Is Liquid Food Replacement “Soylent” the Future of Food?

soylentWhat you’re eating for lunch today – chicken sandwich? Pasta pesto? Green salad? I don’t know about you and actually haven’t decided yet for myself either, but I know what Rob Rhinehart will have.

Hold your Charlton Heston jokes, he is probably going to have a bottle full of Soylent, a liquid food replacement he developed that is made from “broken-down multivitamins, raw elements like potassium and magnesium purchased from lab supply stores, and olive and fish oils, among other ingredients.”

This liquid food includes the essential ingredients the body needs to thrive explains Rhinehart, a 24-year-old programmer from Atlanta, who is the co-founder of a new startup by the same name (Soylent). In the last five months, he has been living on Soylent almost exclusively, with very occasional solid meal here and there, testing on himself the impacts of what he sees as “a more efficient way to stay nourished.”

And the results so far? Rhinehart reports improved concentration and strength as well as weight loss. “By every objective measure, I’m an incredibly healthy person,” he told Gawker’s Adrian Chen two months ago. “It’s been a huge change, not just in terms of sleep and gym performance but cognition. I can say I feel much more alert, and more patient, and optimistic.”

One adjective I might add to the list is visionary. While Rhinehart by no means suggests his new liquid drink is meant to revolutionize the food system, he certainly sees it as a way to provide a nutritious and efficient alternative to people who see food as more of a tiring chore aimed at keeping us energized and want to reduce the hassle of energy consumption to minimum.

For these people Rhinehart wants to transform food into a sort of an effortless utility. Here’s how he described his vision to Inc’s Christine Lagorio:

You could make it like a utility. In the United States, the way that no one really worries about water, it’s just always available, you don’t really have to think about it. I mean it does cost something in places, people pay their water bills, but you don’t really have to worry about it. That’s what I would like food to be.

So, maybe it sounds a bit futuristic and as exciting as having sex in Woody Allen’s ‘Sleeper’ Orgazmatron, but is it really less realistic than Michael Pollan’s “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” vision, Marcel Dicke’s suggestion of adding insects to everyone’s diet, or Mark Bittman’s VB6 concept of becoming a part-time vegan?

Rhinehart’s journey into the food territory started more or less accidently. He was working on building affordable wireless networks for developing countries at Y Combinator (YC) but investors he got in touch with didn’t seem interested in putting money into it. Then, he did what YC’s Paul Graham has called “The biggest pivot in YC history.”

“We had a certain amount of money, and you include all of your expenses, and see how long that’s going to last you. This is our rent, and this is our food. And I thought, this is interesting. What if I didn’t need food to live? That would increase our runway,” Rhinehart explained his transformation from a social entrepreneur into a food innovator.

He started reading everything he could on essential nutrients, trying and mixing until he created a fluid food that included “every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial, and purchased all of them in nearly raw chemical form from a variety of sources.”

And the taste? Rhinehart likes it. “It’s a very “complete” sensation, more sweet than anything,” he told Vice. Others reported on a wider range of experiences – at Gawker, where he brought some for the staff to taste, feedback ranged from “it tasted like someone wrung out a dishtowel into a glass” to “It was great and I love it. I don’t want to eat anymore.”

Safety is also an issue when experimenting with food, but apparently Rhinehart has nothing to worry about. “He basically made medical food,” Jay Mirtallo, a professor of pharmacy at Ohio State University told The Washington Post. The Post’s reporter asked Mirtallo if he could live a healthy life just drinking Soylent from here on out. “You can completely,” Mirtallo answered. “But I don’t know why you’d want to. There are so many social aspects to food in what we do.”

Mirtallo touched what seems to be one of Soylent’s main flaws – even if we assume it will prove itself as safe, nutritious, healthy, efficient and a cheap (Rhinehart spends on it about $7.60 a day) alternative to “regular food,” the vision it represents of food as a mechanic activity that is mostly about providing us with the energy we need misses much of the contribution food, and especially cooking our food, made to civilization.

As Michael Pollan writes in his book, Cooked, “Cooking gave us not just the meal but also the occasion: the practice of eating together at an appointed time and place… But sitting down to common meals, making eye contact, sharing food, and exercising self-restraint all served to civilize us.”

This objection and others didn’t stop Rhinehart from running a very successful crowdfunding campaign, finding enthusiastic volunteers who also experimented with Soylent, and, in general, creating a lot of positive buzz around it.

The real test, though, would be if and when he manages to fulfill the FDA requirements – then he will need to show not only Soylent’s competitive advantages over the current healthy liquid foods available on the market and last, but not least, that there’s a market for this product.

If Rhinehart is right and there are enough people with needs like his, then he might be able to establish a viable alternative for the too-busy-not foodie-fast-solution lovers. If not, at least Soylent provided us with some liquid food for thought about our ongoing relationship with food.

[Image credit: Rob Rhinehart]

Raz Godelnik is the co-founder of Eco-Libris and an adjunct faculty at the University of Delaware’s Business School, CUNY SPS and Parsons The New School for Design, teaching courses in green business, sustainable design and new product development. You can follow Raz on Twitter.

Raz Godelnik

Raz Godelnik is an Assistant Professor of Strategic Design and Management at the School of Design Strategies at Parsons The New School for Design. His research interests include the convergence of innovation, sustainability, business and design strategies, the sharing economy and sustainable business models such as B Corporations. He is the co-founder of two green startups (Hemper Jeans and Eco-Libris) and a contributor writer to Triple Pundit.