You know what's an irreversible waste of time, money and effort? Eating food you take pleasure in 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 pre-made sandwich or enjoying a huge hungover fry-up 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 odourless, beige cocktail that he calls Soylent.
I wasn't sure if he was trolling at first, because "soylent" is the name of a wafer made out of human flesh and fed to the overpopulated 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 started to believe him. Soylent contains all of the nutritive components of a balanced diet, but with just a third of the calories and none of the toxins or cancer-causing stuff you'd usually find waiting to kill you in your lunch. Despite the fact 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 optimised 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 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 metabolise 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 non-essentials like antioxidants and probiotics and lately have been experimenting with nootropics.
And that tastes as good as a burger?
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, dishes, 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 behaviour 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 cheap and easy, 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 whenever you want, but not everyone can afford them or has the desire to eat them. Food should be optimised and personalised. 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 scale is 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 scepticism 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 scepticism 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 scepticism 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, natural food and some idyllic view of farming, so 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 favourite movies. My Soylent is human-free.
Oh good. Thanks Rob!
A full recipe for Soylent as well as a blog charting Rob’s progress towards total foodlessness can be found here.
Follow Monica on Twitter: @monicaheisey
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