Soylent: Pragmatic, but Soulless

Unlike other famous meal-replacements such as SlimFast and LeanBody, Soylent isn’t positioned as a weight-loss or bodybuilding tool. Rather it is marketed as a simple drink that covers every human nutritional need in a convenient and cost-effective form. Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Written by Andy Fang

Like most people you want to be friends with, I love food.

Like most people you don’t want to be friends with, I can take it a little too far. I’m the guy who has to resist the urge to namedrop restaurants and photograph everything I eat. In fact, not only do I spend most of my available money on food, but I also spend countless hours poring over restaurant reviews and lurking in the corners of Chowhound. I’m always fiending for a second meal in a gluttonous exercise of my all-American right to eat until I hate myself.

Fulfilling both physical and recreational needs, eating is undoubtedly one of my life’s biggest commitments. So, after reading The New Yorker article titled “The End of Food” about a new trend of replacing cumbersome meals with a drink called Soylent, I was both taken aback and intrigued.

What would my life be if I approached food in a strictly utilitarian way, solely for sustenance and not for pleasure? Would both my digestive system and bank account be relieved? Would it free up hours to study my Corporate Finance notes, or maybe give me time to piece together a reasonable resume? Could I finally get my act together and become one of Stern’s prized future business leaders?

Enter my experiment with Soylent.

Unlike other famous meal-replacements such as SlimFast and LeanBody, Soylent isn’t positioned as a weight-loss or bodybuilding tool. Rather it is marketed as a simple drink that covers every human nutritional need in a convenient and cost-effective form. Founded by Rob Reinhart, a young tech entrepreneur (interestingly not a nutritionist), Soylent was designed as a quick alternative to preparing cheap, healthy yet still palatable food—a rare trifecta in the diets of young adults.

Soylent’s initial product came in a non-perishable powder form. Consumers mixed the powder with water and, voila, dinner was served. Its next product, Soylent 2.0, was designed for the even lazier consumer (me). Packaged in discrete bottles that could be refrigerated, since Soylent is best enjoyed cold, the drink was grab and go.

At less than $3 for every 400 calorie bottle — covering 20% of one’s nutritional needs based on a 2000 calorie diet — the Soylent diet adds up to around $15 a day. I haven’t eaten breakfast since high school and usually don’t start my gorging until late afternoon. So I was lured by the fact that Soylent would allow me to conveniently have a more balanced diet at the average cost of one restaurant meal.

In about a week and a half, 24 bottles of Soylent 2.0 arrived at my front door in two nondescript boxes. I popped a box in the fridge and it was ready to go the next day. But by 2 p.m., I was already regretting my decision to substitute Soylent for Chipotle. Ravenous with hunger, I warily opened my bottle of Soylent 2.0, only to find a thick off-white liquid. Emitting a mild smell simultaneously redolent of both oats and glue, the drink wasn’t terribly offensive, but it also definitely wasn’t mouth-watering.

My first sip left me underwhelmed yet still somewhat impressed. Tasting faintly of cereal milk without any of the sugar, Soylent wasn’t something that my tastebuds had a strong reaction to. This taste (or lack thereof) is said to be a purposeful decision by Reinhart, who wanted to ensure that his product did not have a flavor that consumers could eventually get sick of. Reinhart’s mission in that regard was accomplished for me. I couldn’t see myself getting tired of Soylent. But I also couldn’t see myself ever looking forward to drinking it.

Though I guzzled the bottle down in less than five minutes, I felt as if I had just ingested a decent-sized meal. But that was it—in just about five minutes, I was back to work. I relied on a few more bottles of Soylent to get me through the day and never felt hungry. In fact, there was something reassuring in knowing that a bottle of Soylent to stave off hunger. I felt productive and proactive, like gaming the system somehow — a feeling similar to how I imagine those who undergo polyphasic sleep must feel from only sleeping three hours a day.

Pre-Soylent, when I’d aim for a 30-minute eating affair, it usually stretched to at least hour and a half after accounting for cooking time or waiting for the food at restaurants, not to mention the ensuing unproductivity from food coma-induced lethargy. Plus there was the lead-up to a meal, deliberating what to get and whom to eat with.

With Soylent, my meals became mindless, taking virtually no time. If I really wanted to, I could chug down the bottle in around a minute and move on. This proved especially useful during midterms season when I couldn’t afford to be distracted.

And yet, something felt a little off about my Soylent diet. It seemed almost regressive, like a baby suckling on a bottle of formula. Sure, it was convenient but there was also a degree of thoughtless dependence. Was I more in control over my body now that I wasn’t reliant on food or had I actually lost my autonomy by allowing Soylent to completely dictate my diet?

I believe in some sense “you are what you eat” – that your food choices signify what kind of person you are. When I hear that a friend can take in numbing Sichuan peppercorn-laced noodles without going for water, I’m inclined to think that he is a tenacious adventure seeker. If someone’s favorite food is quinoa, I know that I probably won’t want to get to know him any further. Soylent, with all of its clinical practicality, was devoid of any flavor and thus any cultural history or soul. What, then, did that say about me as the Soylent drinker?

When Soylent became my alternative to sit-down meals with friends, I realized just how big a social role food had played in my life. The Soylent diet became increasingly more joyless and sterile. I also didn’t want to be the eccentric who brought Soylent to restaurants. Ultimately, I realized that I couldn’t completely cut food out of my life; it was simply too deeply ingrained.

Reinhart believes Soylent will be able to end world-hunger and malnutrition. I agree about its potential to do so. The drink is convenient and shelf-stable, and in its powdered form, relatively easy to store and transport. Moreover, the taste, which I still can’t say is as satisfying as halal is, has grown on me in its own blandly comforting way.

Nevertheless, I can’t bring myself to subsist purely on Soylent, no matter how pragmatic the product is.

Though Soylent was great when I was on the go, I now know that there is no perfect substitute for food. When my friends and I want to let loose, sipping bottles of Soylent 2.0 just isn’t the same as inhaling dumplings at our favorite Chinatown hole-in-the-wall. Call me a Luddite but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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