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Your new meal replacement ereader
Your new meal replacement ereader
Every year, I tend to cook at least one really, really terrible meal. I once served undercooked chicken, still pink in the middle, to a pregnant woman. Another time, I was invited to help prepare a banana curry at a friend’s house; a fury so hot, nobody could touch it without their eyes watering, let alone taste the thing. When I tried making vegetable moussaka, I ended up giving myself food poisoning.
But, do you know what? It didn’t really matter. In most cases it was funny. We would chuck the stuff in the bin and order in a takeaway, laughing at how awful the whole thing was. And that is the thing about food: a good meal isn’t about what you eat; it is about who you eat it with.
And then there is Soylent.
At first, it might seem as though Soylent challenges all that we understand about food. Soylent is a beige, largely flavourless, nutrient drink that is poised to revolutionise the way we think about one of our most basic functions — the need to eat. It is not just another of these meal replacement products you see in fitness centres and slimming clubs: it is a complete food replacement, designed to be easy to make, cheap and above all nutritionally perfect. It is weird; but it may well be the future.
Soylent is the brainchild of Rob Rhinehart, a software developer in the US, who decided that cooking for one was too much effort, fast food was too expensive and too unhealthy and that the challenge of formulating and maintaining a balanced diet from the complex range of foodstuffs available to us is inefficient and wasteful. So, he decided to read up on nutrition and use his software engineering team to develop a replacement for food: Soylent.
The name of the product comes from the 1966 sci-fi novel, *Make Room! Make Room!*, written by Harry Harrison. The book is set in a rather bleak vision of 1999 where the world is ravaged by food shortages and overpopulation. In this world, the people resort to ingesting meals made of a combination of soya and lentil — known as soylent. Soylent takes a bit of a back seat to the rest of the action in the novel, serving mainly as a symbol of the struggle to keep everybody fed. It is this aspect of the fictional foodstuff that inspired Rhinehart and his team to develop their own version. The fictional product took much more of a central role in the 1973 film, *Soyent Green*, a Charlton Heston action thriller where his character, Robert Thorn uncovers the hideous truth that the food so loved by the people is in fact made from the bodies of the dead. The film ends with good old Heston screaming out ‘Soylent Green is people!’ as he is dragged out of shot on a stretcher.
Maybe not the best tagline to have associated with your new product.
Nevertheless, what the Soylent team are trying to do is ambitious to say the least. The porridge-like liquid is supposed to provide “all of the essential nutrients required to fuel the human body”. It wants its users to be able to make “multiple meals in minutes”, and all with the minimal amount of cost.
The potential is huge, and not just for the western world where it will no doubt help us overcome our addiction to high fat food. Until it is combined with water, the raw product has an impressive shelf life. This, combined with a low price that is sure to get even lower as the product gains success and competitors, will make it an excellent option to provide sustenance for disaster hit areas. It could also reduce the environmental impact of food. A powdered product will always weigh less that its hydrated version and much less than the amount of ‘normal’ food needed to provide a similar level of nutrients. Because of this, the fossil fuel energy needed to ship the product to your door could potentially be much less.
I have been having Soylent for one meal a day for the past four months. Well, sort of. The actual product has only been available to buy for the last few weeks — and, even then, only in the US. And this is where things get interesting. Rhinehart released his original recipe to the public. Anyone can take a look at it. A whole home-brew community has grown up around Rhinehart’s vision for Soylent. Anyone can chip in, share their recipes and improve on others in friendly competition to see who can develop the most nutritionally perfect food from ingredients available to the general public. I’ve even made one myself. And it tastes pretty good, even if I do say so myself. It’s a little like a thick vanilla milkshake crossed with a bowl of porridge. Lovely.
All in all, this could truly be a food revolution; if it weren’t for one tiny issue: the cultural change.
When I speak to people about Soylent, their first impression is invariably one of disgust. There is something about food that shakes us to the very core when something is perceived to threaten the way that we eat. We see it whenever new advice is given out about what we should, and should not, be eating: people panic or mock or ignore anything that threatens to change the way that we should be eating. Beyond any other product I have come across, Soylent does this. We enjoy what we eat, and the thought of gulping down an off-white, bland gloop doesn’t tend to set people’s tastebuds tingling.
But what is more disturbing to people is the way they think it might threaten the social side of eating. Eating together, I am repeatedly told, is what keeps family together and helps us make new friends goods friends. Eating is one thing we all have in common. It is one of the most fundamental experiences of being human. Soylent, it would seem, negates the necessity of having to sit down and stop to eat. Instead of your lunch break, you can just keep on working safe in the knowledge that all of your bodily needs are met. What a bleak and depressing future that would be.
But that’s just it: Soylent isn’t trying to do that. In actual fact, it may well just do the opposite.
One of the interesting things about Soylent is that it tastes, well, like Soylent. There isn’t a strawberry, chocolate or Willy-Wonka-style roast dinner flavour option available. No doubt, at some point in the future, one of the food giants such as Unilever may well recognise the potential for catering food to the precise nutritional needs of their customers and produce a range of Soylent-style meals and snacks. After all, if they can grow a burger in a lab, they can probably work out a way to make it good for us on the molecular level a well. But for now, if you want to drink Soylent, it is going to taste like Soylent.
A recent interview with Rhinehart in The New Yorker, gave a clue as to the proper intended purpose of Soylent. “Most of people’s meals are forgotten,” says Rhinehart. Instead of filling out time and emptying our wallets with these forgotten foods, he believes we will someday find ourselves in a future where “we’ll see a separation between our meals for utility and function, and our meals for experience and socialization.” This has certainly been my experience. All too often, I find that my lunchtimes are eroded away by short, five minute meetings and quick dashes to the photocopier while I make preparations for the afternoon’s presentations. My food would either go uneaten, or would be wolfed down double speed, giving me indigestion or heartburn for the afternoon. I eat quite a lot, so while I would be in the staff room, my mouth would normally be too full to make any kind of polite conversation without spraying my colleagues with lightly chewed sandwich crumbs.
Taking Soylent to work has meant that I can sip my lunch as though it were any normal drink. I have been able to have more and better conversations and I’ve even been able to join in more with the crossword without chocking myself on whatever it was I was trying to eat.
Soylent doesn’t mean the end of meeting for mealtimes. If anything, it has made me pay greater attention to the meals I do share with those I love. Real food has become a real treat rather than a utility. Meals become even more of an event. I’m also a lot more aware of what it is that is going into my food, right down to the molecular level. It has shown me how wonderful the human body is that it manages to get what it needs to survive from the chemical mess of what we feed ourselves. And it has given me more time and less stress over my mealtimes at work. I’m not sure I would ever want to give it up.
But none of this will have convinced you to take it up. There will still be something about it, I am certain, that doesn’t sit right with you. That’s fine: because Soylent is your new meal replacement ereader. There was a time when readers were dismissed as a fad. Nobody would ever give up the pleasure of a real book, the feel of its pages, or the look of their spines along the bookcase to stare at yet another screen. Soylent won’t be the end of food any more than ereaders have been the end of books. We will always have that need to meet and eat with others or stop off with a friend for a quick coffee and these are elements of human nature that Soylent will never replace. But, having said that, I know an awful lot of former skeptics hanging around with Kindles.