You know what's a complete waste of time, money, and effort? Eating. I mean, wouldn't you rather just ingest a tasteless form of sustenance for the rest of your life and never have to go through that tedious rigmarole of opening and eating a premade sandwich or feasting on a pile of fried delicacies ever again? Rob Rhinehart—a 24-year-old software engineer from Atlanta and, presumably, an impossibly busy man—thinks so.
Rob found himself resenting the inordinate amount time it takes to fry an egg in the morning and decided something had to be done. Simplifying food as "nutrients required by the body to function" (which sounds totally bulimic, I know, but I promise it's not), Rob has come up with an odorless beige cocktail that he's named Soylent.
I wasn't sure if he was trolling at first because that's the name of a wafer made out of human flesh and fed to the masses in the seminal 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green, but then I read the extensive post on Rob's blog about how he came to make the stuff, and I started to believe he was serious. Soylent contains all the nutritive components of a balanced diet but just a third of the calories and none of the toxins or cancer-causing stuff you'd usually find in your lunch of processed foods. Despite the fact that it looks a bit like vomit, Soylent supposedly has the potential to change the entire world's relationship with food, so I spoke to Rob to find out how.
VICE: Hi, Rob. Why did you decide to boycott eating?
Rob Rhinehart: It was a combination of things. I was home for Christmas and saw an elderly family friend get admitted to the hospital after losing an unhealthy amount of weight. He was losing strength in one of his arms and found it very difficult to cook. I started wondering why something as simple and important as food was still so inefficient, given how streamlined and optimized other modern things are. I also had an incentive to live as cheaply as possible, and I yearned for the productivity benefit of being healthy. I'd been reading a lot of books on biology, and I started to think that it's probably all the same to our cells whether it gets nutrients from a powder or a carrot.
What was the next step?
Hacking the body is high risk, high reward. I read a textbook on physiological chemistry and took to the internet to see if I could find every known essential nutrient. My kitchen soon looked like a chemistry lab, and I had every unknown substance in a glass in front of me. I was a little worried it was going to kill me, but decided it was for science and quickly downed the whole thing. To my surprise, it was quite tasty, and I felt very energetic. For 30 days, I avoided food entirely, and I monitored the contents of my blood and my physical performance. Mental performance is harder to quantify, but I feel much sharper.
So what’s in Soylent, exactly?
Everything the body needs—that we know of, anyway—vitamins, minerals, and macronutrients like essential amino acids, carbohydrates, and fat. For the fat, I just use olive oil and add fish oil. The carbs are an oligosaccharide, which is like sugar, but the molecules are longer, meaning it takes longer to metabolize and gives you a steady flow of energy for a longer period of time rather than a sugar rush from something like fructose or table sugar. I also add some nonessentials like antioxidants and probiotics and lately have been experimenting with nootropics.
And that tastes good?
It tastes very good. I haven't got tired of the taste in six weeks. It's a very "complete" sensation, more sweet than anything. Eating to me is a leisure activity, like going to the movies, but I don't want to go to the movies three times a day.
What are some of the benefits to the food-free lifestyle? Any drawbacks?
Not having to worry about food is fantastic. No groceries or dishes, no deciding what to eat, no endless conversations weighing the relative merits of gluten-free, keto, paleo, or vegan. Power and water bills are lower. I save hours a day and hundreds of dollars a month. I feel liberated from a crushing amount of repetitive drudgery. Soylent might also be good for people having trouble managing their weight. I find it very easy to lose and gain precise amounts of weight by varying the proportions in my drink.
There are drawbacks: It doesn't keep long after mixing with water, so I still have to make it every day. If I make a mistake with the amount of an ingredient, it can make me sick, but that hasn't happened in a while. Also, some people really enjoy food a lot more than I do, so they may not like the idea.
How could Soylent affect the world's eating habits?
Consumer behavior has a lot to do with cost and convenience. There are plenty of ways to be healthy, but Americans are more likely to be overweight simply because the food that's cheap and convenient is unhealthy. I think it's possible to use technology to make healthy food very cheaply and easily, but we'll have to give up many traditional foodstuffs like fresh fruits and veggies, which are incompatible with food processing and scale.
That sounds ominous.
I don't think we need fruits and veggies, though—we need vitamins and minerals. We need carbs, not bread. Amino acids, not milk. It's still fine to eat these when you want, but not everyone can afford them or has the desire to eat them. Food should be optimized and personalized. If Soylent was as cheap and easy to obtain as a cup of coffee, I think people would be much healthier and healthcare costs would be lower. And I think this is entirely possible.
And it sounds like it could potentially help with world hunger.
Yeah, I'm very optimistic at the prospect of helping developing nations. Soylent can largely be produced from the products of local agriculture, and at that scale, it's plenty cheap to nourish even the most impoverished individuals. People may giggle when I say I poop a lot less, but this would be a huge deal in the developing world, where inadequate sanitation is a prevalent source of disease. Also, agriculture has a huge impact on the environment, and this diet vastly reduces one's use of it.
Have you recieved much criticism since posting about your experiment on your blog?
At this point, I think skepticism is completely reasonable. There isn't a lot of data right now, but I hope to change that. Interestingly, a lot of academics, nutritionists, MDs, and biologists have contacted me and been very optimistic—it's the organic foodies who call me nasty things. Good skepticism is things like "You're not getting any boron, and there is evidence boron is an essential nutrient." That's helpful, and I certainly advocate supplementing Soylent with conventional food. Bad skepticism is stuff like "This is stupid. You can't live on powders and chemicals, you need healthy, fresh food!"
Some people seem very invested in the idea of the sanctity of nature and natural food and some idyllic view of farming, so they find this idea very offensive. I don't think that's an evidence-based viewpoint. There's no evidence organic food is healthier than conventional food, and you just can't feed the world without efficient farming techniques.
Do you think you'll get bored of Soylent?
Soylent is definitely a permanent part of my diet. Right now I only eat one or two conventional meals a week, but if I had any money or a girlfriend, I would probably eat out more often. I'm quite happy with my bachelor chow. I don't miss the rotary telephone, and I don't miss food.
You know in the film Soylent Green, Soylent Green is made of people, right?
Actually, in the original book Make Room! Make Room!, Soylent is made of soya and lentil. The movie changed many aspects of the book, though it's still one of my favorite movies. My Soylent is human free.
Oh good. Thanks Rob!
A full recipe for Soylent, as well as a blog charting Rob’s progress toward total foodlessness, can be found here.
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Photos via Julio Miles/Soylent.