BY: LUC RINALDI
In February 2013, a twenty-something Atlanta tech entrepreneur named Rob Rhinehart posted an entry on his blog, Mostly Harmless, titled, “How I Stopped Eating Food.” In it, he detailed his frustration with food—how much time it took up, how much of his money it wasted, to what extent we’re at its mercy (“In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation”). Rhinehart presented a hypothesis: The body doesn’t need food; it just needs the chemicals and elements food provides.
After a month of living off his new creation, Soylent, he wrote, “I haven’t eaten a bite of food in 30 days, and it’s changed my life.”
Now it may change more lives than just Rhinehart’s. After last year’s blog post, Soylent crowd-funded roughly $750,000—the team reached its $100,000 goal within two hours of setting up an Indiegogo account—shipped tens of thousands of orders across the United States, and captured the attention of Silicon Valley, lifehackers, and the press. The drink, which is both bland and beige and has been described as tasting like “watered-down pancake batter,” and has even inspired a Finland-based, all-natural imitator, Ambronite.
It’s easy to understand Soylent’s lure: It’s healthy and it saves both time and money. It takes minutes to prepare, and Rhinehart aims to eventually make it available for $5 a day, or $1.67 per meal, which is a fraction of what a healthy day’s worth of food would cost (imagine the implications on starving countries).
We’ve long imagined a post-food world (see: 2001: A Space Odyssey), in which pills and liquids replace anything from pizza to broccoli. Soylent may fall in line with those Jetsons-like fantasies, but it’s simultaneously at odds with our meal-Instagramming, food-obsessed society. Can you really imagine swapping your favourite burger or fruit smoothie for a thick slurry of powdered vitamins? Neither can Rhinehart. He proposes that his invention replace unhealthy, on-the-go meals rather than the social experience of dining.
“Soylent isn’t coming for our Sunday potlucks,” Lizzie Widdicombe wrote in a May 2014 The New Yorker story on Soylent. “It’s coming for our frozen quesadillas.”
Given its success, you’d expect the Soylent formula—Rhinehart’s version of the secretive Big Mac Sauce—to be under lock and key and patented to the nines. Not so. Since the company’s beginnings, the formula has been available online (a DIY Soylent website with more than 2,000 different recipes from across the globe complements the official product). Explaining the open-sourcing choice, Rhinehart told The New Yorker, “If someone else figures out a better way to make it, that’s still a win for humanity.”
Soylent, and the entire future of the meal-replacement industry, relies on such altruism. “We are essentially the beta testers of this product,” wrote one commenter, who at the time had lived primarily off Soylent for two months, on Rhinehart’s original Mostly Harmless post. “It may not be fully viable in the end, and there is a possibility that some of us will experience health complications in the future.”
It may not be Soylent that we’re all eating in the future, but what revolution—civil, food, or otherwise—would have ever begun without a few brave souls to lead the way?