What do you get if you take one software engineer, an obsession with nutritional macros and a desire to help the world eat more efficiently? Well for one thing you definitely don’t get a medium rare steak done over charcoal with a side of avocado salad. Oh no. What ends up on your plate is a hugely successful crowdfunded project which has pulled in over $1 million to mass produce a powder which delivers all the nutrition you need in a single glass per meal.
Soylent, dreamed up by Rob Rhinehart, is a formula based food substitute which combines powdered starch, rice protein, olive oil and chemical powders to provide all the vitamins and nutrients you need from a packet. Just mix the powder with water and drink as a meal replacement.
The concept is not new of course, but this is the first time it’s been put to work in the hands of real geeks, with the attendant focus on stats, experimentation and obsession to detail. The powder contains nothing which hasn’t been thoroughly tested by the authorities already, and there are no indications that combining them is harmful, although detractors are understandably concerned about the idea of people switching to a diet which consists totally of a meal drink.
As you would expect, the geeks have rallied to the cause, not only in terms of funding the project, but also in testing, refining and otherwise jumping on the total control bandwagon. Lee Hutchinson from Ars Technica recently volunteered to go on a week long Soylent-only trial to report on the experience, and perhaps predictably came out the other end in good shape and reasonably optimistic.
Behold, The Power of Community!
The real breakthrough, however, may come not from the main project, but from an increasingly popular side project which is gathering a lot of love from the nutritional nerds. Because the powder has been deliberately left as an ‘open’ project, rather than locked up in some way, there’s now a burgeoning DIY Soylent movement, which makes use of the USDA databases and other datasets to let people create their own nutritional plans and diets based around the idea of a powder drink.
The new community is based around a sophisticated Nutrient Profile Calculator which lets you craft a custom tailored diet plan based around your lifestyle and goals, and because the backend contains direct links to Amazon purchasing as well as nutrient databases, it’s possible with a little work to set up a completely self-contained process to create a complete diet which will deliver everything you need to thrive.
There’s already a pool of over 500 shared recipes available, any of which can be tweaked for your particular needs, which includes those who want to focus on weight loss, a vegan or kosher diet and even something like the popular keto low carb lifestyle. And before you scoff, it may help to remember that the vast majority of the population in the West eat an appallingly bad diet comprised of just about everything nasty you can shove into your body, including trans-fats, massively processed carbohydrates and an avalanche of sugars.
The skeptical may well argue that all this focus on the minutiae of nutrition could be rather unhealthy, and indeed there is actually a recognized illness called orthorexia nervosa, which is an ‘extreme or excessive preoccupation without avoiding foods perceived to be unhealthful’, but even so any attempt to encourage better eating habits should be lauded rather than derided in our view. As the blurb says on the DIY Soylent FAQ page –
“If you consume a balanced diet and receive 100% of each of the nutrients your body needs on a daily basis, you probably wouldn’t need or want to drink Soylent…Soylent has been reported by many…to have substantial health benefits. However, these benefits are only likely to be found for those currently on a ‘bad’ diet.”
And really that seems to be the point. Engineers love abstracting the fluff from an environment, because by removing the variables, they can get to the logical core truth. And the truth is that most Western diets are now sub-optimal in many ways, which means ill health and worse. It’s clear that Rob and the Soylent team are hoping to offer an alternative option which could help some people break out of the cycle of bad eating and enjoy better health.
Whether it’s actually going to be through a white powder or some other method of cutting the world’s current addiction to sugars and ultra processed foodstuffs is another matter, but it’s definitely an approach which could help some people.