Skip Navigation

Soylent’s Hypocrisy

Soylent Original (2.0) is packaged in a minimalist, matte white plastic bottle – no nutrition facts, no warning labels, zero clutter. Above the Soylent label reads, “ready-to-drink food,” and each bottle includes 20% of the standard daily nutrition – 400 calories. The cream-colored liquid is viscous and thick, akin to pancake batter, and the taste is rich, yet bland, likened to watered down oats, cardboard, and grits. When I drank my first Soylent, essentially all in one go, I felt full immediately. I became overwhelmed by a sense of nostalgic familiarity: Childhood memories of drinking duyu, or Korean soymilk, in which the nuttiness is more pronounced than that of its American counterpart, flooded my mind. My first impression of Soylent was that its taste was inoffensive, and its concept a bit dystopian. I continued to drink Soylent for the majority of the meals that week – part social experiment, part necessity (they only sell bottles in bulk).

Soylent, an all-encompassing food replacement substance, has been met with both passionate criticism and voracious demand. The company claims to reject a food science catered towards “brightly colored foodstuffs packed with fat, salt, and sugar,” and instead puts forth a “complete blend of protein, carbohydrates, lipids, and micronutrients.” Essentially, Soylent is a lab-created consumable liquid intended to maximize the drinker’s time and efficiency, while also attempting to rectify malnutrition and health neglect. Its lofty headline declares that Soylent is the “food that frees you.” The harmless blend forces you to ask the question: Who is the “you,” and are you really free?

The history behind liquid food replacements is long; fifty years ago, doctors ground up normal food and inserted it into feeding tubes to sustain patients too sick to eat. In the early 1960s, NASA began using Tang, a powdered drink formula, and the field of liquid food expanded. Diet liquid meal replacements such as Slimfast and Metrecal permeated the mainstream, which led to the propagation of protein shakes like Muscle Milk in the 90s. But it was only in 2012 that future Soylent CEO Rob Rhinehart and his friends began to see food as a financial burden that needed to be alleviated. They found themselves at the tail-end of a dwindling investment fund for a failing startup project, living off “ramen, corndogs, and frozen Costco quesadillas.” It was then that Rhinehart realized, “you need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself. You need carbohydrates, not bread.” He compiled a list of all the essential nutrients he needed, blended them all together (in powder form), and created the first prototype of Soylent. Using his startup experience, Rhinehart garnered online publicity through his blog and launched Soylent through a Kickstarter. Despite its aggressive advertising campaign, Soylent is more banal than revolutionary, finding its success in marketing prowess over novelty. But amidst a Silicon Valley zeitgeist of “life hacking,” or hyper-maximizing efficiency and productivity, Soylent found an avid, almost cult-like following.

Rhinehart, a 26-year-old Georgia Tech graduate, reflects the Soylent ideology through and through. A self-described “fallen libertarian,” Rhinehart exudes a counterculture questioning of tradition – he once compared the current trendiness of organic and natural foods to the “fundamentalist Christianity” with which he grew up. Rhinehart swears by the power of technology and data driven algorithms, criticizing the “emotional attachment to culture and tradition” that leads people to believe that “just because something is natural it’s good.” Rhinehart decries conventional food production as the “fossil fuel of human energy,” likening its current state to a “market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geopolitical implications.” Because Rhinehart is not just radically anti-food, but also an edgy, anti-traditionalist embedded within a Silicon Valley culture, Soylent can be analyzed as an embodiment of these ideologies – a product potentially uprooting one of humanity’s most primal social rituals: eating.

Rhinehart’s vision for Soylent’s future impacts are grandiose: Its creators see it as the solution to a world where nearly one billion people do not have sufficient access to affordable food while more than two billion people are overweight or obese.” In theory, Soylent, or meal replacement drinks in general, could be efficiently engineered to end “world hunger.” Physiologically, Soylent cuts down on bodily waste because more consumed nutrients are being used, and thus could be incredibly useful in areas lacking in proper sanitation. Pragmatically, $200 buys a month’s worth of Soylent, while the average American spends around $600 a month on food. Nutritionally, Soylent contains hardly any added sugar, saturated fat, or cholesterol. Rhinehart envisions Soylent as the beginning of an era in which food will be seen as a “utility,” just like water and electricity – dependable and consistent (for the most part). He foresees an era in which “people make food just because it’s beautiful,” but go throughout their daily lives drinking Soylent as the bulk of their nutrition.

With such a radical proposition, Rhinehart has received rampant criticism. Cultural critics, for one, have lambasted the loss of humanity found when drinking Soylent, a loss of experiencing food and sharing that experience with others. The pleasure and joy taken from eating is a revered and long held social ritual, the social aspects of which have been extended even further today through social media apps like Yelp and Instagram. Many also note that physical well-being is not solely contingent on simply consuming all necessary nutrients, but closely connected with mental and emotional stability. Soylent excises social interactions and structured daily events like meals that are vital to this stability, placing its drinker in a more isolated daily life.

Foodies have lambasted Soylent’s denial in producing pleasure while eating – the succulent ecstasy in biting into a fresh strawberry or relishing in the umami of a delicious cheeseburger. Eating delectable, fresh, and healthy foods has become deeply imprinted in the minds of adolescents (the educational emphasis on the food pyramid comes first to mind), and society has pushed back heavily against the preservative filled, artificial flavor-laden postwar industrial food system. This pushback has not only contributed to the popularity of Soylent, but it has also led to the growth of farm-to-table, organic, and vegan food movements, all of which can be read as the haute, bourgeoisie antagonist to the purely functional, cheap Soylent – both groups purport to be saving the environment.

According to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend half of their food budgets on food purchased away from home, illustrating the value Americans place on eating food for pleasure. Journalists have continually expressed disgust towards Soylent’s taste, likened to “someone wringing out a dishtowel into a glass,” making it a “punishingly boring, joyless product.” Despite Solyent’s sweeping claims, pleasure is a critical factor in thinking about food, and Soylent decimates that joy.

Others have fixated on Soylent’s “technological hubris,” as it carries out an out-of-touch and dangerous overstepping of scientific bounds. While Soylent is not the only product re-shaping long held traditions, it does occupy a space in the radically burgeoning and elite Silicon Valley imaginary. Soylent, just like Silicon Valley writ large, has been criticized for creating an “empathy vacuum,” or “a distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry.” With the domination of companies like Uber, Amazon, and AirBnB, real economic sectors are becoming decimated, and workers are losing their livelihoods. While Soylent won’t necessarily take people’s jobs (in the near future, at least), it nevertheless reflects this ethos of maximizing productivity through technology.

Soylent occupies a liminal, in-between state in the Silicon Valley imaginary. On the one hand, it  brands itself as the cure to both obesity and malnutrition. On the other, Soylent embodies Silicon Valley’s incessant focus on productivity and “life hacking.” It’s humanitarian ethos, too, may be just a marketing campaign: Soylent’s main customer base consists of tech savvy professionals eager to streamline their workflow. Their recent advertising campaign even utilized an AI spokesperson named Trish, which the Soylent company engineered to also run a dark web store selling items such as a “mystery flavored” Soylent and a beef flavoring kit. Although Soylent has donated to the California Association of Food Banks’ Farm to Family program, its mission centers on replacing the “ecologically destructive” farm industry, which employs over a million people. And more hubris comes in as Soylent tells domestic and international communities riddled with food insecurity that it is the sole panacea to world hunger. It reduces life to an optimization problem and criticizes others for dissenting.

The long term societal impact of meal replacements like Soylent looms large and a moral answer to these questions is hard to pinpoint. On one hand, Soylent has pushed a highly affordable product capable of nourishing the poor, who too often live in food deserts and do not have access to healthy food. On the other hand, Soylent erases deeply symbolic and culturally embedded traditions of eating, and further chips away at the face-to-face communication so important to our mental health. Moreover, the question of Soylent’s position in the Silicon Valley product canon – a trendy, counter-organic, hyper-efficient commodity to be consumed by young professionals – must also be scrutinized. In its most reaching vision, Soylent, or something like it, can be seen as the solution to world hunger, in which the dystopian, minimalist bottles are carted off to countries plagued by poverty. But ultimately, in its current iteration, Soylent simply erodes bourgeois humanity by depriving it of the social joys found in food.

I never fully committed to Soylent, choosing to drink it alongside more tactile, chewy foods. Nevertheless, Soylent performed excellently in regards to my health: over the course of the week, my body felt sustained and satisfied, not missing the regular food I had consumed my entire life. However, even though I made sure to deliberately catch meals with friends when I did eat normal food, I still felt deeply alone after losing the precious mealtime hours devoted to laughter and intimacy. I viscerally understood the importance of banal lunch hours, the necessity of having chronological structure to my day. Luckily for me, however, Soylent was purely an experiment, a privilege I could enjoy alongside other types of nutrition I could afford.

In an interview with The Atlantic, when asked how to overcome the bias behind consuming synthetic foods, Rhinehart answered “with data – lots of data.” The importance of empirical data and scientific breakthroughs is obviously important, but Rhinehart misses out on key human tendencies and emotions – not all of which are efficiently rational. There is a clear disconnect between Soylent in ideology and Soylent in reality, which today reflects what Thorstein Veblen theorized as “Conspicuous Consumption,” a vehicle for concretizing membership in a higher class, which is in this case, well educated young professionals, or those with high amounts of cultural capital. Although noble in intentions, Soylent currently does not stand very far apart from its supposedly diametric enemy: gourmet foodie culture fixated on the free range, vegan, and small farm. However, if Soylent actually lives up to its egalitarian mission, the ensuing benefits might be unimaginably fruitful.


About the Author

Kion You '20 is a Culture Section Staff Writer for the Brown Political Review.