The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete

By Roc Morin

“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.

*  *  *

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.

Soylent.me

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.

So, I understand that you’re living almost entirely on Soylent now.

That’s right.

What was that transition like for you?

Well, for one thing, I did not expect to get healthier. But when I first switched over, I felt amazing. I mean, I never felt that good. I don’t know if there’s any science to detoxing, but that’s kind of how I felt. I felt like I had been hungover, for years, and all of a sudden I was out of it. I mean, my diet was pretty poor before, and some of the benefits probably came from me starting to exercise, but the energy to exercise came from having a better diet. The main thing for me, though, is not having that hassle—not having to worry about food all the time. You know, trying to get myself 2,400 calories every single day in a balanced fashion, avoiding simple sugars and saturated fats, not spending too much money, not spending too much time. That’s a full-time job.

What were some of the discoveries you made along the way?

Well, I started varying a bunch of different parameters, one at a time. People say Americans get too much sodium, so I wondered, how much do I really need? So, I dropped down the sodium and then started to feel very mentally foggy. So, I realized, obviously you need some sodium. And then, I underdosed and overdosed on potassium, and calcium, and magnesium, and phosphorus. And every time, I kept coming back to the levels recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

How did you know you had overdosed or underdosed?

Well, too much potassium was terrible. I had really bad heart arrhythmia. Magnesium poisoning was brutal, really painful. I felt like my insides were burning. It was so bad, I almost gave up. But the next day, when I went back to a normal level, I was fine.

Did that change your outlook at all, to actually experience the importance of each and every nutrient?

Absolutely, just seeing the biological basis of “You are what you eat.” Your body is literally building these proteins out of the things you’re putting in it. What’s fascinating to me is not so much that I can live on something that’s designed deliberately, but how well the body manages to live on the random stuff that we eat. It’s such an adaptable, remarkable system.

So, I’m wondering how efficient you can get with all of this. If you’re consuming only essential nutrients and everything is used, it must cut down on bodily waste significantly. How close can you get to zero waste? 

Well, there will always be something, because waste comes from other places too - dead red blood cells, for example. But if you were as elemental as possible, there would be a very, very small amount, primarily because most of the waste is due to fiber. It’s your gut bacteria. So, if you let those die off, there will be precious little waste. That’s basically what I did by consuming very, very little fiber. And, I felt great. But, when I would try to eat normal food again, it was very, very painful, because I didn’t have the bacteria to digest it. So, that was the trade-off. 

I can see that being helpful in areas without adequate sanitation.

Definitely.

What kinds of things do your critics say?

They say a lot of things. I’ve gotten some pretty nasty emails.

Like what?

I don’t know. They just say they hope that Soylent gives me cancer. 

That’s terrible.

I didn’t mean to offend anybody.  But, people seem a little offended. 

So, who is Soylent’s target audience?

I mean, everyone has to eat, so I think this could help a lot of people. Currently we’re seeing a lot of interest from younger, educated males—people who are just busy or passionate about something. There are a lot of grad students, single parents, and business travelers.

How about the poor or people in developing countries?

Definitely. Especially in places like China, where people are spending half of their income on food. I mean, imagine if you were spending more on food than rent. Right now, Soylent provides about three calories per penny. Hopefully in time we can get the cost down even more. I think in the near future we may be able to get it down to five dollars a day. That would cover someone on food stamps. Ultimately, I would like it to be produced almost ephemerally. If food was just taken care of. If food was just a utility, like water coming out of the tap. If it was just there.

*  *  *

After the interview, I pulled out my camera to take an ironic photograph of Rob in front of a nearby lemon tree.

“Where else would you like to stand?” I asked.

“Maybe it’s a strange request,” he replied, “but how about in front of my new car? I haven’t had a picture taken with it yet.”

“Of course,” I said. “Lead the way.”

Roc Morin

As we walked to the parking lot, I asked if the new car had been bought with money from Soylent’s recent windfall. “It actually came from a Bitcoin investment,” Rob replied. He had seen the potential early on.

As we entered the lot, I scanned the rows for sports cars, trying to guess which was his. Rob strolled over to a beat-up old pickup truck.

“You bought this to haul all your money?” I teased.

He laughed. “It’s useful for hauling all kinds of things.”

After posing for a few photos, Rob climbed in and tried the engine. It just groaned and wheezed. “She does this sometimes,” he explained.

Finally, the pickup roared to life.

“I thought it was going to be a Ferrari,” I yelled over the engine’s racket.

“Ferraris are wasteful!” he shouted back, grinning, as the pickup pulled off and slipped into the endless gridlock of a Beverly Hills afternoon.  

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/04/the-man-who-would-make-food-obsolete/361058/