The Soylent Revolution: Why a Food Powder Many Think Looks Like Semen Is Increasing Its Sales
New alt-food products like Soylent and 100%FOOD might not be for everyone, but they do seem to get everyone talking. The talk is not always nice; Soylent has been called "the most joyless new technology to hit the world since we first laid eyes on MS-DOS" and its appearance has been compared to—among other things—semen.
Marketed as futuristic replacements to food (100%FOOD even displays pictures of astronauts on its website), they seem to be similar to previous iterations of food replacements like Slimfast or Ensure. As a 2013 article points out, the main difference between the older products and these newer ones is the marketing. Soylent offers itself up as a "technology," allowing customers to "hack food."
In other words, what once would have been in a product category for weight-conscious women is now sold as the ultimate bachelor food, for a young "dude" or "bro" who is too busy doing other things to bother with food. Ever. Aleh Manchuliantsau, founder of 100%FOOD, adds that the difference between meal replacements and products like his are that the old meal replacements like Slimfast are designed to be eaten along with food in one's diet, whereas Soylent and 100%FOOD are intended to fully replace food altogether.
As the founders of Soylent also note, their product is the anti-Michael Pollan. Pollan recommends eating foods with five ingredients or less: real food, mostly plants. Soylent's ingredient list reads like a chemistry experiment, punctuated with some recognizable foods like canola oil, sunflower oil and oat flour.
100%FOOD, as the name might imply, offers up a different sort of ingredient list. Slightly. It boasts ingredients such as "organic golden flaxseed, hulled hemp seeds, white hulled sesame seeds, and brown rice flour." In other words, real food. But it also hides its long list of chemicals by citing them simply as a "vitamin and mineral mix."
The difference that immediately stands out is in the nature of the fats. By opting for canola oil and sunflower oil, Soylent serves up more omega-6 fatty acids than omega-3s. Tipping the balance too much toward omega-6s is unhealthy, and some believe it's a main cause of the epidemic levels of preventable, chronic illness in our society. 100%FOOD, on the other hand, relies on omega-3 rich ingredients like flax and hemp, probably resulting in a healthier ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acids. The trade-off is perishability: healthy omega-3 fatty acids like those found in flax go rancid more quickly.
There's more to be said about the nutritional benefits or pitfalls of these food replacements, but first one might want to know: Who is eating this stuff besides 20-something bachelors in Silicon Valley?
According to Manchuliantsau, the market for 100%FOOD began with "busy professionals" like himself. The company's Facebook ads portray a gorgeous woman in a business suit (she looks no older than 17, so the outfit looks like a costume). Perhaps she can devote so much time to her impeccable appearance because she isn't wasting it shopping for and preparing actual food.
"I’m a busy professional and made a food for myself," Manchuliantsau said. "I wanted to grab something, eat and forget. That’s why I put our mix into bottles (just add water, shake and enjoy) and this approach become extremely popular from other busy professionals. When we released Double Protein and Low Carb formulas, we found more followers from bodybuilders and weight concerned people."
Another market for these products are backpackers, those who are heading out into the wilderness with nothing besides what they can carry. Typically, backpackers opt for freeze-dried or dehydrated meals. However, Tara Kerin, a Los Angeles woman who is planning to complete the 220-mile John Muir Trail through the Sierras this summer, decided to try Soylent.
"I had heard about it on the Internet and it just occurred to me that that would be a really good backpacking idea," she says. "It's pretty calorically dense, which is always a hard thing for me to get all the calories and nutrients I need without bringing 100 pounds of food on each trip."
She notes that many of her friends "just don't like it." However, to her "it doesn't taste like... it's not good or bad. It tastes like pancake batter. You don't have it for the taste. It's something that's easy to do, particularly for lunchtime on the trail. One serving of it can be 650 calories, with all of the nutrients you're supposed to have. Sometimes I'll have it for breakfast too."
Kerin, however, is not one of the true believes who thinks she can just cut food out of her life entirely. She does like to eat. Unfortunately, her usual trail breakfasts and lunches (bars and oatmeal) are not terribly enjoyable. "I mean, the bars are fine," she notes, "but I tend to get sick of them very quickly. And the same with oatmeal; I don't know why I get sick of oatmeal so quickly. By the third day it's like, I'd rather eat dirt than oatmeal."
With its neutral taste, Soylent is not delicious, but it's also not something she gets sick of quickly.
Even off the trail, Kerin adds, "If I'm not having something that is delicious and is totally worth my time and money, why not just have the Soylent, which is pretty cheap and is fully nutritional? Yeah, I could have a sandwich at work, but it's not going to have the nutrients that Soylent has. An hour later I'm not going to look back at it and think, Wow that was delicious. So I might as well just have the Soylent."
For her, the big payoff for bringing Soylent is that it is lightweight and calorically dense, allowing her to carry elaborate, three-course "awesome" dinners.
So can humans simply replace food entirely with a scientifically formulated neutral-tasting slurry? (To be fair, 100%FOOD also offers a chocolate flavor.) This is an experiment that has been done before, when hospital patients have needed to be tube-fed for long periods of time. Previously, scientists have had to revise their understanding of which essential nutrients one needs to survive when long-term tube-fed patients became ill from nutrient deficiencies. However, presumably, such patients were not exerting themselves as one would do while backpacking, or even working at a desk.
Yet, maybe there is something to eating actual food instead of a product named 100%FOOD. Steven G. Pratt, author of Superfoods Rx, preceded Michael Pollan in calling on us to eat whole foods like oatmeal, yogurt, salmon, and spinach. Because the truth is that products like Soylent are technologies, and they are only as good as is the human understanding of nutrition. Which is imperfect, because humans are imperfect.
"Whole foods are complex," Pratt wrote in 2006. "They contain as-yet-unidentified compounds that can magnify the effects of identified phytonutrients. A growing body of research from laboratory and human studies suggests that these phytonutrients work best in concert...
"While many studies have focused on beta-carotene, for example, there is still some uncertainty about whether the benefits associated with that carotenoid are actually due to the action of beta-carotene or to one or more of the other carotenoids found in our food. Most likely, the answers lie in the synergistic effect of multiple carotenoids working together or in some compound that hasn't yet been identified. Until all the answers are in, and that surely won't happen in the near future, the safest and most effective way to benefit from the bounty of nutrients in nature's precisely calibrated form is to eat whole foods."
Pollan agreed, listing an entire paragraph of antioxidants found in garden-variety thyme in the New York Times. He followed it by saying, "This is what you're ingesting when you eat food flavored with thyme. Some of these chemicals are broken down by your digestion, but others are going on to do undetermined things to your body: turning some gene's expression on or off, perhaps, or heading off a free radical before it disturbs a strand of DNA deep in some cell. It would be great to know how this all works, but in the meantime, we can enjoy thyme in the knowledge that it probably does not do any harm... and that it may actually do some good... and that even if it does nothing, we like the way it tastes."
More recently, Melanie Warner published a book on food additives called Pandora's Lunchbox. After getting schooled in food processing, she concluded, "For vitamins that are grown in nature, you don't get them in their isolated form. You get a whole package that goes with them. You're getting phytonutrients—these plant chemicals that are beneficial. A number of them look to be extremely important... And so far there have been about 10,000 of them identified. Scientists are just starting to study all of their properties and how they are broken down in the body."
Which means they likely are not present, or are not present in the right quantities and combinations, in food products like Soylent or 100%FOOD.
Melinda Hemmelgarn, a registered dietitian and host of the Food Sleuth radio show, feels that meal replacements can "come in very handy" at times, although she does not endorse eliminating food from your diet entirely.
She offers several examples: "Like when you’re 16 and want to sleep as late as possible before school starts, so breakfast in a glass (or bottle) is a good meal sub. Or when you’re just racing about, trying to juggle a gazillion things and you want a meal, but not traditional “fast food"—which is really neither. Or, when you’ve had dental work, or are receiving medical care that makes chewing food impossible or nauseating, then a drinkable meal can be a very good, essential thing."
However, Hemmelgarn also notes that she would only be up for serving such a meal replacement to her family if it were certified organic and free of genetically engineered ingredients. (Full disclosure: She consults for Organic Valley and serves on two national organic farming boards.)
Ultimately, a food replacement like Soylent or 100%FOOD can be a healthy—if bland—option some of the time, provided it meets your ethical standards, whatever those may be (organic, vegan, etc.). But if you want to ditch food entirely, you are putting your health in the hands of a human technology. Which is hopefully more perfect than the latest version of Windows.