Soylent is supposed to taste like nothing.
It doesn't, really. It tastes—in my opinion as a professional food critic—pretty much exactly like almond milk. But the effect of the bottled liquid foodstuff is as intended—unobtrusive, unmemorable, totally indistinct. According to founder and awkwardly formal spokesman Rob Rhinehart, the idea is that you'll never get sick of it.
Back in 2013, Rhinehart wondered if humans could live on a nutritionally complete omnifood with all the nutrients required for a healthy life.
So he came up with a recipe—probably using oat flour, psyllium husk powder and a crushed-up multivitamin, though he's opaque about it—and decided to live on the stuff for a month. He wrote a blog post about it, "How I Stopped Eating Food," which captured the attention of techbros and turned him into an icon of the futuristic post-food movement.
"The first few days was kind of nerve-wracking," Rhinehart told Vice. "I felt like I was kind of pushing off from shore, that there was no traditional food in body, only this mixture of chemicals that I'd assembled from rudimentary knowledge."
Rhinehart now calls food "primitive," and openly mocks the naturalistic principles of people like Michael Pollan. Soylent is "proudly made with GMOs" and a weird kind of algae that's grown in a bioreactor.
For a month, I mostly subsisted on it. For 30 days in September and early October, the period where we do the bulk of our Restaurant Guide magazine, I consumed Soylent for my meal unless I was reviewing a restaurant. Because I do not fully trust Soylent (more on that in a second), I supplemented it with fish oil and one pint of phytochemical-rich blueberries.
And I felt great. I rarely craved "real" food, I lost a few pounds, I had lots of energy and I was rarely hungry. In the months since this little project concluded, I've actually switched to Soylent's Coffiest, a Frappucino-like blend of Soylent and coffee, for my daily breakfast. Even—maybe especially—if you love good food, there's something to this Soylent thing.
A month of Soylent isn't just the origin story, it also seems to be the default for journalists writing about Soylent. Vice has done it, and so have blogs like the Hustle, the Verge and Raptitude. Writers from Shape and Self did shorter stints. My experiment wasn't really about seeing whether I could survive, since you clearly can.
Rather, I wanted to explore my relationship with food. You've heard the rhetorical question, "do you eat to live, or live to eat?"
Well, the concept of soylent (unlike Kleenex or Xerox, the company encourages people to use the brand name of its product as a stand-in for the idea it represents) is that it's not so rhetorical. It's possible to have an omnifood, a food pellet that meets all of your biological needs at a minimum cost and without any hassle. No need to cook, no need to shop—Soylent will bill your credit card and auto-ship you a full month's nutrition for $450.
You can eat to live. Like, for real.
I found that idea freeing. Nothing to think about or clean and $3 meals. What's not to like?
And of course, I was privileged to supplement my Soylent intake with meals at some of the city's best restaurants. There's a concept of "recreational eating" in the Soylent universe—consuming artfully prepared meals for pure enjoyment, in addition to the Soylent meals you eat to live. I'd venture that I experienced that dichotomy at a level no one else has. As you might expect, consuming flavorless white paste between meals at Le Pigeon and Kachka only helped me enjoy them more.
Invariably, people asked me about the movie Soylent Green, in which soylent is made of people. Literally the worst thing about subsisting on Soylent is having to smile politely at smug people who believe themselves to be cultural literati because they saw a Charlton Heston movie. But there's a deep irony to how hard they miss.
The movie was based on a '60s sci-fi novel called Make Room! Make Room!, set in a dystopian future. In this world, resources are scant and competition for them is fierce because Earth's population has ballooned to 7 billion—its current population. In this alternate world, people live off a blend of soy and lentils instead of $5 heirloom tomatoes, and there are no pretty little bungalows.
That's the inspiration for Soylent, a product Rhinehart envisions as a way to disrupt our entire food system.
"Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geopolitical implications," he wrote in 2013.
Rhinehart imagines a world in which it's a "civil resource" that comes through pipes into your house, like water.
Does that sound sad and terrible? Well, how do you think it sounds to a kid who goes to bed hungry? One in six of them do.
Soylent started as a powder that's currently in its seventh iteration, all descended from the blend of microalgae, lecithins and isolates that Rhinehart developed. Every few months, they roll out a new version that's cheaper to make, greener and/or tastes even more like nothing.
If you go onto subreddit for Soylent/soylent, you'll find people have very strong takes about which version was the best and why. If customers aren't happy with an update, or if they think they can do it better themselves, they'll sometimes take to mixing their own DIY soylent blends. You'll find people who swear by Schmilk or the keto diet version, Ketolent, or the French knockoff, Feed, or the Canadian chocolate version, Hol Food. There's even an organic version, Ambronite, that costs three times as much.
Soylent powder—currently in version 1.6 and unavailable after a small outbreak of mysterious illness—comes in a pouch with 2,000 calories, a full day's nutrition, which you can mix up at once and refrigerate. I tried the powder stuff and hated it. It tastes like buttery cookie batter and is clumpy. Also, you have to scrub those super-sticky clumps out of the pitcher and any glassware used. At that point, why not just make beef bourguignon?
But, last October, they introduced a bottled version, Soylent 2.0. It's a dramatic upgrade: Now you have a bottle with 400 calories of nutrition optimized for satiety and performance. Drink, rinse, recycle and go back to what you were doing before you felt a pang of hunger.
The majority of us in the Willamette Week office grab our lunch at the nearby grocery store, where a sandwich costs $9 or so. Those lunches don't get me excited—they're sustenance, eaten over a keyboard while working. I could very happily go the rest of my life without eating another grocery-store ancho chicken burrito. Soylent solved that.
The longest I went on only Soylent—plus fish oil and blueberries—was five days, but I often went 48 or 72 hours. There were only a few times I found myself craving "real" food, once while biking by Domino's, a place I have not eaten in about a decade.
While I love the Soylent concept, there have been some hiccups. Last month, the company made headlines when it recalled its food bars after some customers experienced nausea, vomiting and "uncontrollable diarrhea." Sales of my Coffiest were briefly halted after the company discovered that the levels of vitamins A and C in it weren't shelf-stable. I used supplements rather than trust my brain health only to a vegan product with no phytochemicals or antioxidants.
On Soylent, I felt great. I also felt free.
I'm a food critic in a city that's obsessed with organic, natural farm-to-table food, but I'm also deeply sympathetic to Rhinehart's vision, especially when it comes to solving our society's chronic scarcity.
GMOs are important in a world that's been forced to crunch in more people every day. Do we have sufficient resources for everyone to eat grass-fed beef and organic apples? The same people I hear rhapsodizing about organic microfarms are the people I hear suggesting that the solution to Portland's housing crisis is to halt construction.
I love local produce, but I also feel a little guilty about my access to it when a billion humans—literally, 1.2 billion of the 7 on this planet—get the majority of their nutrition from rice. To me, the organic warriors sound like reactionaries and Luddites, a privileged class spouting a view both primitive and dangerous.
Soylent is a possible salve to all of that, sippable nothingness with no dishes.