When Silicon Valley software engineer Rob Rhinehart decided he wanted to create the future of food, he set about that mission with no formal nutritional science education, using himself and a handful of volunteers as test subjects. The result of his research? A powder he calls Soylent, a product meant to be mixed with water, and that can ostensibly replace that archaic “chewable food.”
While streamlining your nutritional needs can make you more productive, does it also make you less human? To find out, Motherboard journalist Brian Merchant decided to embark upon an experiment: What would happen if he “ate” nothing but Soylent for 30 days? We tracked down Merchant for an interview and learned a few new things for ourselves, too.
What were your eating habits before you started doing this Soylent experience?
"Before I was on Soylent, I had a moderate to healthy diet – nothing too consciously health-stressed, really. Health was never a focus. I eat a salad for lunch every other day, and yogurt for breakfast, but also a lot of pizza and meat and stuff like that. So, I was eating relatively healthy, but not overwhelmingly so."
Can you speak generally about what was contained in Soylent, to the best of your knowledge? What were the primary sources of protein or calories?
"The big ingredients, as it stands now, are oat flour, maltodextrin, which is where a lot of the carbohydrates come from, and it’s taken from corn starch often. And then there’s rice protein and a lot of specific minerals that he uses wholesale, like calcium, chloride, and potassium glutamate, I think. Anyway, there’s 31 ingredients in the current iteration. He’s still hammering it down, but it was interesting to peek at the root ingredients that he decided to use."
Would you consider yourself a person who’s moved by this mission? In the film, your girlfriend said, “You like to work all day; this is perfect for you because you can drink your meal and you don’t have to stop working.” I wonder what you think about how this provides this endless stream of energy to complete work. Do we really want or need that?
"First of all, I’m just fascinated by the idea, and it’s a very old idea. I think that’s important, too — people have been trying to invent quick-fix food replacements for over a century. They’ve been dreaming about it for that long. And, we’ve had full food replacements around, but it’s always been a very clinical thing. You know, Optifast is a weight-loss supplement, where you replace your meals with this liquid diet. Usually, you do it under the supervision of a clinician and you get check-ups. So, it’s usually been reserved for people who have sort of more extreme conditions — weight problems, or people who can’t eat solid foods."
And this is the opposite, this is for people that are healthy and want to optimize their health.
"Right. And, the formula is not overwhelmingly different than what you would find in one of those pre-existing solutions. I mean, they’ve definitely hacked it to their own tastes and added certain supplements and nutrients that they think are preferable, but it’s the same basic idea. It’s really sort of the marketing.
They’re marketing a lifestyle, and it is the Silicon Valley lifestyle, where what’s important is getting down to business, doing your work, programming — ultimately, being in front of a computer all day. It’s the perfect diet for that."
One of the things that I was curious about was something that Rob (the creator of Soylent) has said a bunch of times: I made this stuff, I started drinking it, and five days later I felt the best I’ve ever felt in my life. What was your experience? Did you feel amazing?
"Well, I felt like it was a big change. For the first few days, I really felt low-energy, and sort of lethargic, and borderline sickly. But, I realized that because I was used to a normal human-food diet, and I was used to separating the things I eat from the things I drink, I just wasn’t drinking enough water. I would drink the Soylent and I’d be like, ‘Oh, I just drank that water.’ I was getting light-headed and lethargic. So once I started drinking enough water, I started feeling better."
"Yeah, both Rob and the doctor that I was seeing while I was on soylent were both surprised and kind of alarmed that I lost so much weight. I ended up losing 10 pounds over 30 days, with only changing the diet. On the plus side, I never felt hungry. It definitely wasn’t starved out of me. I didn’t feel like I was malnourished or that I badly wanted food at any point. And, all the weight that I lost according to the lab tests I did, was body fat."
So in a way you were kind of becoming your best body.
"I kind of got healthier. I lost a percentage point of body fat."
Maybe you can talk a little bit about feeling alienated from other people. It seems like by the end of the doc, you’re kind of hurting emotionally.
"I really didn’t think about that aspect of it going in. It just seemed like a crazy physiological experiment at first. But, by the end, the biggest impact was totally psychological. I couldn’t go on dinner dates, I couldn’t go out to meals, I couldn’t even really drink, because I feel like Soylent had me at such an equilibrium that one or two drinks would just make me feel nauseous. So, the biggest net effect was [isolation]. Like, it was kind of weird to bring my thermos full of Soylent to a meal and just kind of sit there. You had to explain it to the waiters…so I just didn’t. I stopped doing it. I went along on a date with my girlfriend once and it was so weird. She was eating lobster bisque and I was sitting there with my Soylent under the table, and she was obviously annoyed. So, I stopped going out, really.
It really sort of streamlines your life in an unpleasant way. I started looking around at the city blocks that I would pass, and half of the places are based around food — either cafes or restaurants or bars or whatever. Almost everything that we do in our lives, socially, revolves around food or eating or drinking. And, if you kind of strip that element out of everything, whether it’s cooking or eating out, you’re kind of excluding yourself from what’s probably the most important social ritual that we have."
What about your future? Will you be ordering any more Soylent?
"I might very well order more Soylent in the future. What I would like them to do is have it subjected to clinical tests, have it actually studied by someone apart from the company. And, once they settle on the final formula, I might.
No one should go on a 30-day all-Soylent diet, I should make that point, too. And Rob doesn’t say anyone should do that, either. He eats two meals 'recreationally' every week. So, it’s not about replacing food altogether. What I did was a little bit extreme. But, yeah, for a day that’s going to be super stressful, a soylent shake — it fills you up. It’s okay. "