Soylent, “The Future,” and “Food”

Last month, I was reading Jason Kottke’s site when I saw an ad for an intriguing product: Soylent.

Soylent 2.0 Ad, via The Deck

An ad for Soylent 2.0, as it appeared via The Deck.

When I first saw the small boxy ad with a brief text description, which is common to all ads powered by The Deck, I thought it was a joke. Did someone really make a food-drink called Soylent?1

Didn’t they not watch the whole film?

Soylent is indeed real. It is a food substitute, launched in 2014 by Rosa Labs, a Silicon Valley–type startup based in Los Angeles. It aspires to be the future of food.

It’s a Startup

After poking around the Soylent website, I was stricken by how much Soylent uses the lexicon of contemporary tech startups. The website promoting Soylent is mercifully responsive, peppered with little jQuery animations, and styled in the minimalist aesthetic that will someday soon date websites as “soooo 2013.” As you scroll down the page, you’ll find a requisite feature list, illustrated with those circle-masked images that are all the rage these days. The Soylent store is powered through Stripe, and there’s also a “sandwich” video.

Soylent Feature List

Your food has a feature list, illustrated with circle-masked images.

Spend more time on the website and you’ll wonder whether Soylent is a software platform, and not an actual drink. First, Soylent is versioned. The 1.x line was a powder mix, which has undergone several iterations. There are release notes charting the evolution. Though Soylent 1.5 is still for sale, the current 2.0 version is a ready-to-consume drink. It is, after all, a major upgrade. Second, they also open-sourced Soylent for anyone interested in mixing their own Soylent. Third, there is also a beta program to test future versions of Soylent. And lastly, there are the user forums.

It’s “The Future”

Some members of the Soylent Forums appear to belong to a sect of techno-utopian futurists who are determined to save time and money by cutting out food.2 Some active discussions surround pairing Soylent with MealSquares, another food substitute. Others wonder how to deal with the lasting hunger that comes from drinking your meals. But, by far, my favorite discussions come from the polyphasic sleep crowd, who have come to regard sleep as a waste of time and are interested in maximizing net-waking hours. (Full disclosure: I am a coffee napper.) One friend asked what these people are doing with all the extra time they’ve saved by not sleeping or eating: are they researching new ways to save even more time?

Another way to think of Soylent—packaging nutrition in a bottle—is as a social entrepreneurial venture. Mark Cuban recently tried to solve the food problem in America through sociocapitalism.

I asked a machine learning company to try to find nutrition databases of readily available, deliverable foods from Amazon and to cross reference those databases against the Amazon delivered price in one urban city. The goal is to create the least cost, deliverable daily or weekly menu of food that meets a high level of nutritional requirements for individuals and families.

Although I presume he’s referring to actual food, not necessarily meal replacements, it’s not a stretch to wonder if something like Soylent could be a compatible solution.

It’s “Food”

Despite being initially hesitant, I couldn’t stop thinking about Soylent. I succumbed to my curiosity and ordered a case.

At first taste, I thought “soy milk.” That’s not a stretch given the product’s name and that its primary ingredient is soy. A friend sampled it and reported a more nuanced tasting note: it reminded her of “soy milk left over after finishing your cereal.” That dispelled my first concern, whether it would taste bad. It doesn’t.

That same intrepid friend and I split a bottle recently, before watching Frederick Wiseman’s newest film, In Jackson Heights (2015). Our initial plan was to eat dinner after the screening and drink a Soylent tide us over until then. I even naively quipped about the movie, “it’s not like it’s going to be three hours long.” I was wrong. The documentary ran 190 minutes. I can report that while I was craving food throughout the screening, I didn’t get a headache, feel low on energy, or get “hangry.” I circumvented needing to eat so I could watch a three-hour film. That half-bottle of Soylent did its job.

While Soylent is technically food, it’s hard to see this as a sustainable and nutritionally complete food substitute, even if its stated aims are to be sustainable and nutritionally complete as food. Celebrated food writer Michael Pollan sees Soylent as little more than “Silicon Valley” hype:

Soylent! Soylent is not new. We had Nutrament; you can go to the diet aisle of your supermarket and find all sorts of equally disgusting food substitutes. The genius of Soylent is that it comes out of Silicon Valley, and anything that comes out of there is assumed to be new and technologically advanced and wonderful. But it’s nothing of the type.

Although the company is actually based in a Southern California, I take his point. Soylent is poised to “disrupt” food.

Future of Food is Food

The year before last, I regularly ate dinner at the dining hall at Fordham University. Having broken up with my girlfriend at the end of the summer, I was too depressed to make myself food. Also, because the faculty dining room was being remodeled, the university discounted our meals—to five dollars—so that we would eat with the students living on-campus. While I was excited to eat a cheap, balanced meal, I was surprised to see how many students bypassed the buffet and opted for only a bowl of cereal at dinnertime. Not even pizza or hot dogs could entice them away from Cinnamon Toast Crunch.

Lee Hutchinson, an early Soylent adopter, jumped into the polemics of “food vs. ‘food’” and carefully judged it as a “tool in a toolbox.” In his article, he also considered the various people who struggle with food, both those who fear making it and those who don’t much like the taste of food. Soylent offers these people a simple solution: like the undergraduate students who ate a bowl of cereal before heading to their rooms for the night, presumably to study, to game, or both. It’s quick, it’s easy, and it solves the food problem for a while.

But that’s just it: it is ephemeral. The history of food diets—like technology and mass culture—are notoriously riddled with passing fads that don’t endure. Right now, it’s the era of Paleo and gluten-free. Next, we might eat only vegan and raw food. By the end of the century, someone might open an retro, early-21st century place that serves beef and pork. I’m not foolish enough to try to predict whether Soylent will be around in five to ten years. But, like the wave of hot new tech startups and the aesthetics of web design that accompanies that wave will teach us, the future of food might not be as futuristic as some might expect.

Soylent
A “nutritionally complete” food substitute that comes in a white bottle.

  1. I do remember seeing an ad for this a while ago, but this time it made an impression, both in terms of grabbing my attention and getting my money. 
  2. I really hope someone archives these discussions so that historians and anthropologists can study them in the future. 

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