Image Source: Metronews Canada
Kenya is still in the throes of the genetically modified (GM) debate. French scientist Gilles-Éric Séralini, whose study cast doubt on the long-term safety of the consumption of GM foods, spurred Kenya into a state of caution from which it is yet to recover. But as Kenya continues to grapple with how best to grow her food, across the Atlantic someone is questioning the very need for food. Meet Robert Rhinehart. South Carolina based software engineer and creator of Soylent - a powdered meal replacement. All an average adult’s nutrition needs in one small bag, the food of the future.
Crowd funded into existence
Robert first began to toy with the idea that food and the human body were reducible in February 2013. He conducted self-experiments and documented his initial findings – including his first Soylent formula – on his blog, for interested readers.
He then followed this with a crowd funding campaign on Tilt where he managed to raise over USD 3 Million establishing Soylent as the highest food-related crowd funding project to-date. His funding fortunes continued as he secured additional venture capitalist financing of USD 1 million and a final whopping USD 20 Million from Andreessen Horowitz. In a matter of months, Soylent began fulfilling US-based orders.
The inconvenience of 'old food'
Technology has always provided ways to make life easier for human beings. The standard home kitchen today is filled with gadgets that would make the home cook of yore green with envy. But the creator of Soylent feels that this is not enough.
In his opinion, too much time, money and effort is expended creating nutritionally balanced meals. The very act of planning and cooking a meal is an inconvenience that we should not be burdened with in this digital age. Indeed, a typical Soylent meal can be prepared in just 3 minutes with little more than a blender and some water.
Robert states, "I want cooking to be a hobby and a profession, like photography, not a necessity" and adds, “Surely our minds can find more enjoyable activities than chewing”.
The People Of Soylent
Early adopters of this food, aptly named The People Of Soylent, share Robert’s sentiments. They are featured prominently on the product’s blog and are in professions ranging from adventure photography to field biology. They report that with this food they are able to pursue their daily passions uninterrupted.
What is Soylent Made Of?
Well, not humans – according to the disclaimer on their website.
Some of you may be familiar with Soylent Green, the eponymous sci-fi movie from 1973. The plot is really quite simple. The year is 2022. The earth's resources are strained. Humans are surviving on severely restricted rations of Soylent Green, a wafer, which turns out to be made from human remains.
In fact, many of Soylent’s potential supporters urged the creators of this liquid food to consider renaming it because of the unsavoury connotations denoted by the movie. Their pleas fell on deaf ears.
The creators, however, published a list of ingredients - just to be on the safe side. They include: Maltodextrin, Rice Protein, Oat Flour, Vitamin and Mineral blends, Vanillin (no longer listed as of version 1.4), Canola and Sunflower oil powder and Soy, full list here.
Following this publication nutritionists and nutrition enthusiasts alike have been up in arms dubbing the drink the ‘Soylent killer’. In its usual fashion, Soylent continues to tune out detractors and has begun shipping to Canada.
Healthy by default
Robert is appalled at the zeal with which ‘old food’ is being defended. As he looks upon the landscape of fad diets and prevailing obesity he sees Soylent as a potential voice of reason.
Humans, he says, consistently seek the cheapest, easiest solutions. Making the cheapest, easiest option for food the healthiest makes users healthy by default.
Isn’t variety the spice of life?
When you consider the variety of the foods we have access to today, in terms of colour, aroma, texture and taste it would be easy to feel that a daily diet of Soylent would pale in comparison. As usual, its creators have an answer for even that.
Soylent yields a beige liquid that is said to have a slight vanilla taste and a smooth consistency. Robert claims to have stumbled upon the secret sauce of the soft drink industry. Using the same method as Coca-cola he is sure that drinkers will never tire of Soylent. He states, “if a taste is pleasant, but not very specific, the brain does not tire of it.”
But isn’t eating about more than just food?
The creators of Soylent have chosen to focus purely on the utility of food. Who cares about enjoyment when you can have efficiency? This flies in the face of a food culture that has been in existence for millennia.
But even hardcore supporters of Soylent have admitted to dining the ‘old way’ and enjoying the camaraderie of chewing in a group. Robert, on the other hand, suggests bringing your flask with you to dinner because the bonding factor is the people, not the food.
Despite the great strides Soylent has made it seems it is still a ways from being considered a fulltime replacement for regular food. However, it appears to be slowly creating a niche for itself with professionals who may be too busy or inconveniently perched on a mountaintop when meal times roll by.
Currently, version 1.5 of Soylent is on sale with bug fixes including taste and flavour enhancements. These software-like releases of the product are probably an ode to Robert’s background.
Perhaps more than that, these releases are reflective of the underlying philosophy at Soylent that food can be empirically built. This philosophy governs everything they do.
The shipping of version 1.0, for example, was suspended following reports of serious flatulence and headaches from The People of Soylent. These issues were resolved and shipping was resumed as normal.
Version 1.4 later followed featuring a 43/40/17 carbohydrate/fat/protein ratio at the recommendation of F. Xavier Pi-Sunyer, a medical doctor.
All other versions have undergone similar tweaking in response to The People’s concerns or to address nutritional shortfalls.
What it means to us here in Kenya and other emerging economies
Shipment notwithstanding and pending a formal assessment, at face value the environmental impact of Soylent can be said to be considerably less than that of agriculture based food innovations – the domain of GM crops.
But at an average of USD 3 per meal (with a monthly subscription option) Soylent is still out of the reach of the world’s poor struggling to get by on less than a dollar a day. It is certainly not yet a viable solution for Kenya, which still has a long way to go in streamlining its agricultural and food distribution practices.
Soylent does remain, however, an innovation worth watching because who knows, at some point in the future the world’s relief food may be delivered in bottles with instructions reading: “Shaken not Stirred” – a serving suggestion from The People of Soylent.