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Soylent and the Future of Food

Soylent and the Future of Food
Someday we hope a product like Soylent will succeed
that's both safe and nutritious. But we have concerns...

Imagine waking up and getting an extra hour. The time would come not by magically extending the day, but by eliminating something you currently have to do. In this case, how much extra time would you get back if you got rid of shopping, cooking and eating traditional meals?

Instead of preparing breakfast, you have a drink. For lunch you can forget about packing something or waiting at a restaurant, you just have another drink. And at dinner you don't have to cook or wait for delivery, you simply take one more drink.

The way you would do this is the dream of a software engineer named Rob Rhinehart. In a blog post called, "How I Stopped Eating Food" he details his journey to create a food that's nutritionally balanced, cheap, low impact on the environment and easy to prepare. In the opening to his online post he said:

"Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications. ...In my own life I resented the time, money, and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption, and clean-up of food was consuming."

You can read the entire blog here.

At that point, Mr. Rhinehart decided to start ordering and mixing together the base ingredients you would need to live on. After months of trial and error, and a hugely successful fundraising campaign on Kickstarter, he released his food replacement. He called it "Soylent" in a nod to the 1973 science fiction horror film Soylent Green. (No, Soylent is not made from people.)

My initial hope is that Mr. Rhinehart succeeds, and it's not because I'm a fan of eliminating traditional food. I love all the wonderful nuances of a good meal and couldn't imagine giving that up permanently. But I do see a need for something like Soylent.

Here are my top three reasons why I want Soylent to succeed, and two things that the company needs to fix.

First... a little background on food replacements.

There are places around the world where access to food is severely limited and famine is very real. For decades there have been companies that designed food to treat people suffering from malnutrition. One of the early innovators was an organization called Action Against Hunger.

In the 1990's Action Against Hunger developed a therapeutic milk formula (F100) that's used to treat acute malnutrition.  When used as directed, it's been able to reduce the mortality rate of severely malnourished children in hospitals from 23.5% to below 5%. It's a revolutionary product, but it's designed for people already dealing with malnutrition.

Plumpy’Nut is an alternative to F100 and it's also used as a treatment for emergency malnutrition cases. But Plumpy'Nut offered advantages over F100 because it's designed to be used at home and doesn't require medical supervision to administer.

Both F100 and Plumpy'Nut are fantastic breakthroughs. But neither one is a replacement for traditional food. That's where Soylent steps in.

Soylent Advantage #1

Soylent is designed around something software programmers call "open source." That means every single ingredient that goes into the product, is openly shared with the world. They encourage a user community that is continuously experimenting with variations on their formula. That level of transparency means you know exactly what you're getting.

Because it's open-source, Soylent has not patented the process to combine the ingredients or their "special formula" like other foods or supplements have. If aid organizations wanted to mass-produce Soylent for poor people, they wouldn't have to pay royalties or licensing fees. In areas of the world where access to food is a problem, non-profits could put together versions of "Soylent" (with a different name of course) and distribute it to people in need, at extremely low prices.

Meanwhile, Soylent continues to sell crazy amounts to people who can afford it, because it's reliably consistent and convenient.

Soylent Advantage #2

It's unbelievably cheap. As I write this (December of 2015), they are selling 56 meals for about $1.93 each. That price includes shipping the product. It's both cheaper and more convenient than fast food. Even if you only use it for a few meal replacements a week, it can save the average American hundreds of thousands of dollars in food costs every year.

Soylent Advantage #3

It saves time. I tracked how long I spent dealing with food for one week. I was surprised that I take about 83 minutes a day preparing, cooking and eating food. That didn't count the time going to the supermarket and buying it.

Soylent takes about 5 minutes to prepare three meals in a pitcher and about a minute or two to drink. When you're pressed for time but still need to eat, this can be an alternative.

Now my two biggest complaints.

Soylent Problem #1

Soylent needs to improve its nutritional profile. In version 1.5 of the powder, the overall fat content is much higher than the maximum USDA recommended amount.* The fiber is less than half of what's needed. Plus it contains antioxidant vitamins like vitamin A and vitamin E, that have been shown to be dangerous when taken in supplement form.

That means that eventually, Soylent will need to offer customized versions for different populations. Perhaps one for runners that had more carbs or one for people with heart problems that had lower fat and more fiber. A one-size-fits-all approach can work for a while, but to truly replace food they need to come up with a way to easily tweak the formula for individual users.

Of course, it's not like most Americans are getting nutritionally sound food as it is. I think that's best summed up in a quote from Rob Rhinehart where he said this:

"Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I'm touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent"

Soylent Problem #2

Soylent needs to conduct long-term clinical trials on the effects of using Soylent as someone's primary source of nutrition. Because it's a food, that's not something they're required to do. But Soylent is different. It's a food that's being marketed as a replacement for almost all other food.

When something is being promoted as a product to replace most or all other sources of nutrition, I think we need more information about the potential long-term effects. Fortunately, Soylent is currently conducting trials and I look forward to sharing the results when they're available.

*According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, our "total fat consumption should be limited to 30 percent or less of total caloric intake, and saturated fat intake should be limited to less than 10 percent of total caloric intake."

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