Tim Ferriss Intro
Hundreds of people have asked me about Soylent, a controversial Silicon Valley team trying to replace food with a grayish liquid.
“Does it really deliver all the nutrients the human body needs?”
“Is it safe?”
“Why hasn’t anyone tried this before?” [Hint: they have]
And most often: “What do you think of Soylent?”
Serendipitously, four or so weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Shane Snow, a frequent contributor to Wired and Fast Company:
I’m sure you have seen the buzz about the food-hacking movement, where a couple of Silicon Valley techies have been creating Matrix-style food replacement formulas for “optimum” chemical nutrition. Soylent.me, in particular, has been buzzing like crazy, having raised $800k in a Kickstarter-like campaign.
But nobody (besides the creators) has gotten his or her hands on any yet.
Naturally, we had to do an experiment.
This post describes the longest non-employee trial of Soylent to date (two weeks without food), including before-and-after data such as:
– Comprehensive blood panels
– Body weight and bodyfat percentage
– Cognitive performance
– Resting heart rate
– Galvanic skin response
I share my thoughts in the AFTERWORD and occasionally in brackets, but this article focuses on Shane’s experience and data. Please also note that this is *not* a Soylent take-down piece. I hope they succeed.
That said, there are some issues. I expect the debate on Soylent to be fierce, so please leave your thoughts in the comments. I’ll encourage the Soylent founders to answer as many questions as they can. From all sides, I’m most interested in studies or historical precedent that can be cited, but logical arguments are fine.
Also, a quick clarification: There is a bit of soy lecithin (an emulsifier) in Soylent, but soy is not a main ingredient, which is understandably confusing.
Enjoy the fireworks…
It’s seven a.m. on a Wednesday, and I am in my kitchen staring at a bag of flour. A crinkly, metallic bag with a blue, Superman-style “S” logo glued to it. With no scissors handy in my one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, I’ve managed to tear the bag open roughly with my teeth, inhaling a blend of oatey sawdust that, when mixed with water, will be my sustenance for the next two weeks.
I stare at it, thinking about all the pizza I won’t be eating, and the donuts Rebecca from the office will surely set out on the table next to my desk. But, I had all those things last night as a parting gift to my taste buds, so I sigh, pour the flour mix into a 2-litre pitcher of cold water, and shake.
This is Soylent. Not the cannibalistic “Soylent Green” that Charlton Heston weeps about in the 1970s sci-fi movie, nor the soy and lentil “soylent” steaks in Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel, Make Room! Make Room!. This is Soylent, the tasteless, odorless food replacement drink that a kid in California—who raised a million bucks from strangers like me—invented to take food out of our daily equation and, ambitiously, cure world hunger. This is the Soylent that geeks in Silicon Valley have been buzzing about for the better part of a year, and the Soylent that various nutritionists have attacked with dire arguments of Ad Hominem mixed with Appeal to Authority. This is the Soylent whose inventor, Rob Rhinehart claims has made him fitter, more alert, and more productive, after having drank it semi-exclusively for about seven months.
… and it tastes like oatmeal water. Not bad, I admit as I gulp down half a Nalgene bottle’s worth for my first of many non-breakfasts with the stuff. I fill a second Nalgene to drink after work, and leave the Fedex box with a dozen more crinkly bags on the kitchen counter as I lock the apartment door behind me.
On the surface, Rhinehart, a 24-year-old entrepreneur and engineer, seems an unlikely person to invent such a concoction. I had reached out to him months ago after reading his blog, where he moaned about how time consuming cooking and eating food is for him, and documented the development of a meal replacement in the vein of the amino acid goop served on board The Nebuchadnezzar in The Matrix. But when we met up a few weeks ago in Brooklyn, Rhinehart became in my mind the most likely person to invent such a drink. Quiet, earnest, with the precise diction of someone smarter than any of your friends (unless you hang out at science poetry slams), Rhinehart strikes you as the kind of obsessive introvert who really doesn’t have the patience for food and just might be willing to cram a decade of biology and chemistry into his head during Winter Break to invent a cure for it.
Basically, he’s a hacker. He’s just taking that hacker’s mindset to the human body.
“People see some credential as this binary thing,” he explained to me about why he’s qualified to do this. “The formal path is really inefficient.” But by devouring textbooks and seeking mentorship from master chemists and nutritionists, and bringing his experience in electronics manufacturing (which turns out to be strangely analogous to mass-producing supplements), he had successfully reverse-engineered—at a molecular level—exactly what the human body needs out of food. He claimed, at least.
And that’s where the nutritionists and whole foodies start to freak out. As Rhinehart published his findings and geared up to take his chemical smoothie to market (the natural thing for a Silicon Valley-ite to do upon inventing anything), the objections started to chunkily pour in like mineral-packed oat-water in a Nalgene bottle. The most common include the following:
- The body needs whole foods and not atomic nutrients; the synergy between diverse ingredients is what matters in nutritional uptake.
- We don’t know what we don’t know about nutrition (i.e. Soylent might be unexpectedly harmful).
- The inventor has zero background in health.
- Some of its core ingredients are nutritionally empty.
- “If food is too hard, you’re doing it wrong.”
- It’s “ludicrous” and “dangerously unhealthy.”
- It hasn’t been scientifically tested by anyone but the founder.
I love food as much as the next person. As a New Yorker, I hang out with whole foodies, juicers, raw vegans, and holistic health coaches aplenty. As a vegetarian, I am no stranger to dire warnings about dietary choices, or superstitions many people have about food. But as a technologist, I can relate to Rhinehart’s questioning of the assumptions we perceive as granted. (For example, I’m nervous about antioxidants, as some studies indicate they’re harmful to the point of causing cancer; however, most of us assume “high in antioxidants” is a selling point.)
So, when I look at the above list of objections, I think this:
- The body needs whole foods, not atomic nutrients; the synergy between diverse ingredients is what matters in nutritional uptake. This sounds nice, but has not been scientifically proven.
- We don’t know what we don’t know about nutrition (i.e. Soylent might be unexpectedly harmful). That’s not a good reason to not try to innovate. Why not do some tests?
- The inventor has zero background in health. If we’re going to dabble in logical fallacies, this one is better: If a man with a bachelor’s degree can invent self-landing rockets, then a kid with the same degree and a blender can invent a meal replacement drink.
- Some of its core ingredients are nutritionally empty. The Soylent team claims they’re updating the formula to resolve such concerns. But even so, is Soylent on the whole less healthy than the average person’s diet? Are the “filler” ingredients supplemented in a way that delivers balanced nutrition? Those are the questions that need answering.
- “If food is too hard, you’re doing it wrong.” Given the obesity epidemic in America and the number of malnourished people in the world (including America), it’s not a stretch to say food is indeed hard for a whole lot of people.
- It’s “ludicrous” and “dangerously unhealthy.” Given the lack up scientific backup for such statements, this is only conjecture at this point. (Interesting side note: Rhinehart told me that Soylent meets FDA guidelines; the crowdfunding campaign says the components are FDA approved, and Soylent will be made with “strict regulatory controls.” I’m curious what those controls are, but it sounds to me like he is essentially cooking with FDA approved ingredients but hasn’t gone through the nightmare that is the FDA testing process on the final product yet. Not that FDA approval means something is perfectly safe for all people, per se.)
- It hasn’t been scientifically tested by anyone but the founder. I want to test it.
As the crowdfunding orders piled up, and it became clear that Soylent’s delivery would be delayed like every Kickstarter project ever funded, I asked Rhinehart if I might get my hands on some supply, so I could do a gruel-based version of Supersize Me and measure the results of what Soylent does to a mildly out of shape 28-year-old.
He shipped me two weeks’ worth.
Then, I asked Tim Ferriss, himself a body hacker whose penchant for lateral thinking is refreshing in the echo chamber of interest-conflicted health bloggers and naysayers, for advice on how to make my two-week study scientific. He had a company called Basis overnight me a health tracking wristband, gave some advice regarding blood tests, and said, “Keep me posted!”
Now, I knew that two weeks was probably not enough time to see dramatic changes, but it is enough time, worst-case scenario, to do some damage. (However, total meltdown didn’t seem likely.) What I wanted to do was begin testing the conclusions that Rhinehart and his company had claimed, that compared to the average person’s diet…
- Soylent provides all the energy and nutrients the body needs.
- The body can absorb all the nutrients Soylent provides.
- Soylent makes one more alert.
- Soylent can help people cut fat and maintain good body weight.
- Soylent saves time and money.
- And at the end of the day: Soylent isn’t dangerous.
I consider myself a pretty health-conscious person. No alcohol. No meat. Slow-carbs when possible. Run three miles, three times a week. Pull-ups, push-ups on the days I don’t run. On the weekends, however, my weaknesses come out: I tend to devour pizza and shotgun Vanilla Coke. Despite what is probably an above-average-health routine, I am out of shape compared to five years ago when I lived in Hawaii and surfed/body-boarded every day, and I’m certain that I don’t get all the vitamins and nutrients I need—especially things like Omega-3s that vegetarians have a tough time eeking out of spinach and arugula smoothies.
Here’s what a typical day’s worth of food looks like for me:
Breakfast = Muscle Milk (often I’ll also have mate tea when I first get up)
Lunch = Chipotle vegetarian burrito (or something akin to it) and a Diet Coke
Dinner = Take out, usually something like Thai red curry with tofu
Snack = Typically, a handful or two of peanut M&Ms from the office; almonds if I’m lucky
Nutrition Facts–Grand Total:
Total Fat: 74.1g
Saturated Fat: 24.5g
Trans Fat: 0
Dietary Fiber: 34g