t enjoy, unfortunately!

David Renteln: Well, for me, junk food is something that I try to get away from, and I find Soylent is very useful in helping me avoid that. But I still very much enjoy going out to a nice restaurant where there’s a dish that is almost more of an art than a meal that I would need to subsist.

Rico Gagliano: You mentioned trying to get away from junk food. Something that would satisfy you beside junk food. Is it satisfying?

David Renteln: Absolutely — incredibly satisfying.

Rico Gagliano: Even though it doesn’t have a chew to it? I did an interview with a guy who did a certain type of cleanse and he found that after a week he was really yearning to chew something.

David Renteln: We have heard that some people miss the urge to chew, and we recommend that they chew gum.  But we don’t recommend they consume unhealthy calories, just to satisfy a mechanical urge.

Rico Gagliano: All right, well let me taste some of this.

David Renteln: Sure. We brought you some here.  It’s in a 2-liter pitcher …

Rico Gagliano:  … and it’s kind of beige.

David Renteln: It is beige. We purposely designed it to be very neutral. For taste and texture. If this is something that you’re gonna to have for a large percentage of your meals, you would get tired of something that has a very extreme texture or taste.

Rico Gagliano: So it’s gonna be somewhat bland I guess, is what you mean by “neutral.”

David Renteln: Yes, but I prefer “deliciously neutral.” And an advantage there is that you can customize it by blending it up with berries or peanut butter, and everybody has their take on it.

Rico Gagliano: OK.  Although when you start doing that, you’re kind of missing the point, it seems like.

David Renteln: Well, since it’s so amenable to customization in terms of taste, you wouldn’t actually have to blend very many berries, for instance. The nutrition wouldn’t really change very much.

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Rico Gagliano: Initially smelling it, it smells a little bit like protein powders that I’ve had after a workout or something like that.

[sips it]

It is very neutral. It’s not unpleasant at all. It has a kind of graininess on my tongue. Kinda the consistency of watery cake batter. The flavor is maybe a little nutty?

I can imagine drinking a lot of this, but do you know people that have lived off this other than your CEO?

David Renteln: Yes. A number of our customers have ordered large amounts and stated to us their intention to live on it for long periods of time.

Rico Gagliano: What kind of people are those? Who, in your experience, wants to eradicate the pleasures of food from their life forever?

David Renteln: We have a very, very colorful community, and we have people who are chained to their desks some days and can’t get away, or don’t want to, in terms of efficiency. We have other people who really want to use this for, say, a camping experience. Then you can see how it actually is very energetically efficient to carry a lot of powder with you.

Rico Gagliano: Although you can’t roast this over a campfire. Alas.

  • Geoff L.

    I ordered 2 weeks worth for me and the wife. We have our starter kit, and are awaiting our shipment e-mail to count the days. Looking forward to trying it, and maybe even supplementing it into our weekly routine.

  • IamSoylent

    I’ve had soylent for 10 days now and it is absolutely transformative. Incredible delicious stuff!!

    • Rico Gagliano

      Noted, @iamsoylent:disqus, but I miiiight take your claims a little more seriously if you didn’t name yourself after Soylent and put a picture of Soylent as your logo.

      • IamSoylent

        Understood, but you can find plenty of pictures of me online if you really want to, not to mention my videos. Part of the point of the site is the humor (to me anyway) that “Soylent green is people” and yet here I am, living mostly on Soylent, and therefore becoming Soylent, therefore people are Soylent. OK so maybe it’s only amusing to me and a handful of others, but hey… that’s humor for ya.

        • Paul

          That’s creepy not amusing. And you are definitely lacking credibility. And whoever came up with the idea to name this product Soylent is clearly a bit loco.

          • IamSoylent

            LOL ok so we don’t share the same sense of humor. *shrug* It was named after a book (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Make_Room!_Make_Room!) which the movie liberally changed in order to make it more shocking. In the book Soylent is made from a combination of SOY and LENTILS. As for credibility… I don’t need to have any in your eyes or anyone else’s really (though I have plenty, thanks). I just need Soylent to thrive so that they are around forever so that I can continue to happily buy their product.

          • Paul

            You look like government operation to me to be honest and it’s not very clear who owns this and what’s the real intention with it. There are good reasons why people eat normal food and not processed food, even if it’s more complicated and more time consuming than just drinking your creepy liquid. It looks like some kind of “end time” food. People might not be cool with it now… but under the right circumstances they might accept it very fast. You see, I know how branding works, I work in the industry, I can see beyond the bullshit. And the truth is you are trying to revolutionize the industry with a product that has an brand name that clearly refers to apocalyptic times. And looking how easy it is to fool people – that have time & money to waste – into tasting, experimenting and even starting to implement this creepy product in their life. You know something, you say “Hint – it’s not people.” I say , FUCK YOU, PROVE IT!

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/adam.skinner Adam Skinner

    I’m eagerly awaiting my first month’s worth of Soylent. I’m anticipating cognitive enhancement, and cost savings compared to my existing eating practices.

    I’m also looking forward to bringing it on an upcoming backpacking trip. It seems like food has always been a problem for me on the trail.

  • Liana Cosgrove

    I was so surprised that the whole crux of this discussion was about how it was great for folks who don’t want to leave their desks or deal with what to pack for lunch. Not one word about its humanitarian potential… how it could help countries dealing with famine and/or poverty. Am I missing something?

  • Jared

    FYI, It’s not “oat flower”, it’s oat FLOUR.

    • Guest

      Actually, typical flour is made from wheat. So, to say oat flour is to differentiate from All-Purpose flour you typically buy from the store.

    • Rico Gagliano

      thanks for the copy editing! Fixed.

  • Andrew Engroff

    @lianacosgrove:disqus The founder, Rob Rhinehart, has thought quite a bit about it and it was part of his initial pitch when seeking crowdfunding money. Personally, I think they’re playing it down a little more lately so as not to make grandiose claims out of a fledgling business, but I’m sure it’s still on their minds.

    • Rico Gagliano

      That’s right, @Liana Cosgrove, I did ask David Renteln about the humanitarian potential, and the answer was low-key and brief: he said it’s something the company is “looking into.”

    • sbaynham

      Probably because, atm, soylent costs $9/day/person. The idea was that they’d scale up to full production and that cost would go down, but the cost actually went up very slightly due to shipping costs. So I think they have some economic problems to solve before this becomes a real possibility.

  • SuperRob1

    I made my own DIY version for a while, and while it was great, getting the ingredients and measuring each week was a hassle. I’m looking forward to letting Rob’s folks deal with that.

    But to answer some of the questions both stated and implied here, my reasoning is …

    First, I make incredibly poor choices for my meals most of the time. I get whatever is quick and tasty, and they’re largely nutritionally empty and calorically dense. Having something I can just drink when I need fuel helps me avoid the bad choices.

    Second, it’s not an either / or scenario. As David stated, Soylent replaces the meals that are forgettable, that are just happening to keep you going that you honestly wouldn’t remember in a week. It is not intended to replace what I refer to as “social eating”, that is, going out with friends to a nice restaurant or bar and having that experience. It’s not intended to replace the meals you have on vacation where the eating is part of getting away. It’s intended to replace the routine, mundane meals that many of us have as the majority of our eating.

    Lastly, my wife and I have no kids, and different eating needs (she’s vegan and I’m not). As such, economizing on our meals the way other families do isn’t possible for us to a large degree. Soylent is actually cheaper for us than our regular eating, and the time we’re not spending preparing our meals we can spend together or on other activities.

    I’m very much looking forward to getting my first month of the final product.

    • Rico Gagliano

      Interesting insight, @SuperRob1:disqus. How many meals do you plan to replace? And any worry about the possible *long* term effects we mentioned on air (not transcribed here) – e.g. nutrients found in food that aren’t necessary for survival (and are not in Soylent) but might ward off disease long term?

      • SuperRob1

        @ricogagliano:disqus – I plan to replace two to three meals a day, basically only eating out for social reasons. Honestly, my eating habits are pretty bad, so I highly suspect that the increased level of actual nutrition in Soylent is going to make me much healthier than I am.

        One thing I’ve come to understand is that while there is a lot of health science and the way our bodies work that we don’t understand (so yes, it’s possible Soylent will be missing something helpful to our bodies), our bodies are also designed to be incredibly resilient, able to sustain themselves (albeit, sub-optimally) on less than adequate nutrition. I think that most people aren’t aware that they’re not getting complete nutrition on a daily basis. Soylent is a positive first-step in that direction.

        The important thing to take away is that it doesn’t have to be Soylent exclusively. If it turns out Soylent is missing something, our bodies are pretty good at telling us (via a craving) that it needs something. But I suspect that the once or twice a month I might eat with friends socially will be plenty good at getting anything else I’m missing.

  • Paul

    How stupid must you be to name this product Soylent? It looks disgusting and I bet there’s something fishy about it. Will not trust this crap in a million years.

    • captainlaurie

      Smells like trolls in here.

  • diello

    I’d love it if one of these news blips on Soylent would touch on the MASSIVE amount of people who backed (and subscribed to) this project that he is royally screwing now. He has so much money from this, but can’t hire someone to take care of backup orders? Can’t hire someone to answer emails?? Look at all the comments on the facebook page. Beyond the “soylent green” comments are posts of fury and desperate cries for someone to FINALLY pay attention to the forgotten customers who are still waiting, who have tried every single avenue to contact someone in charge. And yet here he is, trying to add more to the masses, when he can’t even handle the ones he has. On the occasion someone is met with a response, it’s a tired excuse that’s been repeated since the beginning. Too many orders to keep up with. The product is great (after almost two years, I finally got to try it), but we’re tired of waiting.