Soylent: Over-Hacking Health

soylent glass

Soylent has launched, and it’s coming to a tech hub near you.

Described on its website as a “simple and affordable nutritional drink that has everything the healthy body needs,” the all-in-one meal-replacement powder recently began shipping orders to the public.

If you haven’t heard of it by now, the home-brewed mix contains synthetic nutrients deemed by co-founder Rob Rhinehart to comprise a “perfectly balanced diet.” He even launched the company with a blog post detailing his successful attempt to stop eating food for 30 days, living off nothing but Soylent.

While initially disturbing, I was also intrigued when I first read about Soylent a year ago. As skeptical as I was about a synthetic nutrient powder that could supposedly replace food and still result in perfect health, I thought there might be some validity in the company’s apparent broader mission to feed the poor. Low cost, easy to store, and more nutritious than starvation? It was hard to argue with that.

But something about the team’s approach seemed off. These were startup guys, having only come up with the idea for Soylent after their initial business idea failed. Quickly burning through their last bit of Y Combinator seed money,  they turned inward in search of a problem they could solve for themselves, then sell to the masses.

Except the first-world itch they chose to scratch wasn’t the need for urban taxi alternatives, or next-day dry cleaning service. It was the entire concept of food.

Apparently Y Combinator founder Paul Graham thought this was genius. He called it “the pivot of the century.”

In the words of co-founder Rob Rhinehart from his blog post introducing Soylent,

“In my own life I resented the time, money, and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption, and clean-up of food was consuming.”

Does this sound like someone more interested in creating a startup, or achieving optimal health? Notice how eating food is packaged as a collection of “pain points” that needed “solving.” He resented the act of feeding himself, and everything that entailed.

But did society share this problem? And did it really need solving? At best, it seemed Rhinehart’s claims about perfect health were self-referential statements designed to establish market positioning and attract hype. At worst, Soylent appeared to have the makings of an elitist, Silicon Valley-bred approach to health, aiming to create something akin to an “Uber for sustenance.”

Neither scenario left me wishing the company well. But I suppose there was always the possibility they could feed starving children in Africa…

And while this all left me queasy, I didn’t dwell on Soylent for more than a week or so. Yes, I was put off by their claims it was just as healthy (even healthier?) than real food, but if there was a broader social mission at stake, that was harder to refute. Ultimately I decided it was all speculation anyway. Better to evaluate how I felt about the company if and when they had some traction.

So the debate slipped out of my mind, as often happens with flavor-of-the-week startups we all read about. I settled at ambivalence, and filed Soylent away as a “wait and see what happens” idea.

Ambivalent no longer

A recent profile on Soylent in the New Yorker snapped me back to attention. It details how, after the initial blog post and hugely successful Kickstarter campaign, Soylent spawned a cultish following among the young, over-worked, and under-nourished “hacker” demographic. This led to mentions by the likes of Tim Ferriss, Gawker, and other titans of high tech, leading to over $1M in venture capital funding.

My reaction was much more visceral to this news. The ambivalence was gone, and I immediately knew where I stood.

Whether it was the way Rhinehart carries himself in the article (cocky, omnipotent), or my improved understanding of nutrition, health, and food sustainability over the past year, I can confidently say I’m no longer undecided about Soylent.

I’m convinced this company is a disaster.

Perfect Health?

First, let’s look at what Soylent contains. The full ingredient list can be found here, but let’s stick with just the basics for now. From the New Yorker piece (emphasis mine),

In the formula that he and his teammates have settled on, the major food groups are all accounted for: the lipids come from canola oil; the carbohydrates from maltodextrin and oat flour; and the protein from rice.

I groaned out loud when I first read that list.

Really? All the major food groups are accounted for? Canola oil is a partially hydrogenated, genetically modified oil. It’s probably already rancid once it hits your shelf, and the heavy refining and processing may lead to costly physiological damage.

Maltodextrin is an artificial sweetener usually derived from corn starch, but can also be manufactured from potato, rice, or wheat, likely depending on what’s cheapest in the free market. Do you really want the majority of your carbs coming from an artificial sweetener?

And finally, rice protein has a lower biological value than real food protein sources, meaning it’s not as easily absorbed and utilized by the body.

Doesn’t sound like a true accounting to me.

The Blind Leading The Blind

But whether or not this chemically derived mixture is as healthy as real food obscures the bigger picture. Soylent is a startup. The founders are employing the tactics and methods of venture-backed businesses to create and sell an offering to a target audience.

Startups are not inherently evil, but I view this as problematic when the “market inefficiency” they’re looking to rectify is the act of eating.

Just look at how Rhinehart talks about the subject in the New Yorker article (emphasis mine),

Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me.

Too complex, expensive, and fragile? How could the human race have survived for 200,000 years if that were the case? Our ancestors seemed to figure it out, otherwise we wouldn’t be here.

Instead of creating a problem where none exists, and continuing to think we can “science” our way to proper health and nutrition, maybe we should accept what we can’t know. Maybe we should acknowledge there are benefits to whole foods we’re only beginning to discover; benefits our ancestors knew about implicitly, and which our modern food system has bastardized in the name of efficiency and profits. Maybe it’s presumptuous to pretend we can calculate exactly what the body needs to be healthy.

Maybe we’re overthinking things just a bit.

And maybe the problem is bigger than just Soylent. Rhinehart’s views are commonplace among certain Silicon Valley types: Jaded idealists who believe technology is the preferred cure for all ills; entrepreneurs trained to believe hubris is rewarded with publicity and VC funding. Simplicity is praised in user interface design, but it’s not rewarded when it comes to business models. The angels and VCs prefer a complex understanding of technical details, used to exploit a consumer opportunity. They’re looking to disrupt businesses that are “too complex,” “too expensive,” or “too fragile.”

Perhaps eating real food is too simple to be a viable solution, let alone a money-making endeavor.

Serving The Hackers

This mindset generally leads to a specific demographic (highly educated, usually privileged, largely white) to concoct “world changing” solutions that solve “market inefficiencies.” In reality, a majority of these services amount to solving minor nuisances that apply uniquely to their particular worldview.

And while Soylent claims broader ambitions on the surface (don’t they all?), the product’s creation was fairly typical. Soylent sprouted from diving deeper into the technical details of biochemistry in order to scratch the founder’s own itch, rather than from a genuine desire to achieve health or cure world hunger. The New Yorker details these beginnings,

What if he went straight to the raw chemical components? He took a break from experimenting with software and studied textbooks on nutritional biochemistry and the Web sites of the F.D.A., the U.S.D.A., and the Institute of Medicine. Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water.

This is how Soylent started – as a chemical moonshine based on what Rhinehart discovered was “required for survival.”

What happened to the promise touted on their website?

Everything the healthy body needs.

Soylent is a startup, that’s what happened. The framing is all about business,

“I’m not trying to make something delicious; there are already a lot of delicious things,” he said. “It’s all about efficiency, it’s about cost and convenience.” Rhinehart said he used to spend many hours a day buying and preparing food that was nowhere as near nutritious as the Soylent he makes in a minute by adding the powdered nutrients to water. Now, “I don’t have to cook, I don’t have to clean dishes.”

If Soylent was truly after health, not mere survival, its marketing slogan would make sense. But to say the product has “everything the healthy body needs,” yet build a business entirely around efficiency, cost, and convenience is disingenuous.

Given the way Rhinehart talks about Soylent, I propose a new tagline:

Soylent: Easier than eggs, healthier than a frozen burrito! Replacing meals for overworked techies since 2013.

But in the startup world it’s not necessarily about selling what you’ve built. It’s selling the right solution, to an audience actively searching for one. And this is where Soylent’s success is both genius, and disturbing:

Perhaps the main difference between Soylent and drinks like Ensure and Muscle Milk lies in the marketing: the product—and the balance of nutrients—is aimed at cubicle workers craving efficiency rather than at men in the gym or the elderly.

And Soylent is playing to this target market perfectly. This demographic views “productivity” as a badge of pride, seeking efficiency above all else. Take the 80/20 rule, and magnify it to obsessive-compulsive levels. Their mindset is to find hacks and shortcuts for anything not essential to whatever pursuits they deem most important.

Food, sleep, working out… who has time for that? Apparently not Soylent drinkers,

These are people who believe every moment they don’t spend coding a world-changing app might be a loss for humanity. So feeding yourself is a time-wasting problem that can be solved with technology. Soylent is part of the geek “biohacking” movement, which seeks to improve body function through obsessive self-tracking and chemical substances. Some critics have said Soylent is just an extreme weight-loss diet in disguise, but I believe Rheinhart when he says his only goal is cold, hard efficiency: the maximum nutrition with the minimum effort.

This all leads to the primary beef I have with Soylent: The presumption it can lead to optimal health. Soylent perpetuates a fundamental disconnect between what’s truly healthy, and mere survival. As the New Yorker piece explains,

The doctors I spoke to agreed that you could subsist on Soylent. But would it be a good idea? The debate, for the most part, revolves around substances found in real food, especially phytochemicals, which come from plants. Such compounds are not known to be essential for survival, but, in epidemiological studies, they appear to provide important health benefits. … The science behind how our bodies use these chemicals isn’t precisely understood. But Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, said that it would be unwise to miss out on them. “It’s a little bit presumptuous to think that we actually know everything that goes into an optimally healthy diet,” he told me. You can live without plant chemicals. “But you may not live maximally, and you may not have optimal function. We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.”

Soylent consumers believe they can “hack” their way to health by bypassing all the factors that contribute to it. All they’ve really done is figure out a way to live off a meal replacement, without dying. And they use the need for unequivocal scientific proof as their trump card to justify their approach,

Rhinehart, naturally, is doubtful about this line of thinking. “How many humans in history were even getting broccoli and tomatoes?” he asked. As part of his research into Soylent’s formula, he told me, he considered adding some phytochemicals, but after reading dozens of inconclusive and contradictory studies, he said, it didn’t seem like an efficient use of resources.

Soylent’s founders claim to be after health, but it’s quite clear all they really want is something that gives them energy, fills them up, and doesn’t kill them in the process.

And if they don’t have to do dishes, that’s a cherry on top.

“I Have One Word For This: Hubris”

That’s how a holistic health professional I respect responded after reading the Soylent article in the New Yorker.

But I’ll go one step further and say Soylent is the by-product of a toxic environment. The hubris comes from viewing food as a “problem” an algorithm can solve, resulting in strange, twisted logic.

One example is Rhinehart’s response after an early batch resulted in a few students having too much gas (emphasis mine),

After a week or so, the students said, their bodies adjusted, and the problem subsided. Rhinehart said that they’d also removed the extra sulfur from the formula. “Upon further review, we found we were getting enough sulfur from the amino acids,” he said. “It was a bug. But we fixed it.”

See the problem here? The human body isn’t a piece of software. It may be a shock to the startup world, but health isn’t a clearly defined problem with a known set of inputs you can tweak to achieve specific results. To pretend that’s the case is foolish, and actually pretty obnoxious. It’s why hardcore vegans and strict paleo dieters are so off-putting. They don’t know all the answers, but they pretend they do.

And although the founders claim otherwise, Soylent is just another form of food nutritionism masquerading as freedom from the burden of food. Michael Pollan uses this term to describe the idea that food is nothing more than the sum of all its nutrient parts. This ideology is what makes food marketable, and the food industry so profitable. If we reduce food down to its component pieces – its “source code” – we need people well-versed in science and biochemistry to tell us what to eat. Health is reduced to calories and Nutrition Facts labels, rather than vitality and overall wellness.

So it makes sense for Soylent to demonize food, while deifying science. It’s fundamental to its existence.

But pretending to address complex issues when you’re really solving first-world problems is nothing new. In fact, this tactic is BAFDism at its finest. A BAFD (Bay Area Fucking Douche), is someone who takes the startup founder/hacker/uber-entrepreneur persona to the extreme. It’s the guy who thinks their “Snapchat for the homeless” app is going to save the world, and measures their social status by how full their GCal is at any given moment.

A BAFD is the Silicon Valley version of the investment banker who meets a Mexican fisherman. Only instead of just chasing millions and an IPO, they’re also constantly striving for some ephemeral ideal of “efficiency” no one can quite explain.

As Rhinehart almost gloats to the New Yorker,

“We thought about doing Soylent drone delivery,” he said, dreamily. “Where you just hit a button on your phone and a drone comes and drops a bottle of Soylent, and you refuel.”

Now tell me that’s not a BAFD move.

Believing you can replace food with chemicals, and claim you’re saving the world, is a straight-up BAFD maneuver.

And that’s really why I can’t stand Soylent.

So What?

Okay, so what if Soylent doesn’t lead to the ideal picture of human health? Isn’t it still better than fast food, TV dinners, and ramen noodles?

I really don’t think so.

Soylent operates within the same mental model as fast food and TV dinners. While framed differently, the method is the same – use science and technology to develop and market a solution that is faster, cheaper, and more effective at feeding yourself. It promotes the idea that science and industry can make you healthy, if you just buy what they’re selling.

And even if Soylent is a better option than some alternatives, that doesn’t mean it’s healthy for you. Just like the “inefficient” and “archaic” food industry Rhinehart claims to despise, Soylent completely ignores other factors necessary for true health. Proper sleep, stress management, exercise, and nutrition – that’s everything the healthy body needs. I doubt they can cram all that into a powder.

But who knows, maybe they’ll try. There seems to be no limit to their pomposity.

According to the New Yorker piece, Rhinehart claims his farts stopped smelling after his third month on Soylent. And there’s this, from his very first Soylent blog post,

I almost forgot to mention, when everything going in to your body is diffused in to the bloodstream, you don’t poop.

You’ve gotta be shitting me.

Well, if you’re Rhinehart and the Soylent crew, apparently not.

2 thoughts on “Soylent: Over-Hacking Health

  1. Very well-written post! I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. I also read about Soylent last year and quickly dismissed it for two reasons:

    1. Have you ever seen the movie “Soylent Green” with Charlton Heston?

    2. I think having a resentment against the time, money, and effort it takes to purchase, prepare, consume, and clean up after food borders on an eating disorder.

    1. Thanks for the comment!

      I haven’t seen Soylent Green, or read the related book, but I’ve definitely heard about it. And yeah, it’s hard not to separate the association with this product, although that appears to be part of their marketing savvy. Controversy sells, I guess.

      Completely agree with your second point. The more I read, the more I believe the whole “efficiency” aim is really a farce. Check out how crazy and in-depth some of these DIY Soylent folks get in these forums: They seem to be obessing over how to replace food more than if they just ate the real stuff!

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