For the past five months, Rob Rhinehart has lived off Soylent, a milky mixture of vitamins and minerals he developed. He says it contains all the human body needs to be completely satiated and nutritionally balanced — and he believes it will change the way we eat.
“It started as a personal need for myself,” says Rhinehart, a 24-year-old software engineer based in San Francisco. “My diet before was pretty poor. I ate mainly convenient cheap foods because I wasn’t really that into food.”
For about a month, Rhinehart researched exactly what the body needs to survive, down to the biochemical level. His mixture is composed of lots of vitamins and minerals including calcium, potassium, zinc, vitamins A, B, C, D, E and K. Check out the full ingredient mixture here. He started testing Soylent on himself, and found it gave him more energy, he lost weight and always felt full. On a trip home to Atlanta, Rhinehart says he came across an elderly neighbor, who had become gaunt with age as he grew too old to continue properly cooking. He realized Soylent might have benefits for other people too.
“It seemed ridiculous that things have gotten so efficient and streamlined and we have come so far, but we haven’t figure out how to get healthy food to everyone,” says Rhinehart. “In San Francisco, the food and health differences between the poorer and more affluent areas are so clear. It’s not that people don’t know what things are healthy and unhealthy. They don’t have the means.”
Some of Rhinehart’s arguments for the adoption of Soylent won’t appeal to everyone. He argues current eating behaviors are inconvenient. “I think people’s relationship with food would be a lot healthier if it was more of an option. People should be working on their education and their career and their passion. If cooking is one’s passion then that’s great, but for a lot of people it’s not,” he says. Besides a few meals on the weekend, Rhinehart only subsists on Soylent.
But when I asked him about whether he sees any potential for Soylent to play a role in public health and combating hunger, he was well versed in the issues of food insecurity and how Soylent could be a part of a greater change. “I think diet has a lot to do with one’s overall health,” he says. “I think it has a lot to do with health care expenditure. I think this could really help preventative care by allowing a lot of the body’s natural mechanisms to keep up and [maintain] the energy it needs to make it a healthy system.” Soylent doesn’t spoil; all the mixture needs is water. So it could not only cut down on food waste but could be easily transported.
Although Soylent sounds like an elixir for good health, dietitians have serious concerns about the lack of evidence to support it.
“The claims he is making are not scientifically substantiated,” says Joy Dubost, a registered dietitian and an Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokeswoman. “The composition of what he has made is not going to be nutritionally adequate. He has made a lot of assumptions, and it is not going to be sustainable by any means for a certain population or even for an individual.”
Nor is Soylent the yummiest thing around, notes Dubost. Many people who’ve tried it have not been fond of the tasteless drink. Taking the pleasurable experience out of eating is counterintuitive because savoring a meal helps release hormones that regulate satiety and suppression of appetite. “If you’re not enjoying your food, chances are, you are going to overeat or undereat,” says Dubost. “I think, in the long run, this isn’t setting someone up to be healthy.”
Watch Rhinehart and his colleagues explain the benefits of Soylent:
Soylent may not be a proven method for better nutrition, but similar nutrient-dense products that do not spoil have become game changers for treating severe malnutrition in developing countries. One of the major products with a 90% success rate in rehabilitating starving and malnourished children is called Plumpy’Nut, a ready-to-use therapeutic paste originally developed by the French company Nutriset. It’s now partnering with several nonprofits to get the product to a wide range of children who need it.
Plumpy’Nut is now one of the most commonly used treatments for kids under age 5 suffering from severe malnutrition in parts of Africa. The product is a high-calorie mixture of peanuts, sugar, milk powder, whey, vitamins and minerals, soy oil and palm oil. The milk powder is a formula called F100 that was developed over 17 years as nutritional rehabilitation for malnutrition. Plumpy’Nut doesn’t need to be refrigerated or mixed with water, which makes it easy to transport and safely consume.
Parents bring their children in to community health centers that distribute Plumpy’Nut for an assessment. If the child is diagnosed with severe malnutrition, they will be instructed to consume two to three packets of the paste each day for seven weeks. At the end of the period, they should be back to solid health.
“A child with severe malnutrition presents either as skin and bones, with what they call baggy pants — when their skin sags on their bottoms — or all their limbs swell. They don’t have an appetite anymore, they don’t cry, they don’t move. The Plumpy’Nut physically changes them within a matter of days,” says Heidi Reed, the communications manager of Edesia, one of the nonprofits in the PlumpyField Network. Edesia provides Plumpy’Nut to buyers like UNICEF, the World Food Program, USAID, Action Against Hunger and other organizations with nutrition programs. The majority of their products are sent and distributed to West Africa and Ethiopia.
According to Edesia, 20 million children in the world are severely malnourished and 35 million are moderately malnourished. Edesia has served 1.2 million children over the past three years.
Could Soylent ever become another solution to the problem? Rhinehart says his company is preparing to serve the U.S. by August and will be staying stateside at the start. But that’s not to say the product won’t eventually be a player abroad.
“I think [Soylent] could have a global impact,” he says. “Food security is a very complex issue. It can take a lot of different approaches and this is not the silver bullet, but I definitely think it could help to some extent. I think we can approach these problems in all different ways, and I see Soylent as being one part in helping towards a solution.”
Dubost isn’t so sure, especially since similar products to improve nutrition, help an individual lose weight or treat malnutrition, typically utilize real food as well, or help transition an individual to solid food. “For malnutrition or weight loss, these products [like Plumpy'Nut] have been derived to meet that population. [Soylent] is taking this and trying to make it a one-size-fits-all approach, and nutrition is not like that at all,” she says.