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September 11, 2015

Is Soylent for people or cyborgs?

I’ve always said, “If there’s no food in Heaven, I don’t want to go.” It’s part of my mantra, my personal rhetoric, my philosophy of being. I’ve never met a soul who doesn’t agree.

We’re joined to each other through our shared experience of eating. We know each other for our favorite tastes. When I think of my father, I picture him swooning over decades’ worth of holiday fruitcake. In my fondest memories, my mother sinks her teeth into a thousand tomatoes. She reminds me of a vampire, the way she bites through a fruit’s flesh, its red juice dripping down her chin, except she is utterly, joyfully alive. The look on her face says, “This is it. This is living.”

How would we feel if there were no food on Earth? What if our only sustenance was flavorless, utilitarian goo? Would we want to stay? Would we want to persist?

Now, more than ever, the act of enjoying a meal is considered the utmost indulgence. Americans, especially, feel the constant pressure to be and appear busy. We sleep with our smartphones. We email around the clock. We tweet our every move. We transcend our circadian rhythms with apps that tell us when to crash and when to reboot. To us, the words “lunch break” sound increasingly obscene. We’re afraid to take vacation days, lest we seem human. We’re becoming, instead, humanity’s burgeoning cyborg offshoot. Our technology is an extension of ourselves.

Now, more than ever, the act of enjoying a meal is considered the utmost indulgence. Americans, especially, feel the constant pressure to be and appear busy. We sleep with our smartphones. We email around the clock. We tweet our every move.

The harder we work, the faster we dig ourselves into a dystopian hole. The world’s human population is currently more than 7 billion and is projected to increase by another billion in the next 15 years. Recently, the U.N. projected that, by 2100, there will be 11.2 billion people on Earth, a figure that far surpasses the planet’s theoretical maximum capacity of 10 billion human beings.

There are practical solutions to our planet’s population and environmental crises. The U.N. Population Fund reports at least 225 million women “who want to avoid pregnancy” do not have access to “safe and effective family planning methods.” According to John Bongaarts, a vice president and Distinguished Scholar at the Population Council: "Almost all of the growth in world population will occur in poor countries, particularly in Africa and south Asia. But if we make much larger investments in family planning right now, the number of people could be closer to 8 billion."

In a world where people are starving, food waste is a huge concern, and so is the environmental impact of America’s rapacious meat consumption. There is no denying developed nations should eat less and eat better while advancing fundamental human rights throughout the world. But does that mean we should give up food as we know it all together? Isn’t food the fundamental human right?

Rob Rhinehart, the creator of Soylent liquid food substitute, doesn’t seem to think so. The twenty-something San Francisco software engineer believes human beings have evolved past eating traditional food that is too expensive, time-consuming, and impossible to scale. He’s concocted a flavorless meal replacement shake from soy protein, algal oil, isomaltulose, essential vitamins and minerals to meet basic human dietary needs and “free the body” of its base appetite.

His product takes its name from the 1973 science fiction film, Soylent Green, set in the near future’s dismally overpopulated New York City, where people unwittingly subsist on standardized green wafers that look like plant food but are actually manufactured from euthanized human remains. Though Rhinehart’s supplement is people-free, it’s intended to perform the same function as its fictional predecessor: sustain an overpopulated planet, whose inhabitants should have neither the time nor the desire to eat.

In the spirit of “total transparency,” Rhinehart allowed Vice reporter Brian Merchant to film him for a short documentary film, “Soylent: How I Stopped Eating for 30 Days.” Rhinehart’s ruminations on the origins of Soylent sound eerily symptomatic of a selective eating disorder:

“I have a very strong memory of when I was very young, I think 6 or something, and then I was eating lettuce or kale or something and I remember thinking it was very strange, that I would like eat leaves as a human,” he related. “You know, I’m like living in this house and going to school and then eating leaves? I remember thinking that was very strange, like this is something for animals. Why would I eat this?”

I would submit the answer to Rhinehart’s question “Why should humans eat something for animals?” is “Because humans are animals.” But our animalistic tendency to enjoy eating is precisely what Rhinehart and his Silicon Valley champions are determined to stamp out. At the same time, they encourage consumers to follow a herd fueled by uniform soup.

“A lot of people see food as this essential, you know, sacred, unchanging thing, but I don’t think that’s really based in evidence,” he said. “I don’t think it’s right to really think that just because something comes from nature, it’s going to be the best.”

“You know, it’s usually the opposite today. Things that we design are the more useful things.”

All this is incredibly interesting, coming from a man whose brainchild so closely resembles baby formula.

If you’re anything like me, you’d think Soylent’s “gritty, thinned-down” pancake batter is a flash in the pan, nothing more than 15 minutes of fame for a disaffected, money hungry, anti-food evangelist who’s too good for Pop-Tarts and Ramen noodles. And yet Soylent is selling like hotcakes. The company far exceeded its initial $100,000 crowdfunding goal, eventually raising over $2 million from 20,000 plus backers in 2013. Soylent has since attracted an additional $20 million in investments and is now valued at over $150 million.

Even though the product has been described as “slightly better than the stuff you get before a colonoscopy," it is noted for causing intestinal distress, and has been implicated for surpassing acceptable heavy metal limits set by California's Proposition 65, people are more than willing to drink the Kool-Aid.

It seems everyone knows someone who’s drinking Soylent. A quick survey of my own social network turned up a handful of friends who’d tried Soylent, friends whose friends had tried Soylent, and friends who hadn’t yet tried but were dying to get their hands on it.

A former colleague of mine, Alicia, who’s 31 and works in finance, and her husband, Nick, a 32-year-old machinist, have been incorporating Soylent into their diets for the past few months. Nick was initially attracted to a Soylent-only menu for weight loss and, at least in the short term, his plan worked. After her husband dropped 30 pounds in just five weeks, Alicia jumped on board, substituting one 500-calorie Soylent shake for breakfast and lunch, then eating a traditional, homemade meal for dinner. Though she hasn’t lost a substantial amount of weight, she does believe Soylent makes her feel better.

Even though the product has been described as “slightly better than the stuff you get before a colonoscopy," it is noted for causing intestinal distress, and has been implicated for surpassing acceptable heavy metal limits set by California's Proposition 65, people are more than willing to drink the Kool-Aid.

“I was off of it for about two weeks during vacation and could drastically tell the difference in my body,” she told me. “I felt sluggish, was sleeping more, and had no energy.”

Nick and Alicia’s Soylent experiment hasn’t been without its hiccups. The taste, for one thing, is just barely tolerable. “We add flavoring to it,” Alicia said. “Without that, it's very chalky and not very good. Not awful, but I would have a harder time drinking it without the flavors.”

And, while Rhinehart imagines Soylent as the future of food, a “civil resource” flowing from our antiquated kitchen faucets, much like municipally purified water, Alicia assured me Soylent only works as part of healthy, flexible, “real food” eating plan.

“When you exclusively do Soylent, you miss the social part of eating,” she said. “You miss the taste of food. Social gatherings are much different. Nick had a hard time with the cravings for real food. By the time his cheat day came, he would cram in as much food as he missed in that one day.”

There are other consequences of subsisting solely on Soylent for days, weeks or months on end. Merchant’s limited “liquid goop” regimen left him depressed and unintentionally 10 pounds lighter after just 30 days.

“I feel like I’ve adopted the diet of a dystopian future man and it’s not a pleasant one,” he laments to his cameraman. The physician supervising Merchant’s experiment advised him to stop exercising due to his rapid weight loss. Follow-up lab work revealed the onset of Vitamin D deficiency, a foreboding glimpse into a future where people are too overworked to eat or even go outside.

Even plants need sunlight.

On the future of Soylent, Rhinehart says, “You know, theoretically, I think a lot of this stuff could be made with just sunlight, water, and air. Just the way the plants do it. You know the plants do it in a certain way [photosynthesis], but if we’re just trying to produce a certain chemical, it doesn’t matter how you make it.”

Most of Soylent’s early adopters are hyper-ambitious college students and members of the tech world’s elite tier, who want you to know they’re sick of the lunch options at Burning Man. Turns out, sheep are much smarter than previously believed. However, Soylent’s #DoMore marketing campaign (Did you know Soylent saves an average of 28 minutes per meal?) is surprisingly geared toward artists and creatives, even recreational hikers and yogis. The company’s Instagram and Twitter pages proffer a creepy dichotomy.

Whether you’re a hacker or a backpacker, drinking a diet rich in Soylent renders you one and the same. And, whether they love it or hate it (some do profess to love it), all the human guinea pigs agree: Soylent’s most notable side effect is its strange, homogenizing smell that becomes you. You become it. As one YouTuber put it, “Literally everything coming out of your body smells like Soylent: your spit, your burps, your farts and everything else.”

After all, you are what you eat. Or, in the words of Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the great French gastronome, "Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are."