Soylent May Not Be the Path to a Vegan World, but it’s a Useful Tool

Only Silicon Valley can take an old idea and give it such an ambitious rebirth. There’s nothing new about meal replacement shakes. Slimfast and Ensure both date back to the 1970s. The difference is the scope of the project. Whereas those companies target dieters and the convalescent, respectively, Soylent aims to feed the world in the most efficient and sustainable way possible. Founder Rob Rhinehart dreams of a world where Soylent is a public utility like water. This wouldn’t preclude you from buying food, but it would make hunger a thing of the past. Soylent is cheap, vegan, convenient and packed with all known essential vitamins and minerals. Its most controversial selling point is that you can live on it if you so desired. Whether Rhinehart’s dream is naive or brilliant depends on your vantage point.

Rhinehart points out that even as a child he thought it was strange that people eat food. Animals eat plants and other animals, but for humans to do it seems so primitive. The idea of eating as outdated is strange, but it makes some sense. The idea of the human body as a machine that can be optimized (or at least sustained) with a standard formula comes naturally to the Silicon Valley set. It’s no more far-fetched than uploading your brain to a computer and living eternal life à la Ray Kurzweil. Whereas most vegans preach about becoming more in touch with nature, Rhinehardt sees Soylent as marking out separation from it.

There are practical, rather than philosophical considerations that gave rise to Soylent as well. An omnipresent modern issue is eating well without spending the time and energy necessary to purchase, prepare and cook nutritious food. As we become increasingly busy this is a problem for everyone—not just for productivity-obsessed start-up founders. The rise of fast food may have allowed us to eat quickly and conveniently, but it has done a poor job giving us food that is sustainable, reasonably priced or healthy.

Soylent is $3 per meal, with almost no prep time required. It comes in powdered form or in premixed bottles. The powdered form mixes quite easily in a shaker bottle–it has none of the clumpiness that so often plagues protein powders. It provides 20% of all known essential nutrients. Rhinehardt is not a doctor. The human body is complex. It’s possible that there are good things we have yet to identify about food that are missing from Soylent. However, this only seems like an issue if you plan on living on the stuff.

Much has been made of that claim. Rhinehart consumed only Soylent for a month to boost appeal for the Kickstarter fund. The company has since backed off from the idea that Soylent is intended to replace food. Bryan Crowley, Soylent’s new CEO, gives a balanced take on the issue: “people always ask me if we’re trying to eliminate traditional food. The answer is no – we love food. It is connected to the fabric of what defines cultures and makes us human beings. What we do want to replace is all those times you need food as fuel, and you either skip a meal or make an unhealthy, unsustainable or expensive choice throughout your busy week. We call these “food voids” and we’re on a mission to make them obsolete with a healthier, more sustainable choice.”

The notion of Soylent replacing food or becoming a public utility is fun to think and debate about. However, returning to reality, Soylent serves an incredibly useful function that shouldn’t be controversial to anyone. Food voids exist and Soylent can help prevent you from making an “unhealthy, unsustainable or expensive choice.” The fact that it’s vegan sets it apart from Slim Fast and Ensure, both of which use milk. It’s own protein source, soy is easy to digest, nutritious and sustainable. Don’t believe the hype about the supposed negative health effects of soy.

Many complain about taste. This won’t bother the sort of young people that would be eating Ramen for dinner if not for Soylent, but as the product scales up this could be an issue. Fast food, for all it’s unhealthiness, does have taste going for it. The traditional opponents of the fast food world have been foodies, a group that may turn their nose up at the bland flavor of Soylent original. Fortunately, Soylent is working on this problem by introducing new flavors, many of them are quite good. Cacao is just the right amount of chocolate flavor, while the chai has a pleasant, easy-going flavor. The other flavors Cafe Vanilla and Cafe Coffiest, are not for me given my aversion to coffee.

To some extent though, taste is not the point. It takes away the feeling of hunger and provides nutrition. I recently participated in a chess tournament where I’d be playing games 8 to 10 hours a day for four days. Soylent took up around 70% of my calories just because of my limited time, energy and money to devote to finding food. There are all sorts of occasions where finding food that meets your needs cannot be a priority. I’m happy to have Soylent as a way to help me fill those food voids. I hope vegans and non-vegans alike agree.

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