Broyles: In quest for efficiency, Soylent challenges notion of ‘food’

12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2015 Austin360 Eats

Solving food problems is big business nowadays.

Long gone are the days when environmentalists were the only ones who called for wasting less food, consuming less meat and generally paying attention to the eco-footprint of what you eat.

But at next week’s South by Southwest Eco, companies including Pepsi and Monsanto will be talking about making the food system more efficient through tactics like better recycling or genetically modified organisms.

Two sessions, including one of the keynotes, will explore the subject of cultured meat — yes, the kind grown in a controlled environment, like a lab — as a solution to producing higher quality meat with a fraction of the environmental impact.

However, one quickly growing company has already created what could be considered the very pinnacle of efficient eating: a total food replacement made without dairy, meat, gluten or nuts.

Cultured meat is years away from being available at a grocery store; but Soylent has already sold millions of units of its food replacement — first as a powder that you mix with water and, as of this month, a ready-to-drink liquid.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: The product shares a name with the 1973 dystopian film where people live on wafers called Soylent Green that are finally revealed to be made from human flesh. Founder Rob Rhinehart says he picked the name from the 1966 book, “Make Room! Make Room!,” where people in an overcrowded world drink a product made with soy and lentils. (Cannibalism wasn’t introduced until the film.)

Soylent is made from the nutrients that the body extracts from more traditional delivery mechanisms — ingredients that, as Michael Pollan reminds, our grandmothers would recognize as food.

The problem is those ingredients require a lot of input: water, time and space to grow; fertilizers or feed to make them grow faster; and large quantities of energy to process, store and ship them. Though meal replacements such as Ensure or protein powders have been sold for years, many are full of sugar and all lack enough macronutrients — such as carbohydrates, fats and proteins — to sustain a human.

“A lot of people are distrustful of chemicals and powders. But ultimately, as any food hits your stomach, it is broken down into those chemical compounds,” says Nick Poulden, a Boulder-based engineer whose own food-replacement experiments led him to develop a website where users swap recipes for homemade Soylent. “You can see all the elements on a periodic table, and everything, including food, is composed of those elements.”

Rhinehart drank the mix exclusively for weeks and discovered that his body and brain thrived on the mixture. His previous diet of corn dogs, burritos, ramen noodles and Vitamin C tablets to ward off scurvy had wrecked his body and cost hundreds of dollars a month. A month’s worth of supplies to make the powdered mix cost about $150.

The real appeal wasn’t the cost. It was that when Rhinehart didn’t have to stop to solve his own personal food problem, he could spend time solving much bigger ones.

Rhinehart and his team crowdfunded the first round of Soylent and met their original goal in just a few hours. By the end, they’d pulled in $3 million. For the first year of Soylent, demand outpaced supply — but now the company has caught up. Anyone can go online to order Soylent 2.0, the ready-to-drink product that is available in 400-calorie bottles that cost $29 for a case of 12.

With Soylent gaining so much momentum, now is a good time to think about how far we want to take this quest for efficiency and optimization. Chemists and engineers have always influenced what we eat, but never have they so challenged our concept of how to define “food.”

We have spherified “olives” and breathable “chocolate,” Pringles “chips” that aren’t really chips and Kraft “cheese” that can’t legally be called cheese. The United Nations has issued a report urging us to consider eating more insects. Major food manufacturers have figured out how to replicate the texture of chicken using pea protein.

“With the whole debate over what you should be putting in your body, people are looking more to science to answer those questions,” says Poulden, who, like Rhinehart, knew there had to be a more nutritious option than eating bowl of cereal or peanut butter and jelly sandwich after an exceptionally long day.

Poulden says the DIYers were eager to share spreadsheets of empirical data, especially those outside the U.S., where Soylent isn’t yet available. They crowdsourced the recipe development, an idea not unlike that of AllRecipes.com or Food52.com, where users work together to make a more ideal formula.

Some people hate the idea of using powdered chemicals, so they use nuts, grains and other ingredients that are closer to a “natural” state but that can still be pureed into a drink. Embracing the DIY spirit, Rhinehart agreed to incorporate Poulden’s make-your-own site into Soylent’s official website. You can find Poulden’s site at diy.soylent.com.

The Food and Drug Administration designated Soylent as a food, not a nutritional supplement, even without any long-term studies to determine its safety as an exclusive food source for healthy adults.

Last month, however, a watchdog company filed a notice of intent for legal action against Soylent for not disclosing what their tests found to be too high levels of lead and cadmium. Soylent pushed back by sharing lab results that found lower numbers that fall within federal guidelines.

For critics from the other side of the food spectrum, who eschew processing in any form that is not with your own hands and who don’t eat anything they can’t pronounce, the ingredients might as well be poison.

Amid countless food recalls and outbreaks of food-borne illness, some consumers are willing to try something that on the surface might seem extreme. Few people, if any, are consuming Soylent exclusively, but plenty have embraced Soylent for a sometimes meal replacement. Rhinehart says it makes up between 80 to 90 percent of his diet.

It just goes to show that our tech- and work-crazed American society values efficiency over just about everything. Everything, that is, except pleasure, which is why many Soylent critics say that the drink’s sameness is its fatal flaw.

Newborns survive on baby formula because they are limited to foods that they can drink. We, however, are not.

Some Soylent drinkers add peanut butter or agave nectar to enhance the flavor. Others throw in a splash of Bailey’s Irish Cream. I couldn’t handle the ashtray aftertaste of the powdered mix; so I shook in a hearty spoonful of chocolate sauce from the Barton Table and liked the taste enough to pass up breakfast tacos one morning last week.

An Austinite named Mary said that Soylent fills a very specific niche in her life. She’s a part-vegan married to a whole-carnivore. When they started to get more serious about eating at home a few years ago, she took the lead on food preparation.

“It just felt like menu planning and cooking had taken up as much time as a part-time job,” she says. “I just got burned out.”

Like many of us, she gets wrapped up in tasks during the middle of the day and sometimes forgets to eat. “Then, an hour or two later, I’m unable to focus, grumpy, and have a headache,” she says. “With Soylent, though, I barely break my pace from whatever I’m working on … just pour a shake and keep on going, so I’m skipping less meals.”

Mary says she feels better — and doesn’t struggle with insomnia — when she’s drinking Soylent during the week than when she doesn’t on the weekends.

Philosophically, she says that Soylent seems to be a decent solution when you consider that so few people have access to clean drinking water, much less adequate protein and nutrients. “We can’t keep living this decadent life, while at the same time adding so many more people to the planet,” she says. “Our planet is bulging at the seams.”

Drinking every meal for the rest of your life isn’t a strategy that many of us can imagine adopting, no matter how many environmental or health benefits it might provide. But the more I drink — and think about — it, the more it seems that a product like Soylent doesn’t have to be the singular answer to the question of, “How should we eat in the future?”

Scientists, not to mention participants in the “quantified self” movement who keep close track of their own personal data, are optimizing food in new ways. Soylent and cultured meat test the limits of just how far we’d like to take that idea.

There’s no doubt that New Harvest and Impossible Foods will find ways to engineer meat or meat-like products to provide a similar gustatory pleasure of the real thing. But that kind of cultured or otherwise engineered meat is simply yet another answer to that question. Eating insects, for a very certain subsection of Americans, could be another.

While these products continue to evolve to suit the palates of everyday Americans, we can continue to do things like eat our leftovers instead of throw them away and cut back on traditional meat consumption to help make the current resources we have last longer.

Poulden, the engineer behind the recipe site, doesn’t actually drink all that much Soylent, homemade or otherwise. “When it’s just me on my own … or when I need to get something done, I find it super convenient,” he says. “But it makes you appreciate when you do go out for a meal or cook. It becomes more meaningful. You’re not just going out because you’re hungry.”

He still hadn’t tried Soylent 2.0: “Everyone says it tastes like Cheerios milk.”

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