food / travel

This Soylent Isn't People, But Is It A Super Shake That Could Save The World?

A young American entrepreneur has created what appears to be a successful add-water-and-mix food he thinks could have many helpful applications around the globe. Others aren't so sure.

Rob Rhinehart pouring a nice glass of Soylent
Rob Rhinehart pouring a nice glass of Soylent
Leah Levin

The first signs appeared a little more than a year ago when Rob Rhinehart stopped washing his clothes. A few weeks earlier, he donated most of his personal belongings because he felt they were a burden he didn’t really need.

What remained were a laptop and some other technology equipment, a few basic hygiene products and two sets of clothes. And instead of washing them, he would store them in the fridge after realizing the low temperature kills the microorganisms responsible for the odor that we identify as unclean. It was simpler and cheaper than a washing machine.

This was in the autumn 2012, not long after Rhinehart graduated from the Georgia Institute of Technology, and shortly before he stopped eating. “I’m not obsessive, but when something is so blatantly inefficient, there’s no reason to accept it. Just because you do something in a certain way for a long time doesn’t make it sacred,” he explains during a phone interview.

A few months later, on Jan. 14, Rhinehart was sitting in his kitchen, staring at a white powder and a bottle of water. He mixed the two until he got a sort of beige-colored milkshake. He looked at the thick fluid and wondered whether he was brave enough to drink it.

And then, Rhinehart breached the first rule of any scientist — he drank his own experiment. That was the first version of Soylent, a food substitute made of 40 different ingredients that’s not meant to save the world from hunger but to instead offer a healthy, convenient and affordable alternative for young and busy Westerners fed up with wasting time and money on three nutritious meals a day.

In the subsequent 10 months, Soylent became a registered company and the product received approval from the American Food and Drug Administration. Soylent has raised about $1 million through a crowdfunding campaign. The initial goal — $100,000 — was reached within three hours.

Soylent has been selling online weekly batches for $65 each, and Rhinehart says that so far almost 10,000 people from across the U.S. have purchased the product.

From the ashes of one company...

The 25-year-old serves as CEO of Soylent Corporation. He runs the company with an executive team of four friends, none of whom has education in chemistry, biology, nutrition or medicine. Most of them were his partners in a previous failed startup.

“The salary I earn is significantly lower than the average income of an engineer in the Silicon Valley, but I have a salary and that’s something,” Rhinehart laughs.

Their sleek website details the capital they’ve raised and the registered orders. The Soylent formula is not patented, and its ingredients can be found on the website without the precise proportions.

Soylent’s initial revenue covers the debts left after the failure of the group’s first startup. But the super food also owes its birth to that collapse.

“After a month of work around the clock, I was overweight and in physically bad shape, I slept a lot and had difficulty concentrating,” says Rhinehart. “So instead of thinking about the Internet, I started thinking about food, about the fact that healthy and accessible food was the thing I missed most — and food, not the Internet, is what third-world countries lack most. So I thought how great it would be if I could engineer a fast food that’s not junk food.”

Rhinehart left the startup and locked himself in his apartment. He read biology and biochemistry books and browsed through dietitians’ and nutritionists’ discussion groups to understand what it is that our bodies actually need.

Back to Jan. 14. Rhinehart drank his engineered milkshake, and “surprisingly, it was quite tasty. A bit like a cake mix. To my even bigger surprise, in the following hours I felt amazing! And then came the evening, and I felt terrible.”

This was the beginning of a self experiment that lasted a month, during which Rhinehart played with the formula he had developed and kept a meticulous blog on which he published the results of his blood tests and documented his mood, his state of tiredness, his physical performance and the changes he made to Soylent. The composition of the compound at the end of this trial was very close to the current formula.

Not a new idea

Soylent is far from being the West’s first food substitute. The Cambridge Diet, a low-
calorie mixture with a similar principle, was approved for use in 2010, but hasn’t caught on as expected, in part because of its high price.

On the other end of the scale, Ensure is a calorie-rich shake that’s used for patients who need nutrition but perhaps don’t have an appetite. It’s also used for the artificial feeding of patients and can also be found in eating disorder wards. Additionally, Plumpy'nut, a kind of peanut-butter-based snack that was meant for Africa’s hungry children, never took off due to patent disputes and politics.

Attempts by international media to bring scientific opinions on Soylent concluded with mixed reactions, some strongly objecting to the product and others contending that it’s nothing new.

Professor Nissim Garti of Hebrew University, one of Ensure’s development advisors, is mainly concerned with what could be long-term harmful effects for people who would base their entire diet on it. “Our body is adapted for eating solid food, and the concept of consuming only fluid food is very complex,” he says.

“There has never been a long-term experiment to check the effect of fluid nutrition,” Garti adds. “This man doesn’t know, and it seems that he doesn’t care much either, what effect the dosage of his ingredients would have in a few years. Absorption varies from one person to another, and in the case of such food substitutes absorption becomes identical. And what if it’s too much for someone? Excess of some of his ingredients, such as chrome and vitamins K and F, could be toxic. It’s possible that every day someone absorbs a little more than they need. Symptoms may not appear a week, a month or even three months later, but in the longer term for sure.”

If a person typically bases their diet on junk food and industrial food and now they have an alternative in the form of Soylent, what’s better?

“His formula has many things in the right direction, his thinking is positive, but the formula is not perfect and it lacks a lot,” Garti says. “It’s true that some processed foods are so unhealthy that in some cases it might be better to consume this product, but personally, I wouldn't recommend my family to eat it. It’s better to have a varied and healthy diet.”

But Rhinehart says he never envisioned Soylent to be eaten exclusively. “I do not recommend anyone to stop eating and live only on Soylent,” he stresses. “On weekends and at social events I eat normal food, and enjoy it a lot — the way one should enjoy food. When I have a partner I love to cook a romantic dinner with her, but cooking for one person is no fun. And meanwhile, Soylent is an affordable, accessible and proper option, while most cheap and accessible options in the U.S. are not very healthy.”

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Society

What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel

-Essay-

BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.


Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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