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.
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.”