Before we look at Soylent, let's run through a few commercial meal replacement powders and drinks that have come before. Infants, for instance, have been eating nutrient-rich formulas since 1865 [source: Stevens et al.]. Nowadays, doctors prescribe nutritional drinks like Ensure and Boost to patients who have difficulty preparing and eating their own meals or who need extra nutrition, like the elderly or patients recovering from surgery and illness. Even average adults use meal replacements: Weightlifters slug down protein shakes like Muscle Milk after pumping iron, while Slim-Fast shakes are intended to help folks cut calories and meet weight-loss goals.
Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart, however, fits a different demographic. In 2012, as a software engineer living in San Francisco, he was growing tired of the costs and obligations of grocery shopping, cooking and cleaning after meals. In his spare time, he studied nutrition and looked for ways to streamline the act of eating, speculating that he could build a healthy diet based around pills and powders that he could order online and combine in a blender.
Using himself as a guinea pig (and under the careful supervision of a doctor), he spent a month living off of a concoction that he dubbed Soylent. In a 2013 blog post titled "How I Stopped Eating Food," Rhinehart detailed his overwhelmingly positive experiences: He lost more than 10 pounds and said his intellectual and athletic performance improved, all while spending $154.82 total on groceries and five minutes a day on preparation. And the drink itself, he said, was a "sweet, succulent, hearty meal in a glass" [source: Rhinehart].
The post went viral, and Rhinehart, along with co-founders Matt Cauble, David Renteln and John Coogan, decided to make Soylent into a commodity: a food that was nutritious, inexpensive, easy to prepare, derived from sustainable sources and could be consumed as a primary source of nourishment. They attracted investments from venture capitalists and more than $3 million in crowdfunding [source: Westmore]. After fine-tuning a commercial version of Soylent, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved it as a food (rather than a dietary supplement) in January 2014. By that May, Rosa Labs — the Los Angeles-based firm that produces Soylent — shipped its first batches for mass consumption.