No, your startup didn’t just solve world hunger
Soylent invents the liquid diet
It seems the alcoholics and drug addicts who used to haunt the corner shops near me when I lived in Hackney were trendsetters. If only I’d realised their discarded cans of Nurishment, “the nutrionally-enhanced milk drink”, were actually sign posts to the future of food.
The latest fad gaining traction among the life-hackers of the tech world is the cheekily-named Soylent, a nutritional supplement that its 24-year-old creator, Rob Rhinehart, claims “has everything the healthy body needs.”
Graduates of Y-Combinator, Soylent’s founders initially applied their intellect to building affordable Wi-Fi networks for developing countries. They then made what the godfather of Y-Combinator, Paul Graham, has called “the biggest pivot in Y-Combinator history” and turned to rethinking food instead.
The problem is Rhinehart has essentially reinvented the medical liquid diet. Companies like Nestle Health Science and Abbot Nutrition already produce medical food products to be consumed orally, intravenously and through stomach incisions. The big difference is that Soylent claims it can produce its formula far more cheaply.
Patients on liquid diets don’t tend to see it as hip lifestyle choice. To Rhinehart, infected with Silicon Valley’s chilling desire for disruption, eating’s basically a waste of time. It’s just not efficient enough for him. He told Vice:
“Eating to me is a leisure activity, like going to the movies, but I don’t want to go to the movies three times a day.”
To the literal and logical mind of a software engineer, striving for efficiency in all things sounds entirely reasonable but that kind of cold calculation flattens out a lot of the joy and variety that makes it worth crawling out of bed of a morning.
Soylent is a puce liquid made with maltodextrin (for carbohydrates), oat powder (carbs, fibre, protein, fat), rice protein, medium chain triglycerides (fat), potassium gluconate, salt, magnesium gluconate, monosodium phosphate, calcium carbonate, methylsulfonylmethane (sulfur), creatine, powdered soy lecithin, choline bitartrate and ferrous gluconate (iron). Sounds delicious doesn’t it? The mere mention of choline bitartrate is enough to get me salivating.
To be fair to Rhinehart, Forbes writer, Caleb Melby, who lived on Soylent for a week, concluded he would consider “it as a long-term alternative to weekday breakfast and lunch” and that it offers a “quick way to stay full and energised”. However, he also suggested that the concoction quickly becomes unpleasantly lumpy, needs flavours to be palatable and desperately requires a less off-putting name.
In the Vice interview, Rhinehart makes a number of perfectly valid points about the future of food production – as the world’s population continues to grow we need to find more efficient ways of feeding it – but the idea that the solution to hunger here and in the developing world is to serve up nutritional goo lacks ambition.
Consuming a cocktail of nutrients doesn’t appeal to us because meals serve an important social function too. We shouldn’t be reduced to thinking of ourselves as machines that simply need the right inputs.
Even Rhinehart, for all his big talk (“I don’t miss the rotary telephone and I don’t miss food.”) admits his tolerance for the Soylent lifestyle is product of being a software engineer in his mid-twenties:
“Right now, I only eat one of two conventional meals a week but if I had any money or a girlfriend, I would probably eat out more often.”
Because enjoying food isn’t a priority for him and he can mix together what may be a sufficient collection of nutrients, he’s jumped to dreams of ending world hunger. Obviously it’s not a bad ambition and there are other companies like BeyondMeat applying themselves to creating new foodstuffs.
Unfortunately, Soylent combines the arrogance of startup culture with the natural arrogance of youth. Like many of us, Rhinehart was struck with an idea he consider to be revolutionary and seemingly didn’t stop to consider that others might have had it before.
Solving world hunger will require a lot more than a boy with a blender and some big ideas. There are significant questions about production, markets and populations to be addressed. Still, if you do think Soylent is a revolutionary idea, I can sell you a can of Nurishment with a multi-vitamin chaser at a knockdown price.