message in a bottle

How the culture around Soylent obscures its potential

“What is Soylent?” asks the voice, as two friends on opposite ends of a picnic blanket drink, deep from plastic white bottles.

“Soylent is food.”

Well, kind of.

The voice qualifies: “While not intended to replace every meal, Soylent can replace any meal …”

The camera follows the bottle as it jumps between different scenes and different owners: a football player taking a break on the sidelines, a blonde woman sitting in a park, and a bearded man in a bike helmet taking a swig on a beachside cliff “… Put simply, Soylent satisfies your hunger.”

I write this at my desk after having eaten two pieces of Valentine’s Day chocolate sent to me by my mom, one cheddar cheese stick, and two spoonfuls of peanut butter. I cannot tell if it is the self-induced monomania of watching every promotional video, reading every article, and talking to every person I could find who has some relationship with Soylent, but I’ve grown far more conscious of what I eat in the process of writing this.

Another potential cause for my heightened sensitivity towards food: This is the first year of my life in which I am fully (okay, mostly) responsible for buying and preparing my own food. I have no one to blame for this but myself. I could have just as easily stayed on meal plan. But I live farther from the dining halls now, I love to cook, and I thought senior year would be a good excuse to get better at it before the real world hits me full force.

While I don’t completely regret my choice, I’ve noticed I tend to get caught up with choices and logistics more now: When will I go to the grocery store? What will I buy once I’m there? What meals am I willing and able to buy during my day? What items will I let languish in the back of my fridge as I spend more money on takeout?  Do I really have the time to make red lentil curry right now? Is there something in particular I hope to put off by making red lentil curry?

I expect anyone reading this to take my complaints with a grain of salt. Common sense, along with the fact that I have regular access to food of any kind, highlights that these questions by no means constitute a real problem.

But this set of concerns is in part why Soylent, the meal replacement drink, exists. In the time that it took for you to read my food-related concerns, you could have consumed 400 calories, 20 grams of protein, and 20 percent of your daily recommended vitamin intake. (This is assuming you have access to Soylent 2.0, the newly minted bottled version of the drink, rather than Soylent 1.5, which comes in powdered form that requires the user to combine it with water and oil, all of which you might have been able to pull off by the end of this parenthetical. But the people I’ve spoken to who used the 1.5 powder version say this is trickier than it sounds.)

I tried Soylent for myself about a month ago. Having read so many descriptions of what to expect, it’s impossible to imagine my own experience will be unbiased. One blogger wrote that it would taste something like pancake batter, and I’d say that’s about right. As I swallowed the substance I’ve heard so much about, I felt the fullness of water mixed with protein powder. Not bad, I thought. But I closed the bottle after one sip.

While I’d been aware of Soylent for a while, I didn’t consciously look into it until my roommate tried a bottle she’d been given for free in Brown’s mailroom. She thought it was gross, but she left the rest in the kitchen for me to try.

Later that night, Maya and I compared notes.

“Dude, I can’t believe people actually drink that crap,” she said, leaning over the counter.  Having always hated the dining hall, Maya’s cooked for herself for three years now. She’s very good at it, and it helps that she seems to eat a third of what I do on any given day.

“I don’t know,” I said, “I think it tastes okay.”

But trying Soylent once is a far cry from making it part of my life. The internet is full of personal blogs and forums where Soylent users share stories and tips, but I was curious to talk to students in Providence who drank it regularly. Given Brown’s juggernaut CS department and Soylent’s Silicon Valley roots, I was not surprised when many friends referred me to CS concentrators who had used Soylent for a significant period of time. In the end, I connected with an Industrial Design student at RISD named Kevin, who tried Soylent as a partial meal replacement for several months.

Kevin started drinking Soylent during one summer working at MIT. He had a two month sublet in Cambridge and buying kitchen stuff was too expensive. While trying to figure out how to stick to his budget without hurting his health, he remembered a friend who’d ordered a large shipment of Soylent back at school. He decided to give it a shot for a meal a day. That summer, the only items in his kitchen were ramen, Soylent, cereal, and bananas.

In the end he stopped because he couldn’t stomach it. He found that drinking Soylent with any frequency gave him indigestion. “I couldn’t imagine doing it the entire three meals,” he said.

This is a well-documented phenomenon on the Soylent subreddit and facebook group—people blame it on the rice flour, one of Soylent’s main ingredients. Users write about the importance of transitioning slowly—gradually shifting to Soylent in increments by drinking one, then two a day over the course of weeks. That said, Kevin never went above one Soylent a day.

In the end, Kevin decided to stop using Soylent because the drink, only available as a powder at the time, “turned into a hassle.” And as an RA at RISD, he now gets his meals for free.

Kevin also seemed to have a lot of philosophical issues with Soylent. “I think the issue I have with Soylent is that it completely ignores cultural contexts around food.” Kevin voices a common criticism: All of the socialization that takes place around food is something that Soylent can’t make up for.

This is a problem that Soylent has picked up on. The video ad for the drink version, Soylent 2.0, makes it clear from the get-go that “Soylent is not intended to replace all meals”—their earlier ad campaigns don’t emphasize this with anywhere near the same intensity.

The Soylent blog also releases a regular stream of posts that tackle these themes. In a longer post just before Thanksgiving (entitled “Go Feast!”), the Soylent team wrote “We won’t be offended if we aren’t a part of your holiday dinners!” While reassuring readers of their aim to “encourage maximum revelry in our community,” they also encourage their audience to “think critically about their relationship to food.” After an outline of the history of the Thanksgiving and Lunar New Year meals, the blog post slips in a caveat: “All this is not to say that holiday food traditions are static in nature. Today’s rituals are the products of centuries of constantly shifting habit and priority, significant as much for their ability to change as for their preservation of the past.”

The people behind Soylent have never wanted to completely eliminate food. In his first blog post after making and testing the pilot version of Soylent in 2013, founder Rob Rhinehart sums up his ideas about his fledgling product’s relationship to food: “I think it would be nice to have a default, healthy, no-hassle meal. Similar to drinking water most of the time, but wine or beer when you’re socializing. If you saved money on food at home you would have the freedom to go out more often.”

Sounds reasonable enough. He then follows up with what seems like an attempt to pitch Soylent as a move of second wave feminist liberation:

“I for one would not miss the stereotype of the housewife in the kitchen. Providing diverse, palatable, and nutritious meals for an entire family every day must be exhausting. What if taking a night off didn’t mean unhealthy pizza or expensive take out? How wasteful society has been with its women!”

But back to Kevin:

When it comes to Soylent and tech culture, he sees one as a reflection of the other: “I think tech culture has always been like…‘We’re not gonna think about the ethical or moral repercussions of what we make.” He added, “I think ‘fuck it, ship it,’ is the line they use.”

He went further in his criticism of tech culture, citing the version of Soylent’s origin story he knew to be true: that an executive at Google had engineered the drink so he’d have more time to spend on work. But Rhinehart didn’t work for Google—he was trying to start his own company. If he did work for Google, he would have had access to the constant stream of free food that larger tech companies offer their employees. This is a perk that, Kevin says, is mostly meant to keep employees in the office and more productive.

But this is one sticking point I found about criticism of Soylent as an offshoot of tech culture—the people who actually work for large tech companies often have access to healthy food without leaving their offices. So other than students, who could this drink really benefit?

Apparently, it could benefit a lot of people, judging by the posts on Reddit or Soylent’s “discourse” forums. An EMT with high blood pressure writes that he ordered a month’s supply. Working 12-hour night shifts, he mostly eats at Jack in the Box and Sonic, and he’s afraid of what this fast food diet will do to his health. He wanted to learn more about Soylent, because as a cheap option that he can drink at the drop of a dime between 911 calls, it could help him stay healthy. A few respondents congratulate him and say he’s taking the right step. Another poster suggests he try “ketogenic Soylent,” a DIY version that sends the body into a ketosis, a state in which the body burns energy from fat instead of sugar. Going further down the rabbit hole I found the website for Ketolent, “a nutritionally complete ketogenic meal replacement drink,” and a self-aware knock-off of Soylent.

This is the thing I find so arresting about Soylent. I had a lot of preconceived notions about it as an emblem of the more distasteful parts of tech culture. It’s impossible for a person to be truly objective, but I tried to shake off my biases as I read. Yet each time I began to find myself convinced of Soylent’s potential, I found the culture around it going a step too far. How could a product that helps a person working night shifts eat nutritionally complete meals be a bad thing? But why does that product have to completely shift the way the body gets its nutrients? I find the desire to constantly alter and “hack” the body unsettling. I wish I could say why. I could claim the danger of using poorly regulated substances whose effects are not well studied, but that feels half baked. It feels more like the process or idea of improvement, of being more productive for its own sake, is the real focus beyond keeping people healthy or fulfilling a human need. And I find the use of language, and the ideologies that are embedded within Soylent’s language, unsettling: the sexist rhetoric of an all-male team pitching their product as a way to be less wasteful with “society’s women,” the sterile framing of “revelry” as something to be “maximized,” to be commodified—the discomfort these words inspire makes it harder to focus on the possible benefits.

And I’m not the only one who’s disturbed. As I was writing this, a friend sent me a link to a project called Soylent Dick, “a phallus made out of Soylent that ejaculates Soylent when you type self-validating praise for Soylent into the browser.” A project from the 2016 Stupid Hackathon, Soylent Dick’s web page states its makers were driven by their own Soylent-induced turmoil. Taking issue with “the brand’s techno-utopian rhetoric,” they ask participants to reflect on these questions: “What does it mean for Soylent to be adopted primarily by coders to save time, when the engineering field is still predominantly male? What does it mean for people who can afford to eat well to choose to reject food?” Soylent Dick doesn’t posit any answers. But it does make some of the troubling ideas behind Soylent more tangible.

As I wasn’t able to interview anyone from the Soylent marketing team about these campaigns, I don’t have an official statement on what the company is trying to achieve on college campuses. It makes sense that they would target the college student market—no matter what we study, we’re a population in which many people can afford Soylent, but no one is getting free company meals.

I did learn that Hack@Brown, the group for Computer Science undergraduates at Brown, would not allow Soylent to be served at its latest Hackathon. Instead they stuck with their usual high quality stream of sponsored food—trays and trays of falafel, shawarma, and vegetable wraps from East Side Pockets. And, as one of many non-computer science students who took some of the leftover sandwiches the group distributed for free in Faunce, I’m glad they did.

In the end, the bottle of Soylent on our kitchen table went unfinished. As I’ve learned through Soylent’s website, all the nutrients in the drink make it an attractive media for bacteria—that might explain why the bottle ballooned to twice its size, and teetered on the edge of falling until I threw it out.

Still, I get the appeal, and see all the potential good Soylent can do. One day I might even try it out for one meal out of the day. Maybe. But not before some more attempts at getting more efficient in my cooking, and lapsing into overspending on street food. And then repeating that cycle a few a more times.

I have no problem with the idea of artificial food. I use protein powder and canola oil—both items that are 100 percent engineered and unnatural. But until I’ve given a good faith effort to the old-fashioned, inefficient way I’ve been culturally conditioned to love, or circumstances make that impossible, I’m gonna hold out. Lizzie Widdicome wrote for the New Yorker that “Soylent isn’t coming for our Sunday potlucks. It’s coming for our frozen quesadillas.” The logic behind this makes sense: If a meal is both unpleasant and unhealthy, Soylent could be a great fix. If I’m ever down to frozen quesadillas, I’ll gladly jump on board.