Powder People: Could It Possibly Be Healthy to Eat Nothing But the Food-Substitute Soylent?
As a tech-obsessed child growing up in the nineties, Rob Rhinehart was always puzzled by food. Here he was, eagerly embracing the wonders of the information era, and he had to gnaw on seared chunks of meat and raw vegetables. “I remember when I was very young, eating lettuce and thinking it was very weird to be eating leaves, sitting in this nice house with all of these electronics around us,” he says now.
These days, Rhinehart doesn’t eat much lettuce or anything else recognizable as food. Instead, the 25-year-old gets most of his nutrition from a water bottle filled with a thick, light-brown slurry he invented. A cocktail of highly processed foodstuffs mixed with water—oat flour, tapioca maltodextrin, rice-protein powder, canola oil, and scores of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrient additives—it contains everything the human body needs, or so he claims.
After Rhinehart posted his recipe online in February, Soylent quickly became the first drinkable meme. A crowdsourcing campaign netted over $1 million in preorders, and a community of DIY soylent makers blossomed on the web. Last week, Rosa Labs, the company Rhinehart co-founded to bring Soylent to market, landed $1.5 million in venture-capital funding, putting a considerable dollar value to the geek dream of a post-food future where people spend less time feeding themselves and more time with the advanced electronics and programming languages they love.
Soylent’s enthusiasts see the body as a machine powered by chemicals and talk of transcending the human body’s limits by optimizing it like a supercomputer, a premise that underpins both Tim Ferriss’s popular Four Hour life-hacking books and the self-tracking Quantified Self movement. The philosopher Ian Hacking calls this thinking “neo-Cartesian,” after Descartes, who believed minds sat in bodies like conductors pulling the tiny levers of our nerves.
If the neo-Cartesians’ future comes to be, it will prove that contemporary foodie culture contains the heirloom seeds of its own destruction. Fresh from Georgia Tech with a degree in computer science, Rhinehart moved to Silicon Valley to work on a wireless-Internet start-up. He was broke and busy, and when it came to meals, he just wanted to eat cheaply. But he found that one does not just eat, and certainly not cheaply, in the birthplace of health-food stores and Chez Panisse. In Silicon Valley, he saw that his childhood paradox had grown into a monster. The most technology-forward place on Earth is obsessed with ingesting fancy leaves. “Everyone’s recommendations for healthy food seemed to take a lot of work and produced a lot of waste,” Rhinehart says. “I just thought rather than getting into this back-to-nature, holistic approach to food, I could see it as a form of hardware and standardize it, make it cheap.”
For his first experiment with a standardized diet, Rhinehart analyzed the calories of fast-food menu items, determining that the $5 pepperoni Hot-N-Ready pizza from Little Caesars provided the most energy per dollar. Math proved what countless young bachelors instinctively know. “For a week I ate nothing but $5 Hot-N-Ready’s,” Rhinehart says. “I quickly realized that was unsustainable. I just felt awful.” San Franciscans seemed to believe kale was the healthiest of all foods. So next, Rhinehart ate only kale for a week. “That was unbearable.”
A normal person might have considered eating both pizza and kale, and maybe an occasional apple. But this is not the hacker way. Rhinehart decided to create a new, nutritionally complete food from scratch. His roommate, who had a background in biology, provided some basic biochemistry lessons, and he drew further inspiration from local “biohackers,” DIY biotech researchers who approach life’s basic functions like programmers to code, creating new foods, medicines, and even organisms. He pored over textbooks, open-access scientific journals, and dietary guidelines. “I began to see all the parallels between biochemistry and electronics,” Rhinehart says. “Basically I realized that DNA is information, and proteins and enzymes are gears and transistors.”
After a few months of research, he mixed the first batch of Soylent with ingredients purchased online. He lived on Soylent alone for the next month. “I felt amazing,” Rhinehart says today. “I had more energy; I slept better. I could focus more; I was brighter and more optimistic.”
When his joints began to ache, he added more sulfur to his formula, and the pain went away. In February, Rhinehart revealed his self-experiment in a triumphant post on his personal blog: “I haven’t eaten a bite of food in 30 days and it’s changed my life,” he wrote.
A spectacular claim backed vaguely by science stuff, Rhinehart’s blog post was perfect fodder for geek hive minds like Reddit and Hacker News. Geeks enjoy debunking crazy ideas nearly as much as hyping them, but the negative reaction to Soylent was especially harsh. Some speculated Soylent was such a bad idea it must be a viral-marketing stunt. That Soylent shared its name with the product made of people in the 1973 Charlton Heston sci-fi flick undoubtedly fed the controversy. But Rhinehart says the unappealing name was a preemptive rebuttal to the disdain he knew would inevitably greet Soylent. “The name is a little self-deprecating,” he says. “I knew there would be all sorts of visceral reactions, and people were going to talk about it on this shallow level. The name feeds into this.”
Luckily for Rhinehart, the Internet is the most efficient system ever devised for converting visceral reaction of any polarity into money. The crowdfunding campaign met its goal of $100,000 in a matter of hours. Business Insider heralded Soylent as “the little invention that might change food forever”; then came the venture money. The first preordered Soylent should ship in December, packaged in pouches that contain three meals’ worth of off-white powder each.
One afternoon in May, I tried a prototype version of Soylent, an experience complicated by the unconscionable amount of lasagna I had just eaten for lunch. Based on Rhinehart’s pitch, I expected drinking Soylent to be effortless and futuristically cool, like licking an iPhone 5. In reality, Soylent resembles watered-down oatmeal. Unflavored, it tastes sour and wheaty, with a wan viscosity that gives off the impression of having already passed through someone else’s body. (Rhinehart says the company is researching a variety of flavors.) Soylent is aggressively nourishing: It coated my tongue, charged down my throat, and engaged in pitched battle with the lasagna already occupying my stomach. Rhinehart’s ideological war on real food raged literally, nauseatingly in my gut, and Soylent lost this particular skirmish. I only managed a few gulps from a pint glass before dumping the rest down the drain.
Soylent, however, is forever open to improvement. In true hacker fashion, Rhinehart has kept his recipe open source, which means impatient geeks like Bill Johnston, a skinny 27-year-old New York City web developer, are already living on the stuff. (The official Soylent is capitalized; homemade soylent is not.) Johnston estimates that more than 70 percent of his food intake for the past four months has been soylent, which he mixes each morning out of eleven powders, pills, and oils. “I feel pretty normal,” Johnston says. “If anything, I noticed that compared to eating a large meal, you feel a lot less groggy.”
On his lunch break in Cooper Square, Johnston removes a neon-green Nalgene from his messenger bag a bit sheepishly. “Honestly, I don’t tell a lot of people about this,” he says. Even his co-workers don’t know, nor have they asked when he finds the time to eat now that he’s going to the gym during his lunch break. Johnston has, however, uploaded his Bill’s Beginner Recipe to Soylent’s active DIY forum, where a user recently offered this tip on calibrating his mixture: “Change your amount of table salt to 1.5g,” wrote qm3ster, “and angels will descend from heaven to sing your glory.”
By promising to “solve” the problem of eating, Soylent takes neo-Cartesianism to its logical conclusion, not just perfecting the machine of the body but eliminating one of its most basic functions. This idea is so strange it has even unsettled Tim Ferriss. “Food isn’t a game,” Ferriss warned ominously in a disparaging blog post after one of his minions tested Soylent for two weeks. (Ferriss’s Four Hour Body has had essentially the same criticisms leveled at it for its endorsement of unproved dietary shortcuts.)
Despite the warning, most Soylenters aren’t looking to quit food entirely. They believe a Soylent-based diet can elevate real food from dreary biological necessity to a purely aesthetic and intellectual enterprise—by making it optional. “For me cooking is like an art form,” says Zach Alexander, a 30-year-old software developer in San Francisco and DIY soylenter. “And it’s really frustrating how biology compels you to eat food three times a day even though you don’t want to.”
Even Rhinehart eats the occasional burrito if he’s out with friends. “I think of it like going out and having a few beers on the weekend,” he says. “It’s not healthy, but I enjoy it.”
*This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.
Video: Making and Testing Soylent