Soylent: Ingesting the Future
An exploration of lifestyle branding for the coming environmental apocalypse.
"It’s like pancake batter," he said. Then he clarified, "unsalted." The salt is not what I think about first when I think about pancake batter. My immediate question was whether pancake batter was a description of its flavor or its texture. He was silent for a minute, and then replied, "Both, I guess." I asked him to tell me what verb he uses when engaging his unsalted pancake batter: eat, drink, consume, something else? Again he had to think. "I… ingest it?"
This usually more articulate young man and I were discussing his daily intake of Soylent. He replaces two meals a day with it. His time is very valuable. He built a notepad application for iPhone that uses a deep filing structure to create a more minimalist interface. He finds that most notepad apps are not clean enough. This young man left high school early in order to work as a corporate code developer. His team was managed by my wife, and in an effort to socialize this charming nerdling, she invited him for dinner. This young man cares nothing about food, and not in the manner of some adults who continue to insist on a diet of chicken nuggets and mac ’n’ cheese. He went the Soylent route.
As a person who passionately considers molecular gastronomy, I am naturally intrigued by the concept of Soylent, but had never before met anyone who had ingested it, let alone consumed it on a daily basis. The closest would be some elderly relatives of mine who swear by the merits of an Ensure shake for breakfast. At least those come in flavors like chocolate and strawberry. But here was a healthy young man of exceptionally advanced mind and somewhat scrawny body telling me that he subsisted mainly on a diet of Soylent, and I wondered how much of this was lifestyle branding.
Exhibit A: David Granger, the longest-running editor in the history of Esquire, capped off his tenure in the March edition of the magazine with a tremendously good series of lists on things he personally considers to be bullshit. This includes a small graphic on food: "On the menu at Chez Bullshit…sliders, kale chips, creative bagelry, ‘craft barbecue,’ hard cider, Soylent, humane meat, our famous Bloody Mary bar." I agree with most of this and so would the young man on the Soylent diet.
Exhibit B: The Soylent promotional video looks a lot like a pleasant tampon commercial. Everyone is young, healthy, and outside, playing with adorable puppies while picnicking, donning serious bicycling gear with the outline of a mountain range in the background, and so on. There's even a skateboarder and a high school quarterback. Then cue the bottling plant montage where this stuff is whirring pleasantly inside machines, then there's a nice little diagram of Soylent’s nutritional value. These images do not represent the lifestyle of the young man I know.
He gifted me a full bag of Soylent 1.5 powder, as well as the Soylent 1.5 release notes. I don't mind telling you that the release notes provoked darkly comic, ominous feelings. Exhibit C: The page one letter from Rob Rhinehart, CEO of Rosa Labs who can be reached at email@example.com, reproduced here in its entirety so that you, too, can have similar darkly comic, icky ominous feelings.
The powder you now behold is more than meets the eye. This mix of mass, energy, and information is the staple food of the future. Refine, robust, and efficient, Soylent is food that works. And it would not be here if not for you.
You are a vital member of the network that transformed Soylent from information to matter, from idea to flesh. Your contribution and support make you an integral part of Soylent, the structures of which are soon to become an integral part of you.
Remember every sip of Soylent is a tiny gratuity toward producing food ephemerally, toward reducing health disparity, toward answering questions about our food and ourselves that have gone unanswered too long.
If you are what you eat you may now consider yourself healthy and practical.
Soylent, like life itself, is in a continual state of change and improvement and we need your input to make it even better.
Thank you for ordering, and do stay in touch.
My plan was to try it before hitting the research, and then try it again after I’d learned everything I wanted to know. So I read the instructions and followed them precisely. That alone started to freak me out. I don't own cookbooks. I don't like to be told how to make my food. I don't measure things with precision. I have been known to add in two pinches of salts and spices at the end of cooking anything because bland food doesn't appeal to me. Still, I did as I was instructed: half the powder into half the water, shake it up, other half of the powder with other half of the water, shake it up, serve chilled.
It did indeed smell like unsalted pancake batter. The scent was pleasing and so was the pale beige color, though I could see some tiny clumps hanging on the sides of the glass and it was just a bit more runny than pancake batter. Nothing left to do but take the plunge. My instinct was to swallow that first mouthful without really tasting it, just see what flavor got left on my tongue. It tasted like nothing and then kind of like unsalted pancake batter. The website describes its flavor as "neutral".
I took a second swig and rolled it around in my mouth for a few seconds. It tasted somehow familiar, even comforting. I took a third sip and that’s when the existential dread set in.
Desperate to be rid of the glass in my hand, I offered it up to my wife. She took a sip, made a scrunchy face and handed the glass back to me. It wasn’t bad; it just wasn’t good. But there was no physical reason for me to recoil with so much quiet horror, yet I sat with the glass perched on my knee for three minutes, unable to muster the courage for another sip. I hate wasting food, but something inside of me said that this was not food, and I felt nothing but relief when I flushed it down the toilet. The bag of Soylent powder sat on the kitchen counter for days, mocking me, daring me to try again.
Meanwhile, I began reading Harry Harrison’s excellent little sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room!. Published in 1966 and set in 1999, the book depicts many consequences of urban overpopulation. Air conditioning and privacy are luxuries of the rich; the rest of life is water scarcity, unemployment and electricity generators powered by skeletal humans on bicycles. Food is rationed, and in an early chapter, there's a riot when a grocery store announces it has a fresh supply of soylent steaks. In this case, soylent is simply a combination of "soy" and "lentil". Basically, people were killing each other in the street to get a handful of veggie burger.
One teen parlays his stolen soylent steaks into enough cash to get a job, and then parlays the job into burgling a wealthy apartment building. He's caught in the middle of a conspiracy of sorts and the sci-fi story adds a layer of detective story. These soylent steaks completely changed the lives of several people, so precious were they.
I found Harrison’s portrayal of the preciousness of food very sympathetic. In particular, there's a scene where a rich man’s concubine goes to procure an actual piece of beef from an underground, highly guarded butcher shop. She endures vague threats of rape from the butcher and a terrifying level of humiliation in the shop in order to come home with a little chunk of real red meat.
After I tried and failed to drink Soylent for lunch, I immediately set about making a huge feast of brightly colored Thai food for dinner. It included every vegetable in my refrigerator, half the spices in my cabinets and the freshest chicken I could lay hands on quickly. It included rich sauces, a decent bottle of wine, and dessert with a fine dusting of powdered sugar from a local bakery. In Harrison’s world, I would also have unquestionably made the dangerous trek to that skeevy underground butcher.
Make Room! Make Room! is like a fictionalized account of Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s 1968 best-seller The Population Bomb, an environmentalist cult classic depicting the coming horrors of food scarcity. At best, their work was alarmist. At worst, their work was inaccurate. The tone of these two books takes for granted a type of Malthusian catastrophe that has yet to materialize except in the imagination of Hollywood, in the film Soylent Green.
Soylent Green was based on Make Room! Make Room!, but went heavy on the detective story and super light on the environmental meltdown. Harrison said he was only half happy with the production and he had no control over the script. In 1973, the film won a Nebula Award for Best Dramatic Presentation and a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film.
Though there's no such thing as Soylent Green in Harrison’s novel, Soylent Green’s version of the detective story ultimately reveals that the food is made of people. It’s a solution that would make Thomas Malthus proud: there are too many people; thus very many people are dying and the remainder must eat something; thus the living people should eat the dead people. This disposes of waste in a valuable manner; don’t sweat the cannibalism. Throughout the film, the few people harboring that ugly knowledge of Soylent Green’s main ingredient are portrayed as wracked with guilt and in various stages of moral outrage or utter despair.
Putting aside the question of why a meal replacement company would want to brand their product with the baggage of Make Room! Make Room! and Soylent Green, actual Soylent is, of course, not made of human remains. Lots of soy, zero lentil. The first two ingredients are canola and sunflower oil powder, and rice protein. The third thing is isomaltulose, which I had to look up. It’s a low-glycemic sugar derived, in the case of Soylent, from beets. This can explain everything.
I hate beets. Beets are the only food on earth about which I can say this. Seriously, I’ll try eating anything seven times before I dismiss it as uninteresting or just not for me. Liver is fine with me. I’m interested to see what crickets are like. But I hate beets, be they red or golden or full of sugar or whatever. I have repeatedly tried beets prepared in a wide variety of ways by chefs I truly trust, and no dish made with beets has ever pleased my palate.
The young man who gifted me the bag of Soylent hasn't asked what I thought about it. He suddenly moved out of state in hot pursuit of the next big tech thing, as people like him often might. My first line about Soylent was going to be, "I prefer not to ingest Soylent because I don’t like beets." When I conceived this as my final opinion of Soylent, the reasoning seemed stupid. I was fearful that it wasn't very responsive to the ontological questions posed by this product, that I was off the mark in an almost surreal way. But after trying out the line on a few people whose interest in Soylent had been piqued, I find the most common response to this rationale for my opinion is, "Wait, it’s made of beets?" Wake up, pancake batter people! Am I right?
There are a lot of people out there who aren’t into beets. If you google "I hate beets", you’ll get more than 10,000 hits. If you google "beets taste like dirt", you’ll get almost 300,000 hits. Of course, the number of hits on "cannibalism" is approaching ten million and there are 7.4 billion people in the world. If Soylent is the future, beet haters like me will be the first to turn to cannibalism.