It was my second day on Soylent and my stomach felt like a coil of knotty old rope. I wasn't hungry, but something was off. I was tired, light-headed, low-energy, but my heart was racing. My eyes glazed over as I stared out the window of our rental SUV as we drove over the fog-shrouded Bay Bridge to Oakland. Some of this was nerves, sure. I had twenty-eight days left of my month-long all-Soylent diet—I was attempting to live on the full food replacement longer than anyone besides its inventor—and I felt woozy already.
We were en route to Soylent HQ, where the 25-year-old Rob Rhinehart and his crew were whipping up the internet famous hacker meal—the macro-nutritious shake they think will soon replace the bulk of our meals. It's just one of many visions currently vying for the future food crown. The world's population is still burgeoning, after all, 600 to 800 million people are going hungry every year, and the specter of food riots is perpetually percolating—the demand for cheap, nutritious food is greater than ever.
So Googlers are investing in vitro meat, biotech firms are genetically modifying crops that promise increasingly robust yields, and Silicon Valley is nurturing a bevy of future-forward alt-food companies. Then there's Rob, who came along and claimed that nobody had to eat food ever again.
Rob's idea for a sci-fi-inspired nutrient shake sprouted from living the life of a hyperactive, science-obsessed bachelor. As a recent software engineering graduate and aspiring entrepreneur, he was too broke to eat out and too time-strapped to cook. But instead of stocking his pantry with plastic-wrapped ramen like everyone else, he tried to retool the act of eating itself, to make it cheaper and more efficient. He studied government food standards and nutrition textbooks—Berg's Biochemistry was like his bible—and divined a set of basic ingredients that provided the calories and nutrients the human body needed to run.
Then, in what would soon prove irresistible fodder for Silicon Valley founder mythology, Rob lived on the yellow-grey stuff for 30 days, subjecting himself to lab tests and blogging the results. The concluding post, "How I Stopped Eating Food" became an online sensation.
"The first few days was kind of nerve-wracking," Rob told me. "I felt like I was kind of pushing off from shore, that there was no traditional food in body, only this mixture of chemicals that I'd assembled from rudimentary knowledge. But I'd never felt so great in my life."
Before long, Rob had an avalanche of interest on his hands, both from consumers and the media—many were enthralled; they wanted to know the recipe, stat, so they could go post-food too. Others were outraged, and deemed Rob's quest to replace food foolhardy, even dangerous.
Rob was ready. Employing a steely, unflappable sense of logic, he followed up the first post with a series of others, and, eventually, launched a crowd-funding campaign. In less than half a year, he'd translated his personal experiment into a full-fledged business with over $1,000,000 in preorders.
When I'd received my first shipment of Soylent in New York, it arrived in the office in a white UPS box—and the yellowish crust-dust was packed into barely-sealed Ziploc bags. This was version 0.7 or so, still a work in progress. It looked like someone had mailed me a box full of some badly cut designer drug. This iteration of Soylent was beyond beta.
It tasted like granular baby formula that was somehow simultaneously sugary and salty. Previous tasters had compared it to semen, which made sense, and so did the nods to cake batter and uncooked oatmeal. It was mildly unpleasant, but it went down the gullet smooth enough; later versions would prove more palatable. But taste wasn't what Rob was after—he told me that he was positioning Soylent to taste as neutral as possible, something that you wouldn't get sick of after drinking for days on end.
He also wanted his customers to be able to 'hack' Soylent—to add fruits, vitamins, nootropic drugs, alcohol, or whatever they wanted. Sure enough, a robust DIY community has sprung up around Soylent; they frequent the subReddit r/Soylent and the Soylent Discourse site that Rob set up, where they share pointers and recipes. Soylent is essentially a diet inspired by an open-source operating system.
"Be careful," my girlfriend Corrina said, above all else, after protesting my dive into this culinary Linux. My friends and family were pretty uniformly worried when I explained the Soylent undertaking. "You don't really know if it's safe," Corrina said. "It's also just kind of a dumb idea."
Like its most acid-tongued critics, she hated Soylent. She hated that it meant we couldn't eat meals together for the next month, at home or out, and she loved cooking. She hated the philosophy that propelled it; she was a staunch proponent of eating healthy, whole foods, of the importance of eating meals together.
"Eating just for the nutrients is like having sex just to procreate," she said.
She pointed out, as had many nutritionists in the wake of Soylent's rise, that nutrition science was ever-evolving, and we still don't have a complete picture of how exactly the body absorbs nutrients. There's certainly no firmly agreed-upon quotient of nutrients and calories, no one-size-fits-all recipe for fueling the body.
"The claims [Rob] is making are not scientifically substantiated," Joy Dubost, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told TIME magazine. "The composition of what he has made is not going to be nutritionally adequate. He has made a lot of assumptions, and it is not going to be sustainable by any means for a certain population or even for an individual."
Jay Mirtallo, a professor of pharmacy at Ohio State, however, told the Washington Post that living on liquid foods is entirely possible. "You can completely," he said. "But I don't know why you'd want to. There are so many social aspects to food in what we do."
Regardless, I'd packed those Soylent-filled baggies into a suitcase and flown out to San Francisco. While a few journalists and curious hackers had tasted Soylent, no one had followed precisely in Rob's footsteps yet. No one had repeated the feat central to his product's premise—that a person can live on Soylent for 30 days and emerge healthier than ever. So I followed Rob down the foodless rabbit hole.
Soylent's home base, it turned out, was a dusty space that was evidently an ex-garment factory in an old industrial complex. $1 million is a lot of cash, but it's not enough to pay for a full staff, bulk supplies, and a state-of-the-art facility. (Though Rob had splurged on a genome sequencer he'd bought used at an auction.) The walls outside the building were covered in technicolor graffiti, and a bumper sticker on the door was the only thing announcing Soylent's name to the outside world. I had a stomach cramp as I greeted the young CEO and strolled inside.
Rhinehart's team had cordoned off a section of the massive warehouse with plastic sheeting; behind it was a table lined with tubs of various nutrient powders. Amazon.com boxes and tubs from chemical supply stores were stacked all around. During this chapter of the company's evolution, an employee would spend hours just shoveling a proportion of the nutrients into a silvery space bag with the Soylent logo sticker slapped on front.
There was an easy fix for my dazed-out nausea, it turned out. I wasn't drinking enough water. At the factory, Rob told me that was a common mistake; since Soylent is a shake, people figure they don't have to drink extra water—an easy way to get dehydrated. I downed a tall glass of water at Rob's warehouse, and followed it with a sip of the latest blend of Soylent. Then I downed another glass, for good measure—I felt better almost instantly.
Rob Rhinehart is tall, well over six feet, and typically wears jeans and a simple, dark monochrome jacket. His grey-blue eyes focus with a quiet intensity as he's talking, and he's prone to gazing off into the middle distance, thought-addled, when he's not.
The atmosphere in the cluttered factory was full of kinetic energy; Rob and his teammates strode around as you might imagine a young Bill Gates and Co. bouncing off the walls in their garage, or Mark Zuckerberg hammering away at his laptop in that house in Palo Alto—and no doubt the Soylent boys themselves were imagining something like that too.
There is, after all, a seemingly unavoidable chapter in every ambitious tech-minded startup's mythology, when the state of affairs is chaotic, optimistic, and endearingly messy. It's a vital strand of any Silicon Valley company's DNA. Since we love mythologizing our business gurus, the COEM phase is an important one; that's where our tech titans are briefly human, before they go on to transform the world with audacious products and life-improving design. The Soylent men had seemingly seized on this mentality—they tossed footballs around the factory floor, played baseball with a giant inflatable ball, and partied like, well, young men in their mid-twenties, fresh out of college.
One night, I went out with the Soylent crew. I cabbed over to a house party in San Francisco, and found them milling around the sidewalk, a half-empty 12-pack dangling from one of their grips. Spirits were high—there was an undeniable buzz around the project, and the crew was raucous, jubilant, and gracious. They offered me a beer, and I shook hands all around. The plan was to head to Bootylicious, a pirate-themed nightclub. Someone hailed an Uber cab.
We nodded along to pop mashups for a while, then bounded over to another bar. One of Rob's friends told me that the team had a bit of a reputation even before they struck a public nerve with Soylent.
"They were known as the start-up bros," he said admiringly. He wasn't part of Soylent's staff, but it was clear he wanted to be.
The team talked excitedly about the prospect of pitting Rob against Michael Pollan—the organic food evangelist whose exhortation to "eat food, mostly vegetables" is the antithesis of the Soylent way—in a one-on-one cage match.
Team Soylent thinks Pollan's ideas are hopelessly outdated, but Rob insists that Soylent is environmentally friendly. There's truth to this. Soylent is produced from vegetarian ingredients; the largest are oat flour and maltodextrin, a carbohydrate commonly derived from corn. Simply by eschewing meat, an eater is easing his environmental burden. Cultivating meat is a drain on the planet—cows, pigs, and chickens have to be fed, fattened, and slaughtered. It takes a gallon of gasoline to produce a pound of beef, for instance, and cattle usurp nearly 24 percent of the Earth's arable land.
Rob has a dream that someday, Soylent's ingredients will be harvested in a plant that harnesses sunlight to grow nutritious algae. But for now, he's trucking in bits and powders for final assembly at a distribution center. Since the bulk of our food is currently shipped around in much the same way, it's probably safe to say that Soylent is greener than any non-local or non-vegetarian diet—even if Pollan wouldn't buy it.
"Rob would kick his ass," David Renteln, an early Soylent team member, Harvard grad, and biology phD candidate, said.
The CEO himself was calm and collected all night; while his compatriots got drunk—one of them lurched off to puke on the side of the street at one point—he talked eloquently about technology (wireless networks in the developing world), startups he admired (Uber), and his ideas for the future of the company. He wanted to move the outfit to Brooklyn, which he loved, but the team was opposed. Silicon Valley, after all, was right down the street.
Of course, Soylent is only nominally a technology company—though one of Rob's savviest moves is presenting it as one. If Rob had pitched Soylent as a health food product, you probably wouldn't be reading about it on Reddit. After all, food replacement products have already existed for decades—Optifast, Ensure, Slimfast, and so forth are all readily available at supermarkets and pharmacies. But they're explicitly tailored for weight loss or for use in medical situations where someone can't eat solid food.
Soylent, meanwhile, is pitched at a specific brand of modern lifestyle; a future-minded, technologically advanced one, for people who've moved beyond chewing on leaves. Literally.
"I have a very strong memory of when I was very young. I think six or something. I was eating lettuce, or kale, or something. And I remember thinking that it was very strange that I would eat leaves as a human," Rob said. "This was for animals—why would I eat this?"
It's fast, hacked food for hackers who value efficiency above all else. It's audacious—a voluntary total food replacement meant to transform the very way you live. Framed this way, Soylent is a gadget, not a health food product. Yet Rob's vision doesn't mandate abolishing food; he imagines we'll all be eating two to three meals a week, as he currently does, on top of Soylent. Eating will become like boozing—something we do recreationally with friends, or as a hobby.
But in the eyes of the government, Soylent is still a traditional dietary supplement, even though Rob is advocating near-total food replacement. Since 1994, the Food and Drug Administration has regulated supplements differently than foods—unless they're introducing a "new nutritional ingredient," supplements don't have to be approved or inspected before going to market. When Rob did his due diligence with the agency, they told him that as long as they were using previously available ingredients, Soylent was good to go. And that's notable because while we were at the Soylent factory, we saw a rat.
Watching the playback from one of the interviews we filmed inside the Soylent factory, we noticed a rodent hightailing it out of an area where ingredients were stacked. Soylent is chock-full of nutritious goodies; there are whole bags filled with nothing but carbohydrates, and some of it appeared to be constantly spilling out onto the floor as it was mixed.
I remember watching those frames with something of a dumbstruck awe—it was day three now; I was going to live for a month off this product, and the bags he'd just handed me were mixed in the same room as that rat. Which was alarming enough, but it raised other concerns—how well was the team meting out the ingredients? Was anything else besides good culinary hygiene being overlooked?
That night I went out for drinks with the crew, at a bar and grill where people were chowing down on burgers and fries. Weirdly, I wasn't interested—Soylent had me entirely gastronomically satisfied. We weren't seated on the back patio but five minutes when a couple rats ran out of the kitchen—a reminder that eating in proximity to vermin is nothing new.
"I want to be totally transparent," Rob said on the phone, when I told him about our footage. Later, he sent me the following statement:
The Oakland space was a temporary, makeshift office situation that we were unsatisfied with for a number of reasons. We moved out as soon as we could. Soylent is made in a dedicated facility meeting or exceeding all regulatory requirements and rigorously tested for safety and purity.
Days four and five got a little easier. I still felt a little unsettled and gut-tight, but was starting to wonder if that was mostly psychological. I called my father, who's a physician, and he told me that indeed, my body could take some time to adjust to a radically different diet.
After I got back to New York, I didn't lust after food. I didn't go hungry, and I didn't curse Soylent. I was still anxious, sure, as I missed lunch hours and dinner dates and nights out drinking. I found that my new Soylent-fueled body wasn't well-equipped for drinking. I'd get dizzy, a little ill, but not exactly drunk, if I downed more than two or three drinks. Long, intensive physical activity seemed an undue strain, and I started to lose weight.
A few of the packets were infested with mold, but that didn't bother me; I was a beta tester after all, and the packaging hadn't been finalized yet. It'd gotten punctured en route somehow, and moisture had got in—which did highlight its vulnerability to mold, an important point given that Rob touts its non-spoiling benefits as a solution to sending nutritious food to far-flung places.
Yet I felt fine—even good. Some days I was downright grateful I was on Soylent; a packed day with deadlines, interviews, and edits to finish blew by seamlessly, and I never had to leave my desk. Those days, I embraced Soylent wholeheartedly.
I kept a diary. This, for instance, is from Day 9:
I still wouldn't say I'm desperate for food or anything. Far from it. It's already almost become a bit of an abstraction; an option. Food. I don't know if it's because I can't allow myself to need it, but I really and genuinely feel like I don't need food right now.
And I'd eked out a compromise with my girlfriend. What if we were to lend some credence to Rob's vision, and imagine the benefits of a post-food future? What if we could try to replace the meal-centric rituals of the past (and today) with entirely new ones? I suggested that every time we would have eaten a meal together, we'd do something else, something social and productive. We'd take a walk, or play chess, or work on a creative project, like that old idea for a screenplay we'd been batting around.
The concept of nutrient-packed, tasteless food product is a recurring sci-fi trope, of course. The resource-starved humans of an imaginary tomorrow are always having to eat wafers, pills, and shakes to get enough sustenance to survive. Sometimes, it's couched as advancement—some of the earliest feminist sci-fi literature imagined food pills liberating women from kitchen drudgery. Elsewhere, it was a forced, dystopian burden: Sprung from The Matrix, for instance, Keanu and friends gulped down pasty nutrient glop for sustenance.
Soylent, of course, is associated most closely with Soylent Green, the 1973 Charleton Heston film that ended with the revelation that we'd been eating ourselves all along. Rob, however, insists that he named his product after the book on which the film was based—Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room!, in which there was no cannibalism; just soy-based soylent steaks that were in hot demand for New York's 30 million residents.
Soylent actually works both ways. Rob imagines Soylent eventually becoming "a utility" that runs out of the tap next to water. No one would ever have to be hungry, he says, and Soylent could help cheaply feed the starving masses of the world. That's simultaneously both a dystopian and techno-utopian idea; feeding the entire world with science, yeah—but with a tasteless, bland, nutrient shake that saps any pleasure of eating.
"You're not going to feed a booming population with organic farms," Rob says.
These dystopian conditions aren't so far-fetched, of course—millions endure them every day. Climate change is threatening to strain resources, limit food production, and uproot millions more, population growth is spurting onward, income inequality is rising worldwide, and the world's most powerful governments are ossifying instead of reacting. My Soylent experiment became something of a sci-fi-tinged experiment in empathy, then: You pass the cafes and restaurants you can't enter, whole portions of the block become alien, and hole up at home while everyone else is out on the town. It's life for hundreds of millions already, and for millions more to come.
By the third week of Soylent, not eating food seemed normal. I saw a doctor, who said I was healthy; I was still losing weight, but nothing serious. Yet, given that a daily mixture of Soylent contains 2,400 calories, both Rob and Dr. Engel thought it was odd that I'd shed so much. Dr. Engel said that given my weight, height, and body mass, I should only require about 1,800 calories a day. I could still be adjusting to the new diet, or I could have such a hyperactive metabolism that before Soylent, I was tearing through hundreds of extra calories per day and staying trim.
By Day 30, I'd lost a full ten pounds, and good ones too. The doctor said it was healthy weight to lose—and my body fat had dropped by a full percentage point. Here, while I'm at it, is everything that entered my body during 30 days of Soylent.
- 30 packages of Soylent, each containing a full-day serving.
- 9 beers
- 1 glass of white wine
- 2 halves of mixed drinks
- 5 cups of coffee,
- One quarter-serving of Nyquil
- Juice from one wad of orange-flavored gum.
That's it. The gum? My jaw had started aching during the home stretch, so I figured I'd work it out with some non-nutritious gum. As for the coffee, I'd gone without for the first half, but Rob encouraged me not to give it up; it felt like amphetamine on Soylent, so I drank sparingly.
As for me, I'd switched into full-on Soylent mode. It had become a way of life. If you're largely apathetic towards food, as Rob seems to be, life on the liquid goop does free up your time and, yes, it will save you heaps of money. And that powerful hacker-minded philosophy behind it has helped keep interest growing: the company just attracted $1.5 million in private investment from Andreessen-Horowitz and Lerer Ventures.
Things are still moving blazing-fast for Soylent—in the time it took for me to complete my diet, the Soylent team had moved out of the dank Oakland facility and into brand new offices in Los Angeles. And Soylent was mass-producing in a facility in Modesto.
My first meal back was, as I'd been lusting over, some deliciously nasty fried chicken. Everyone told me not to go so heavy right off the bat—try yogurt first, they said, ease back into it—but no way. I wanted the richest, Soylent-crushingest food possible. So I bit in.
I was euphoric. I felt the endorphins rushing through my body, the gob of chicken skin wandering down my esophagus, the juices staining my chin. Rob, who'd joined us, led a conversation about food technology; the chicken was sublime. Before long, I might as well have been stoned. For a half an hour, I sat there, overwhelmed, unaware of any foodless world outside my brain.
For a few minutes, the future didn't matter; the taste and the swirling talk took over. The food anchored me to the glorious present, and eating was all.