The Soylents of the Lambs

Durable, long-lived, dehydrated full-meal replacement products have a significant place in the future of human life on this planet as war and global climate change produce huge migrations and displacements. The problem of potable water is hard enough, and will become more challenging as wet regions dry out or become arid for parts of a year. But it's possible to sanitize water for drinking and convert sea water to fresh. It's a technological challenge, but it's not physically impossible, and some parts of it have been solved.

Getting sufficient quantities of food to the right places on the globe at the right time that is pest-resistant, stable, nutritious, and not foul is vastly harder. While there are many variants in the world today, most relief projects and ongoing aid to refugee camps involves food components, like beans, often requiring some preparation, and which may be deficient for a minimal healthy sustenance diet.

What if there were a product that required just potable water and little else, which could be used to feed tens or even hundreds of millions of people in a pinch? That would be palatable, nutritious, lightweight relative to calories for transportation, and non-perishable over long periods?

And what if highly compensated people were dying to eat it? That's Soylent and its ilk.

The Engineer's Food

I have a problem with what I define as an "engineering" mindset, though more precisely it's a mindset found most commonly among engineers—not all engineers engage in this way of thinking, whether they make software, products, or buildings. But I believe a mind that navigates to that sort of work also accepts approximation and reductionism gradually, because it is necessary. One has to break tasks down into solvable pieces to construct a new whole. This is extolled in all fields of engineering.

The trouble comes when reductionism comes without research—when a problem is approached de novo even when there is an enormous amount of information available about outcomes already. Nobody would build an edifice without using formulas that allow calculation of load, but many, many people will build a nursing-staff scheduling system without looking at how the system was previously handled and talking to those who use it. Existing users and and existing systems outside of mathematics and physics are seen as impediments to producing something more efficient than what it replaces.

I wrote about this in regards to Yahoo's new logo two years ago. Marissa Mayer seemingly ignored everything that has been learned about legibility over thousands of years, type design over hundreds of years, and human perception over decades of lab work to create a terrible logo.

Soylent strikes me the same way. Rather than do the tedious work of looking at past meal replacements and supplements, interviewing people in the field, and performing clinical tests, its developer, Rob Rhinehart, studied nutrition textbooks and read the FDA and other web sites, and "compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival," according to a 2014 New Yorker story. He ordered powders and pills and mixed them up.

He experimented on himself, decided the results were remarkable, crowdfunded turning it into a real product, raised a small fortune, and then went after venture capital. Soylent's brash claim that it could replace food (or at least some meals each day) became a statement of fact.

The New Yorker noted in 2014:

Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that it would be unwise to miss out on [phytochemicals]. “It’s a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet,” he told me. You can live without plant chemicals. “But you may not live maximally, and you may not have optimal function. We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.”

Soylent waved this concern off, and many competitors have since entered the market. The stuff is generally in scarce supply.

I've been skeptical and negative on Twitter to the extent that people ask me why I have a beef (or rice starch?) with Soylent or the concept. I don't. In fact, I want Soylent and its category to succeed wildly.

Food security

If they truly crack the code, they have the potential to improve global nutrition—whether it's a child in a refugee camp, a college student who would otherwise eat ramen and experience a form of affluenza malnutrition in the developed world, high-income programmers who are tired of food prep for some or all meals, or elderly with limited palates, digestion, and funds.

These meal replacements could achieve this without the usual problem of moving people up the food chain. Improvements in diets often include eating meat and other foods that have a disproportionate impact on the environment—better calories and more calories often mean a more intensive and worse use of the land to achieve them.

As insect-based proteins and algae-derived nutrients reach a commercial scale and are accepted, the efficiency of food production will increase enormously. Consumers in developed countries with middle-class incomes may reject them. Those who live in constant hunger or with constant food insecurity may embrace something that gives them enough quality calories to have the energy and fortitude to thrive. The developed world pretends that social programs provide enough food to those in want, when that's a patent falsehood we use to let us sleep at night. In developing countries, there's much less fooling about it.

No, my trouble with Soylent isn't its aim, but its journey. I want to see short-term and long-term independent clinical testing of results to validate the hype being generated. A sample size of one (the founder) or a few hundred (loyal adherents) or even thousands of happy customers isn't enough. This is a food experiment, not a food product yet. Rigorous testing and feedback will help shape these efforts into something real and beneficial—and profitable.

Some formulations by other companies are countering the reductionist approach of nutritional components by using real foods. Ambronite seems to be the leading practitioner. But at $9 per day for about 2,000 calories from Soylent, Ambronite's equivalent isn't competitive at $40 (four 500-calorie servings). I expect something closer in the middle in terms of non-reductionist ingredients (with the aforementioned algae and insect proteins as part of it) but at a lower price than Soylent outside developed countries will be a hit.

I don't criticize meal replacements being developed now. I criticize hype that may harm the health of those who buy into it until they're perfected.