Growing up, we occasionally would have tacos for dinner. We would carefully assemble each taco with a layer of meat, possibly some beans, then top it with cheese, lettuce and tomato. And then after one bite it would all fall apart on me so I’d end up eating taco salad. Eventually, I ended up just getting a bowl and making the taco salad from the beginning.
I asked my mom, “Why don’t we go one step further? Why not just blend all of the ingredients into a smoothie? Then you could take it with you in the car to soccer practice and it wouldn’t make as much of a mess? Plus, then maybe we could open up a drive-thru restaurant where other busy people could buy our taco paste!”
So we tried it. We put all the ingredients in a blender, mixed it up, and out came this greyish-brown paste. Of course, I claimed to like it, but the texture was a bit unexciting and I never clamored for it again. In the end, it just turned into a Cute Story that my mom would tell other people to give people an idea of the kind of kid I was.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that I became pretty quickly fascinated by Rob Rhinehart’s experiment, known as Soylent, when I first heard about it in the summer of 2013. In February of that year, while working at a startup, Rob had decided to go on an experimental diet designed to contain exactly the chemicals that the FDA recommends in the perfect proportions, combined from their purest forms. In doing this research, for instance, he found that we generally consume far too little potassium in typical diets, and Soylent is designed to fix those imbalances.
Rob promised that if his experiment worked, he would start a crowdfunding campaign to produce Soylent at scale. By the time I signed on in July, it had already blown way past its initial modest goal of $100k, eventually raising $2.1 million in pre-orders like mine.
Perfecting the recipe, sourcing everything, and bringing it up to scale in collaboration with a professional co-packing company took a full year. My one-week order finally arrived in late September, seven powder pouches and seven oil vials. One pouch and one vial contain 2000 calories, or a full day’s worth for a typical adult male, if that’s all you eat. Just add water!
To be perfectly honest, my reaction to opening the first powder pouch was very negative. I basically had to hold my nose to try it for the first time, and the grainy texture was a big turn-off. I was tempted to give up, but decided I needed to give it a few more chances first. Indeed, both that negative reaction to the powder and the texture improved to non-issues with time and additional shaking.
The other two things I noticed were that it was incredibly bland, and strangely filling. It’s basically a dilute smoothie (the thickness can be changed by adding more or less water, but in order to dissolve/suspend all the powder, you really can’t make it too thick), and yet just a small glass of it made me feel full. The taste was very muted, but slightly sweet. This was actually a little bit annoying – it made the prospect of Soylent for dinner about as appealing as eating cereal for dinner had been previously.
Soylent therefore naturally took over my breakfasts, replacing the sugary cereals of my childhood and the slightly less sugary cereals of my adulthood. With a bit of strawberry syrup stirred in, I even began to look forward to the familiar pattern of sitting down in the mornings with a glass of Soylent and doing my morning devotionals. It tends to make me feel energized for the day in a more sustainable, healthy and even tasty way than breakfast cereals had.
Satisfied with the prospect of Soylent for breakfasts, I decided to subscribe to a 7-day subscription every month. My second monthly shipment was of Soylent 1.1, for which they halved the sugar. Part of why I waited this long to write this post is because I wanted to see what changes the new version would bring. But then they came out with Soylent 1.2, which replaces the fish oil source with algae, making Soylent simultaneously vegan and closer to the claimed sourcing of Soylent Green. And they’ve already begun shipping 1.3, which changes the source of potassium to improve the flavor. I anticipate that it’ll keep changing, as they try to make it gluten-free (oat flour is too easily contaminated in the copacker facility).
Anyways, I had hoped that the lower sugar in 1.1 would make it easier to eat Soylent for lunch or dinner, but I still haven’t figured out the best way to do this yet. Soylent by itself is boring, like eating bread or something. I guess one of the appeals of 90+% Soylent diets is that you get used to it and adjust your expectations, but at the 30-40% level I’ve been at, it’s hard to get excited about a meal of regular Soylent.
To make lunches and dinners more interesting, I’ve been experimenting with different savory mixes. Here’s what I’ve tried:
1) Peanut butter with a bit of chocolate syrup. It tasted a bit like a Clif Bar, which was pretty good, but got old by the time I finished the meal. Or maybe I just don’t like peanut butter that much. Or maybe I blended too much in. Anyways, it’s definitely worth trying again.
2) Hummus and vegetables (lettuce and tomato). I initially thought this would be a great idea since I like hummus, but it’s actually a little bit of a weird flavor to drink, essentially watered down. I’ve needed to supplement the meal with croutons (crackers probably work, too) in order for it to feel right, but it’s still a meal I don’t really look forward to. The lettuce and tomatoes I added (using up leftovers) ended up contributing an unpleasant aftertaste. Still a lot of work to do here.
More ideas I’d like to try:
3) Tomato sauce with Italian seasoning
4) Asian spices (oyster sauce or soy sauce?)
5) Taco seasoning (coming full circle!)
If/when I try these out or improve my previous flavor attempts, I’ll write a new post about what I’ve learned from them. For the rest of this post, I’d like to address some common questions I’ve heard, although they’ve significantly died down since my Soylent actually arrived.
Q: But you’re giving up food! Don’t you love food?
A: I do love food – that’s why I’m only giving up some meals. I still get at least four free meals a week, so I’m not giving any of those up. Instead, I’m really only replacing the meals that used to be cereal, Chipotle burritos or cooking alone. Chipotle is expensive ($8/meal to Soylent’s $3), and cooking alone is time-consuming or gives you the same meal all week.
At some point, though, I was looking at a string of meals at home, and I didn’t have any good savory Soylent ideas I wanted to try out yet, so I just made some casserole for myself to last a few days. I’ll probably go back to cooking now that I have a girlfriend to cook with.
Q: But what about the nutrients we haven’t discovered yet? We don’t know everything!
A: No, we don’t, but it’s not like we were sure that Chipotle burritos had those nutrients either. Eating food that tries to cover all of my vitamin and mineral needs is pretty much strictly better than food that simply hopes to, and in any case, I haven’t gone 100% Soylent so it’s not that big a concern.
Q: How do you mix it up so it doesn’t stick to the sides and bottom?
A: In your first order of Soylent, they give you an airtight pitcher to mix it in. I start with some water, then add all of the powder, then more water and I mix it up. Then I add the oil and shake it extensively again. It’s best cold, but mixed at room temperature, so I have to prepare it ahead of time and store it in my fridge. This usually isn’t too much of a problem.
Q: How long does it last?
A: The powder and oil packets last basically forever. The mix lasts a few days, definitely safe within 2-3 days after you make it but I noticed a color change after a week once. This does mean that in order to eat a full day’s packet before it goes bad, I need to get one non-breakfast Soylent meal every few days. Or I could mix up less than a full day’s packet, but the partitioning involved has made me too lazy to bother.
Q: Is this stealth veganism? Are you going to start wearing those shoes with toes in them and get white boy dreds and use a crystal rock as a deodorant?
A: Besides the Colbert link, I’ve been somewhat fascinated by Rob’s relationship with the foodie craze in San Francisco, where he worked in the startup scene. As this fascinating New Yorker essay delves into, Rob grew up as a creationist, and spent his senior thesis at a small Christian high school trying to prove creationism was right. Instead, it had the opposite effect and he ended up rejecting not just creationism, but his faith in God.
“Organic-food nuts remind him of himself as a believer. ‘Everyone’s like, “The natural, organic way is the best.” And it sounded a lot like fundamentalist Christianity,’ he told me,” the article explains. (This may or may not have been an excuse to use a triple quotation.) This similarity deserves a much longer discussion, but I think it explains that while Soylent might seem like it came from the same place as Whole Foods and the paleo diet, it’s actually a reaction against them. On the specific question Colbert posed, Soylent isn’t vegan for the sake of animal suffering, but because vegan diets are energetically efficient.
Q: Can I try some?
A: Because of a mistake in shipping and being gone for a month, I now have a rather large stockpile of Soylent in Cambridge. If you’re in the area, I’d love to give you a packet and a vial to mix up (or sell it to you for $10 if you’d prefer). Once I’ve tried out a variety of flavors that actually taste decent, I’m thinking of holding a tasting session, and if I do, I’ll announce it on Facebook.
[Update 3/23: As a product in rapid development, Soylent has been changing pretty quickly. This initial review was based on my experience with Soylent 1.0-1.2, but the biggest changes appear to be in Soylent 1.4. One friend who’s tried it says it’s much better, and even tastes like milk, probably because they incorporated the fats into the powder. Once I get a chance to try it, I’ll let you know what I think.]