Large-scale agriculture is implicated in antibiotics resistance, environmental destruction, greenhouse-gas release, and other pollution. Animal husbandry’s ecological footprint is of particular concern. Each of us eats 200 pounds of meat each year (a historical high) and 30 pounds of cheese. For these reasons, Soylent drinkers are willing to bet the future is mostly vegan and dirt-cheap.
This is not the first time the full complement of nutrients has been attempted in a single drink. At intensive care units around the world, for example, up to 40% of patients are malnourished, which leads to weakened breathing and immune function. Patients incapable of feeding themselves are tube fed with polymeric enteral formulas. A standard formula is enriched with nutrients specific to the patient’s needs—fish oils for respiratory distress, glutamine for severe burns, motility agents, and immune-enhancing additives.
Soylent is promoted on a platform of personal responsibility. The idea is that the gluttonous variety of the grocery store is not only destroying us health-wise, it also represents the decadence of a society in decline. The fact that more than 70% of American adults are overweight is just a symptom of our broader overconsumption of resources.
But creating a full, healthy long-term diet for an active person is a larger challenge. Soylent’s attempt at reinventing this particular wheel produced quite a different model. While hospital tube feeding products often resemble old-school baby formula—milk powder, sugar, some form of oil—Soylent is all vegan. The liquid version is based on tapioca-derived starch, soy protein, algal oil, and beet sugar.
There are exactly 25% of recommended nutrients like vitamin A and chromium in each of the four daily meals. This suggests that instead of being assessed by nutritional testing, the recipe itself was designed according to the test criteria. In criticism of this approach, numerous nutritionists have decried the arrogance of reducing the needs of humans to the list of currently understood nutrients. Since the first ship captain loaded up a ship’s cargo with biscuits and then wondered why his crew came down with scurvy, diets have mostly been a trial and error experiment—physiological understanding is improving all the time.
What those nutritionists don’t mention is that they wouldn’t touch today’s standard diet with a ten-foot pole either.
North Americans are simultaneously overweight and malnourished, and a diet like Soylent, for all of its flaws, provides less of the problem ingredients like sugar and cholesterol and more of the nutrients. With clinical studies still pending, no responsible nutritionist could or would approve Soylent more strongly than the recommended food group guidelines. But a review of the ingredients reveals that the liquid concoction conforms to Michael Pollan’s health advice: “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.” That is, if you can call it food.