“I was 6 or 7,” Rob Rhinehart began, “and I guess my mother was serving salad. I was looking down at a plate with these leaves on it. I could look outside and see leaves on the trees, and it just seemed a little weird. It seemed a little primitive - like something an animal would do. On this nice plate, in this nice house, why would I eat this thing that grows on trees? I thought, ‘We can do better.’”
“Better,” for the now 25-year-old Rhinehart, is Soylent, a beige beverage that he claims contains every nutrient the body needs. With tongue firmly in cheek, he named it after the ubiquitous food substitute Soylent Green found in the dystopian science fiction movie of the same name. For 30 days, the software engineer turned kitchen chemist consumed nothing but Soylent and reported his progress on a blog. With the help of an enthusiastic online community, he honed his formula, raised $3 million from investors, and is now bringing his product to the market.
I sat down with Rob at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles in January to talk about the future of food. He drank black coffee while I sipped Soylent from a chilled metal thermos he had brought.
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This is pretty good. It tastes a bit like unsweetened custard.
What I’ve found is that a lot of people who like the idea, like the taste, and a lot of people who don’t like the idea are repelled by the taste. Because it has so little intrinsic taste, it pretty much comes from your expectation.
I have to say, of all places, I was surprised that you invited me to a restaurant.
[Laughter] I mean, where else are we going to meet? All of our societal rituals revolve around eating.
And you’d like to change that?
I’m looking forward to the point where we don’t have to worry about hunger, or nutrition. Where people make food just because it’s beautiful—like gardening, or painting. I’m looking forward to the point where food can just be art.
When I first heard about Soylent—one substance designed to fulfill all nutritional needs—I thought it sounded a lot like breast milk.
That’s a good point.
Have you looked at the similarities?
I have, and actually I’m even more interested in the similarities between breast milk and formula. As far as safety control and completeness are concerned, formula is actually better. Natural isn’t always best.
So, why do you think there’s a such a strong movement pushing for natural and unprocessed food?
Mostly I think there’s just an emotional attachment to culture and tradition. People have this belief that just because something is natural it’s good. The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life.
I hear emotion in your appeal as well. Do you resent having to eat?
You know, with my body, I just don’t want it to be a burden. I would rather enjoy things because I want to, not because I have to.
So, how do you overcome that bias against consuming something as synthetic as Soylent?
With data—lots of data. If you talk to biologists or doctors, you’ll see that the biochemical pathways are the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re consuming fresh vegetables or a multivitamin because the nutrients are exactly the same. We make our eating decisions pretty shallowly. It’s mostly based on what it looks like, what it smells like, and what we grew up eating. There’s not a lot of in-depth analysis. Food is very complicated. It’s made of thousands of different chemicals and it’s not really pragmatic to test all of them individually.
So, even something as basic as an apple or a tomato…
I mean, honestly, nutritionally speaking, canned vegetables are better than fresh ones because fresh ones are decaying. They’re out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them. But if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact. So, it seems kind of backwards I think, actually, to go for fresh. Why are these foods seen as healthy? Looking at all of these hundreds of different plant metabolites, that’s kind of missing the point because a lot of those things that have been tested are harmful. It’s just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side. These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It’s competition.
Many of them do. I’ve got a book called Poisonous Plants of North America on my shelf and it’s a pretty thick book.
Right. The only reason we eat most of the plants that we do is because we’ve changed them. We’ve engineered them over hundreds if not thousands of years. You know, the carrot is a new invention. Lettuce changed, cauliflower changed, bananas definitely changed. Bananas are not supposed to taste as good as they do. Carrots look and taste better after we steered their evolution. It makes a lot of sense to optimize them to be more effective.
It’s funny that you mention the carrot, since it’s so closely related to water hemlock, one of the world’s most poisonous plants.
Tapioca too. If you ate a raw cassava plant, it’s toxic. It has to be processed. All of these old traditional cooking processes are about making the plant less toxic.
Right, even though paradoxically, cooking often produces a lot of carcinogens.
It does. Especially if things get burned. And, you know, there’s very poor control of produce. If something’s coming from a garden or a field, you don’t know how much lead or arsenic is in the soil.
And with Soylent, you’re able to know exactly what you’re consuming at all times, right?
Precisely. We have testing data about everything in there. Everything is tested rigorously. We worry about a lot of things so that the user doesn’t have to.