The Soylent delusion and the folly of food-hacking

Joan Westenberg
@westenberg
Published in
6 min readJun 6, 2024

In the early 2010s, a group of engineers in Silicon Valley set out to “hack humanity” by replacing Food. Led by software engineer Rob Rhinehart, they believed they could optimize the human body to pare down its needs to the bare essentials and unlock new (if vaguely defined) levels of efficiency and productivity. Their weapon of choice in this quixotic quest was a beige, gloopy concoction they christened Soylent.

You know.

After the algae-based foodstuff that Charlton Heston’s character in Soylent Green revealed was made out of people.

Enticing.

Soylent seemed to embody everything Silicon Valley prides itself on — a “disruptive” idea, an entrepreneurial founder with a singular vision, slick branding, and aspirations to change the world. With his studied casual image and quirky backstory, Rhinehart could have been lifted straight from central casting for startup founders. He said of his inspiration for creating Soylent, “Food was such a significant burden.”

So Rhinehart set out to unburden himself, applying the hacker ethos to nutrition. He researched the core components the human body needs to survive, ordered them in raw chemical form, and mixed up the first batch of Soylent in his kitchen. Subsisting solely on this liquid, he immediately claimed to feel healthier, more energized, and even boasted of improvements in his dating life.

The lofty claims and aura of techno-utopianism quickly attracted a following among body-hacking enthusiasts and the wider startup scene. Soylent positioned itself as the ultimate “lifehack,” a way to boost productivity and bottle the simplification of existence.

Venture capitalists and tech workers eagerly bought into this pitch, pouring millions into the developing company. By 2014, Soylent had raised over $3 million in crowd and angel funding for its first commercial product and, shortly after that, secured a $20 million Series A round led by repeat offenders Andreessen Horowitz.

Amidst all the hype and hubris, troubling signs started to emerge that Soylent’s attempt to reduce the complexity of human nutrition to a math problem might not be so simple. First came the reports of alarming side effects — consumers getting violently ill, with symptoms like uncontrollable diarrhoea and vomiting. Then, there was a spate of recalls in 2016, first of Soylent’s snack bars and then its core powdered product, due to quality control issues and contamination.

These snafus revealed the risks of applying a “move fast and break things” approach when tinkering with people’s health. While software bugs might be patched with a few lines of code, there’s no such quick fix for a defective food product already in people’s stomachs. And Soylent discovered the hard way that the human gut is not so easily hacked.

As it wrestled with these product issues, Soylent faced mounting scepticism about the core premise of its business. Nutrition experts questioned the notion that all the complexities of a healthy human diet could be reduced to a pre-defined formula — an approach one memorably deemed “the Silicon Valley equivalent of Dippin’ Dots”. Doubts were raised about the long-term effects of subsisting on Soylent alone. Eating isn’t just about getting the right amount of nutrients, as Harvard nutritionist Dr. Rachele Pojednic points out. It’s also a behavioural and social activity.

There is something telling about the fact that Soylent’s most ardent early adopters were single male tech workers — the kind of people already inclined to view their bodies more like machines to be optimized than as holistic human systems. Still, among this receptive audience, the reality of a Soylent-based lifestyle often proved less convenient than promised. People reported gastrointestinal discomfort, mental fog, and fatigue.

Even Tim Ferris found little to praise about Soylent:

“It’s premature to believe we can itemize a finite list of what the human body needs. To quote N.N. Taleb, this is “epistemic arrogance.” Sailors only need protein and potatoes? Oops, didn’t know about scurvy and vitamin C. We need fat-soluble vitamins? Oops, consumers get vitamin A or D poisoning, as it’s stored in body fat.”

Gradually, the buzz around Soylent began to sour into more of a cautionary tale. The company cycled through multiple CEOs post-Rhinehart, each trying to rebrand and reposition its products for a more mainstream audience beyond the biohacker fringe. But pivots to pitch Soylent as more of a nutritional supplement than a full-on food replacement didn’t entirely take. The spectre of those early stumbles and unfavourable media coverage continued to haunt the brand.

Soylent embodies the hubris and pitfalls of tech culture’s impulse to reduce the irreducible. The same naive confidence that code can optimize every aspect of our lives — the mindset that produced the mantra “everything should be as easy as ordering an Uber”- convinced Rhinehart and his team that they could engineer a better human fuel in defiance of millions of years of evolution. It’s an attractive illusion that technology can neatly solve the messy realities of existing in a body, of being a biological creature instead of a computer.

But again and again, biology proves more complex and unpredictable than software, with squishy and distinctive needs that aren’t so easy to generalize. Soylent is hardly the first or last startup to run aground chasing the seductive vision of human perfectibility through technology. But it offers a vivid object lesson in the limits of this worldview.

Over aeons, the human animal has evolved in inextricable entanglement with its environment and Food, and we still barely understand a fraction of this intricate web of relationships, from the trillions of microbes that inhabit our gut to the gustatory pleasures that light up our brain. To imagine a few bottles of beige goop might replace this vast, complex system is not just misguided but an affront to the wondrous, fundamental nature of embodied existence.

This isn’t to say food tech itself is without merit. The vision of maximizing global nutrition with a simple, affordable staple food remains compelling. But those who tout meal replacement products like Soylent as a panacea for global hunger are campaigning for a disturbingly stratified future, where the wealthy still enjoy the pleasures of eating actual Food while the less fortunate are relegated to subsisting on homogeneous, flavourless sludge. The rich dining on tender steaks and crisp salads in their glittering enclaves, as the poor line up for their daily rations of beige goop in the grimy streets below. It’s a dystopian image straight out of science fiction — straight out of the film that gave Soylent its less-than-inspiring name.

This “let them eat Soylent” attitude comes only from a galling lack of empathy and humanity. It reduces Food to mere fuel, as if the social rituals of cooking and dining held no meaning as if billions of years of sensory and cultural evolution around Food could be engineered out of existence. To see this fare as the answer to hunger is to disregard the deep emotional and gustatory needs food fulfils and to unthinkingly embrace a heartless, two-tiered model of society — a world where the underprivileged must trade away one of the primal joys of embodied existence for the sake of basic sustenance. Surely, in our efforts to nourish humanity, we can find solutions that affirm, rather than deny, the essential dignity of all.

My takeaway from Soylent is this: You can’t simply hack humanity into a more optimized version of itself. Our needs and drives have been shaped by millions of years of co-evolution and won’t be engineered away by a coterie of coders — no matter how much-pedigreed venture funding they secure. The smarter approach is to meet people where they are and work with them rather than against the grain of human nature.

Because, in the end, even the most powerful code can’t reprogram the squishy, gloriously inefficient realities of the flesh.

And reader, that’s not at all a bad thing.

Join thousands of other readers, creators and thinkers who subscribe to @Westenberg — where I write about tech, humans and philosophy.

--

--