Remember Rob Rhinehart? I'm sure you do because it's hard to forget about a guy existing solely on vitamin puke. A few months ago we wrote about Soylent, an incredibly nutritious "food replacement" smoothie that Rob, a 24-year-old engineer, had been making and consuming as his only food source for almost five weeks. On one hand, it did look a bit like semen, but on the other, Rob claimed that by drinking it every day he'd never have to eat again. Given that starvation is a fairly major problem in the world at the moment and the planet's population will likely surpass 9 billion by 2050, Rob's invention seems like an important one.
Since we last talked to him, Rob and Soylent have become famous. His project has been derided as "dangerous", "ludicrous", and "a red flag for a potential eating disorder" by nutrition experts. Fortunately for Rob, the supporters of Soylent have been generous: a crowdfunding project for his fancy health goo raised almost $800,000 in under 30 days. Now Rob is the CEO of the Soylent Corporation; his hobby has officially turned into a career. His management team might look like the kind of technically-minded nerds who'd want to consume most of their meals in the form of a beige, odourless powder mix, but they're also the potential forefathers of a famine cure.
With over $1 million in preorders already received for Soylent worldwide, it seems like this stuff is going to stick around. I caught up with Rob to ask how it's all going for Soylent – which some are already calling "the future of food".
VICE: Hey Rob. So, what happened after our interview?
Rob: My inbox exploded. Gmail cut me off after I answered 500 emails in a single day. Achievement unlocked. Since then Soylent has become a company and people are finally rethinking the nature of food. These are exciting times.
How have you dealt with all the media attention?
At first it was very difficult. I've always been a private person and it was uncomfortable to put myself out there. However, I decided it's my job now and I had better get good at it. On the internet everyone talks about you like you're not in the room.
You're still eating nothing but Soylent with good results, right? How long has it been?
Yes, Soylent is exactly what I was looking for. It's been roughly 90 percent of my meals for seven months now. Once we got some professional dietitians and food scientists to collaborate with us it got much tastier and more filling. I still keep painstakingly close track of my health and body metrics and I still run almost every day. This also makes me approximately vegan and when I do eat I eat very well. I've developed a lot of good habits since starting Soylent, and learned a lot about the body, and what's running me.
An early version of Soylent.
How did you find your beta testers? Are they enjoying their dinner?
I chose a reasonably diverse group based on a survey I conducted via my blog, which got many thousands of responses. The men loved it, but it took some tweaking to make the women happy. Today we support about 50 beta testers. I love reading their logs – you get stuff like "Day 12: Feel like the Terminator." The main criticism has been the appearance. People are pretty shallow when it comes to food.
Have you made any changes to Soylent now that it's not just you eating it?
The formula has changed, making it as nutritionally optimal as possible and improving the taste, texture, and mouthfeel. My initial version was just a prototype. We now have a men's and a women's version that should mostly cover the vast majority of people. I still recommend eating some traditional food, I just find it makes me feel tired compared to Soylent. I never liked cooking, but engineering food has been a lot of fun. At this point it amazes me what people manage to live on.
How is Soylent different from other meal-replacement drinks on the market already?
A lot of things will give you calories, but nothing so far has been designed to be something you can live off. There are no food replacements on the market.
People have expressed concerns about the size of your sample group and the fact that you don't have a nutrition-science background. What do you say to those who think what you're doing is reckless or unsafe?
Ad hominem attacks aside, no one knows the consequences of 30 years of iPhone use but given the data we have it's probably fine. There are people that think everything new is dangerous, and some will accept new technology without testing it enough. I try to take the middle path. Soylent is perfectly safe, FDA-approved, and already seems far healthier than what the average American or Somalian is eating.
What do you think of the nutrition world in general?
People are inundated with terrible, conflicting advice. Nutrition is unfortunately a field where everyone thinks they're an expert. I am not, and I don't need to be. My goal is to provide the nutritional recommendations already developed by the IOM, WHO, and our board of nutritionists as efficiently and effectively as possible. That is an engineering problem.
A lot of people got mad when you claimed Soylent was as nutritious as fruit or vegetables.
Just because something is natural doesn't mean it's safe or healthy, and just because something is artificial doesn't mean it's unhealthy or dangerous. Look around you. Nothing we buy is natural. Everything useful is designed and manufactured, and food should be no different. People are afraid of sweeteners when it's real sugar that's killing us. They're afraid of preservatives when food waste is rampant. McDonald's is trying to engineer lower calorie food that is more filling to fight obesity but people are demanding natural-sounding ingredients. It's frustrating to watch. The idea of "real food" is just snobbery. Everyone has the right to be healthy, even people who don't like vegetables.
If it's all completely approved why do you think people are still afraid of it?
Fear makes a better story – fear-mongering in food is too easy for many media outlets and entertainers to resist. Part of the reason I created Soylent was to avoid the cacophony of opinions and misinformation around food and diet. I'm certainly taking less of a risk now than I was with a diet known to be unhealthy. People fear what they don't understand. By being transparent and clear we will continue to bring more people around to this important idea. Nutritionists, foodies and other critics seemed particularly attached to the idea of chewing, and are mad at you for taking it away. Are you dedicated to the smoothie medium or could Soylent move into bars and cereals and other solid foods?
We can make anything, but a liquid is the best for nutrient absorption. Humans started chewing in the first place because it makes food closer to a liquid.
Shit, that's a good point.
Some of our testers say they chew gum though, so there must be some innate desire to chew even when you are not hungry. You guys had an enormously successful crowdfunding campaign a few months ago. Who was donating?
Our backing is amazingly diverse. We have people of all ages all over the world backing Soylent. People have many reasons for donating, from better health to aid to sustainability, but most just want to save time and money. In the United States it's not "phytonutrients" people are lacking, it's time. Giving people the opportunity to catch up on some sleep or work will do more for the average person's health than fresh kale. Some will lament this fact, but I am encouraged that many people have things they would rather be doing than eating. Spending less energy on survival is progress. Are you working anywhere else or is Soylent your full-time gig now?
I am working on Soylent full-time and then some. I'm even taking a salary, which is a first, though so far I've blown it all on decommissioned biology equipment. Sounds pretty wild. What's next for the smoothie that Gawker said "looks just like semen"?
I see Soylent as a ubiquitous, practical, day-to-day meal that provides most of our nutrition. However, I also see people engineering new recreational foods and making novel foods more beautiful and flavourful than anything we get from nature, thus reducing the burden we place on the environment. I see a difference between "eating" and "dining", and both will be improved with science. The name "Soylent" has annoyed some detractors online. Most of them are bummed about the whole "Soylent Green is people" connotation. Would you ever consider changing it?
We're trying to create a universal food for the masses. I think it's a pretty apt name. It also gets the point across that this is not a luxury brand. It's supposed to be practical and efficient. There are already plenty of fancy foods. This isn't one of them. What was it like setting up the Soylent Corporation, as someone presumably pretty new to running a million-dollar business?
As an engineer and entrepreneur I have been preparing for this my entire life. Every idea I've tried has done a little better than the last. Soylent is no overnight success. I have been trying to create something useful for other people my entire life. I never imagined it would look like this, but it seems to fit the bill beautifully. It's exciting to work on something with so much potential, and I am prepared to take it all the way. Can we reach some kind of deal wherein if you become a billionaire I get a million dollars for breaking the story? Just a fun, professional idea.
I have no desire to be a billionaire, but I want my company to be successful. In the future when Soylent is a multi-billion dollar commercial, humanitarian, research empire I'll buy you something pretty, and nostalgic, like a tomato. I see what you did there. Deal, I guess.
Follow Monica on Twitter: @monicaheisey
Previously – This Man Thinks He Never Has to Eat Again
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