The trendy new food substitute is made by people and for people-not of people.
Remember when the planet's young people-or at least its youth-oriented jingle writers-almost convinced us that a bottle of Coca-Cola could play a pivotal role in achieving global harmony? While the "real thing" may have been a balm against the stings of Vietnam and other afflictions of the era, today's youthful idealists understand it will take a lot more than proprietary sugar-water and some attractive teenagers singing on a hilltop to combat melting polar ice caps, rising income inequality, and everything else that ails us. We need a genuine miracle elixir, not just a pause that refreshes.
Enter Soylent, the gulp that sustains. Its primary components are a powder made from maltodextrin, rice protein, oat flour, and more vitamins and minerals than mid-century food scientists ever managed to pack into a loaf of Wonder Bread, plus a liquid blend of canola oil and fish oil. Mix the powder with the oil, add water, and that's it. Soylent is almost as easy to prepare as a glass of Coca-Cola, and yet it is designed to function as a "staple meal" that offers "maximum nutrition with minimal effort."
Soylent, in other words, is simultaneously an antidote to both Monster Thickburgers and locavorist gospel. Similar products, such as Ensure and Slim-Fast, have been on the market for years, but they're filled with objectionable Big Food ingredients like sugar and sucralose and targeted at geriatrics, dieters, and other specialty audiences. Soylent pairs optimized molybdenum uptake with a message of low-impact environmental sustainability. ("I almost forgot to mention, when everything going in to your body is diffused into the bloodstream, you don't poop," advises Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart in a blog post. "I only have to remove a few grams of fiber from my system per week.") And yet while processed food prohibitionists like Michael "Mostly Plants" Pollan demonize convenience, affordability, and technology, Soylent supersizes these attributes in ways that might even scare Ronald McDonald fiberless.
Weaned on Go-Gurt and home-butchered urban chickens, millennials came of age amidst the ever-present specters of the "obesity epidemic" and climate change. They're inundated with food choices, and yet constantly reminded that the food choices they make have political, economic, nutritional, environmental, aesthetic, ethical, and social consequences. Is that hamburger destroying wetlands somewhere? Oppressing migrant labor? Is it interesting enough to post on Instagram?
"What if you never had to worry about food again?" Soylent's website asks. For an idealistic, overachieving, and incredibly harried generation, a bland, nutritionally complete slurry that promises effortless waste-free consumption at a manageable price point just may be the ultimate comfort food. Soylent only costs around $3 per meal. It can be purchased in bulk online and prepared in seconds. You don't have to idle in drive-through lines to sustain yourself, and you sure don't have to source and chop organic carrots. Soylent renders microwave ovens, refrigerators, stoves, forks, knives, plates, dishwashers, and apparently even toilet paper as unnecessary as turntables and bookshelves. Say goodbye to shopping, prepping, clean-up, even chewing. A cup is your kitchen. Molars are little more than decorative heritage utensils from a bygone era.
Rob Rhinehart conceived of Soylent while living in San Francisco, a realm where gastronomical Luddites grow as thick as Iowa corn. But Rhinehart was a member of the city's other major cash crop-he's a 25-year-old techie. A crowdfunding campaign that raised over $1.5 million underwrote Soylent's initial development. Four venture capital firms, including Andreesen HoroÂwitz, have provided an additional $1.5 million in seed capital. To date, demand for the product has exceeded expectations. New customers, according to Soylent's website, should currently expect to wait 10-12 weeks to receive their first shipment. If you're really hungry, in other words, you may be able to get a table at the hottest restaurant in your city more easily than you can get your hands on some Soylent. Or if you really can't wait, look to eBay, where Soylent speculators are flipping their supplies to the highest bidder. In June, a one-month supply with a retail price of $300 fetched $555.
So much for convenience and affordability, at least in the near term. In the long term, however, Soylent takes its utopianism past TV jingles, past farmers markets, even past solar-powered tractors. Because of its origins in the high-tech start-up world, Soylent has been characterized as a gimmicky product primarily designed to serve a narrow and privileged niche. And it does work wonderfully on this level. If you're an ambitious tech entrepreneur who wants to signal to peers and potential funders that you're way too busy disrupting tomorrow to break for lunch in the Google food court, a Soylent shake gives you almost robot-like efficiency-in mere seconds, you can recharge and lubricate your moving parts with 600 meticulously tuned calories. If you're a globe-trotting gourmand who wants everyone to know that you've consumed so many caramelized milk and monkfish liver cronuts that you're over flavor and texture, Soylent makes for impressive statement sludge.
Still, Soylent functions much differently than traditional status brands, and even differently from premium commodities like Coca-Cola. Indeed, while the latter keeps the formula that supposedly gives it a proprietary advantage in a vault in Atlanta, Rhinehart nods to the values and conventions of the open-source movement, sharing information about his ingredient mix, encouraging others to conduct their own experiments and offer feedback, etc. Now, even after Soylent has started to offer its product commercially, it continues to promote the concept of DIY Soylent on its website. While Rhinehart and his backers undoubtedly hope you'll buy a lot of Soylent, they also seem to be perfectly OK with the idea that you might make it yourself, or buy a similar product from a competitor, or occasionally turn to chicken, potatoes, and other forms of legacy sustenance.
In the foodie universe, no tomato is considered truly viable unless it is spawned by a desirable heirloom seed and harvested by a certifiably small-scale farmer. While locavorism rejects the industrialization and commercialization of food, it is itself an intensely commercial endeavor, characterized by emphatic branding, extreme exclusivity, status, and tastefulness. If food is too cheap, too easy to purchase and consume, then it is part of the problem. "To eat well takes a little bit more time and effort and money," Pollan told The Wall Street Journal in 2010.
Food can't be good food, locavorism implies, unless it is scarce. Rhinehart, in contrast, couples a locavore-like interest in sustainability with an old-fashioned faith in technological innovation and the positive attributes of abundance. The resources it takes to produce the main ingredients in Soylent-maltodextrin and rice protein-are minimal compared to the resources required to produce meat and dairy products. And Soylent may ultimately become far more efficient to produce than it is now. According to The New Yorker, Soylent is currently testing ways to obtain the omega-3 oil it uses from algae instead of fish. And Rhinehart is already speculating about designing an algae-based "superorganism" that "pumps out Soylent all day." If he succeeds at this, add farms and factories to the list of things that Soylent makes superfluous.
While Soylent takes its name from a dystopian science fiction movie where the food supply has grown so limited that a giant corporation manufactures its product line out of the most plentiful resource left-people-the 21st century's Soylent is a more optimistic endeavor. In the Soylent future, traditional food production may no longer be viable at large scale. And many of the ancillary benefits of food-food as a sensory pleasure, food as a way to create community and enact ritual, food as a form of entertainment and emotional distraction-may contract or disappear altogether. But calories, nutrients, and thus health will all persist. And not just for the tiny overclass that can afford to get organic dapple dandy pluots from Frog Hollow Farm delivered to their door via Goodeggs.com. By mixing nutrition, sustainability, affordability, and convenience in perfect harmony, Soylent dares to imagine a world where bountiful beige beverages flow as copiously as Coca-Cola at a Texas picnic. We can get there, Soylent suggests, as long as our appetite for technology and innovation remains as strong as our appetite for foraged wood sorrel pesto.