How Soylent Works


Dinner's ready, and it's never been so easy and quick to make!
Dinner's ready, and it's never been so easy and quick to make!
Courtesy of Soylent

Inside a small pouch bearing a nutrition label and a simple logo is a powder that contains all the food you need for the day. You tear open the pouch, pour the powder into a pitcher of water, and shake the concoction like a can of spray paint until you've created a frothy, beige brew.

You take a swig, squint your eyes and search for the right words to describe the food that just passed your lips. Some have compared it to Cream of Wheat and Metamucil or a vanilla milkshake with the consistency of pancake batter. Others, less charitably, say its taste registers somewhere between cardboard and chalk. More often than not, a sip is met with indifferent words like "neutral" and "bland."

You might not know what it tastes like, but you can't forget what it is: Soylent. To its proponents, Soylent is the antidote for the hassles of a conventional diet. Instead of spending money at the grocery store and time slaving over the stove and the sink, with Soylent, you have a one-stop, healthy, convenient source of nutrition that's ready in seconds and costs a fraction of your average grocery bill. By breaking free of those dietary obligations, Soylent consumers have more time for work, play and other pursuits while still consuming a nutritious diet. In fact, those proponents say, you could lead a healthy life on Soylent alone.

But even though Soylent has garnered plenty of interest — more than 3 million "meals" have been sold in the United States since its commercial release — some question whether Soylent lives up to its claims [source: Westmore].

We're going to take a closer look at Soylent: its ingredients, how to buy it and why you might be skeptical that it's the only food you'd ever need. But first, we're going to look at the origins of Soylent and the Silicon Valley software engineer who decided he didn't want to have to cook ever again.

Christine Cox/HowStuffWorks

The Origins of Soylent

Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart is passionate about his product.
Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart is passionate about his product.
Courtesy of Soylent

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.

Soylent Ingredients and Nutrition

Potassium gluconate is just one part of what makes up Soylent.
Potassium gluconate is just one part of what makes up Soylent.
Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images

Taste isn't Soylent's main attraction. Instead, the guiding principles behind its ingredients are convenience, low cost and healthful nutrition. It can be used as a standalone food or as an occasional supplement to a conventional diet. Because the ingredients are entirely derived from plant sources, they require fewer resources to produce. And for places hit by climate-change-induced catastrophes, war and other circumstances that restrict access to healthy food, Soylent could be a cheap, healthy, easy-to-transport source of nutrition.

Including Soylent's initial release, Rosa Labs has issued five different versions of the product, with each iteration reflecting updates to the formula: Switching the primary source of fatty acids from fish oil to algal oil, reducing sweetness, and tweaking the balance of macronutrients (energy-giving substances like protein, carbohydrates, and fat) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals that help regulate bodily functions). Chances are, more changes will come in the future.

Here, we're going to look at Soylent 1.4, the version available as of April 2015. Each 500-calorie serving — a quarter of a standard 2,000-calorie pouch and the recommended size for a "meal" — contains [source: Soylent]:

  • 24 grams of fat (3 grams saturated fat)
  • 51 grams of carbohydrates (4 grams fiber, 11 grams sugar)
  • 21 grams of protein
  • Micronutrients like potassium, vitamin C, and copper in percentage values based on a 2,000-calorie diet ranging from 17 percent (sodium) to 30 percent (calcium)

In terms of the ingredients themselves, Soylent is derived from brown rice, oat flour, isomaltulose (a type of sugar found in honey and sugar cane juice), potato starch, rice starch, cellulose, sucralose, high oleic sunflower oil, soy lecithin, flaxseed and safflower oil, algal oil, and a specialized vitamin-and-mineral blend. The formula contains very little sugar or saturated fat, and no cholesterol.

All of the ingredients are generally recognized as safe by the Food and Drug Administration [source: Soylent]. However, Soylent is not organic or kosher, it contains ingredients that come from genetically modified sources, in addition to gluten and soy. Additionally, the health effects on people with diabetes, Crohn's disease, or similar health conditions are unknown. The bottom line: If you're thinking of giving Soylent a try, talk to your doctor first.

Now that you know what's in Soylent, let's say you've decided to give it a test run. Where can you buy it, and how much do you need to purchase?

Ordering a Supply of Soylent

Soylent devotees trade recipe tweaks like adding berries, cocoa powder or even just plain ol' sugar to add a bit of flavor.
Soylent devotees trade recipe tweaks like adding berries, cocoa powder or even just plain ol' sugar to add a bit of flavor.
habovka/iStock/Thinkstock

As of April 2015, Soylent is available only in the United States through its official website. Orders come in seven-, 14- and 28-pouch increments. The cost ranges between $70 and $300 an order, depending on the quantity and subscription discounts [source: Soylent].

To figure out how much to order, you need to determine two things: how many calories you need each day and how many of them you want to ingest from Soylent. You'll get the most accurate idea of your calorie needs from a dietitian, but you can get in the right ballpark with Soylent's online calculator, which estimates your daily calorie target based on age, weight, height, gender, lifestyle and goals.

Next, decide how often you're planning to consume Soylent: Are you just going to slug down a glass of the beige stuff when you wake up in the morning, or are you going to bid farewell to solid food? (Also, keep in mind that sealed Soylent pouches last more than a year.) If you're a 30-year-old, 180-pound (81.6-kilogram) male who exercises four times a week and you want to maintain your weight while eating Soylent for a week straight, for example, you'd need 2,574 calories a day or 18,018 calories a week — equivalent to just over nine Soylent pouches.

Your first order should arrive within four weeks and includes a 64-ounce (1.9 liter) pitcher and a 4.5-fluid-ounce (133-milliliter) measuring scoop. Preparing a full day's worth of Soylent takes seconds, but remember to refrigerate it and drink it all within 48 hours. Here's the rundown [source: Soylent]:

  1. Fill the pitcher halfway with water (about 0.42 gallons, or 1.6 liters). For the best taste, use filtered or distilled water.
  2. Pour in the Soylent powder, seal the pitcher and shake for 30 seconds.
  3. Open the pitcher, top off with water and shake again to eliminate the remaining powder clumps.
  4. Refrigerate the mixture to 41 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) or below before serving, or pour over ice if serving immediately.
  5. If you're preparing a smaller amount on its own, use the scoop to prepare Soylent at a ratio of one part Soylent to two parts water. Combine using a spoon, shaker bottle or blender.

Now that we have a working understanding of the basics of Soylent, let's find out what the experts have to say about it.

Soylent From a Dietitian's Perspective

Before you dive headfirst into the Soylent lifestyle, it's probably best to consult a doctor or nutritionist.
Before you dive headfirst into the Soylent lifestyle, it's probably best to consult a doctor or nutritionist.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Thinkstock

While Soylent makes no official claims of its product's health benefit beyond offering balanced nutrition, others have filled message board threads with praise for Soylent as the key to fat loss, increased energy, sharper mental focus and even improved sleep. But what do the experts have to say?

"If someone wants to supplement their diet, maybe skip a meal and use [Soylent] instead. That could potentially be OK if it's under the supervision of a dietitian," Dr. Joy Dubost, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a registered dietitian, said during an interview.

However, the notion that Soylent can safely be the sole source of sustenance for long or interminable periods of time makes Dubost suspicious. That's because no peer-reviewed studies or clinical trials have been conducted on Soylent's long-term risks and benefits.

As a result, Dubost and other experts are skeptical that Soylent's constituent parts are adequate replacements for a healthy diet full of whole foods, that Soylent can elicit the same hormonal cues that help us govern our appetites, or that its balance of nutrients could really be an all-purpose meal for a broad range of ages, lifestyles and activity levels. (Athletes, for example, require more protein per kilogram of bodyweight than desk jockeys.) Soylent also doesn't contain the same array of nonessential nutrients in a healthy diet that have been proven to help ward off chronic disease. "They're making nutrition a one-size-fits-all approach, and nutrition doesn't work that way," Dubost said.

Skipping out on traditional meals means missing out on the experiences that surround them too, whether it's a turkey dinner at grandma's house or a Michelin-starred meal in Provence. "We don't just eat for nutrition; we eat for enjoyment and the sensory experience that food brings," Dubost said. To be clear, Rhinehart doesn't despise conventional food: "I suppose you could live on [Soylent] entirely, but why would you want to? Leisure food is an important part of life and culture" [source: Rhinehart].

Furthermore, Dubost said, while abstaining from food can lead to eating disorders, family dinners help strengthen children's eating habits and enhance familial relationships — and our ancestors would have shaken their heads at a society that considered cooking and eating food to be a burden. "How fast-paced has the world gotten that we can't sit down and have a meal anymore and enjoy it?"

Author's Note: How Soylent Works

I've been looking for ways to automate my morning routine after rolling out of bed, and settling on a simple, staple breakfast is a crucial aspect of that. While it's usually a Greek yogurt mixed with steel-cut oats, based on Soylent's nutritional profile, substituting a meal-replacement drink might be a good alternative. That said, an all-Soylent diet isn't for me: Give me take-out, or give me death.

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More Great Links

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