Rob Rhinehart likes to joke that he’s entirely made up of Soylent. That’s because the 25-year-old entrepreneur has been living off his chalky “food substitute” invention for almost a year now.
He likes to think that all his body’s cells have regenerated from the nutrients it provides, but what is perhaps more certain is that his Los Angeles-based company is set to make him rich, with tens of thousands of orders for his potion, a $1 million venture capital investment and reports that it’s to be tested by the US military.
If this sounds like a sinister plot from a dystopian film, where the joy of food is banished, that’s because in its name at least, Soylent was inspired by the dark 1973 science-fiction film Soylent Green.
Thankfully for Soylent’s investors, its customers don’t seem to be making the playful link with Soylent Green, where Charlton Heston discover a new “high-energy plankton” feeding the starving masses in a futuristically bleak New York, is actually made from human flesh.
Rather the modern drink is a refined version of Mr Rhinehart’s homemade combination of carbohydrates, fatty acids, protein, fibre, potassium, phosphorus, magnesium, vitamins and zinc. His company website boasts this provides all the essential nutrients “required to fuel the human body”.
That’s a big claim for an electrical engineering graduate who hasn’t studied food science, but Mr Rhinehart goes on to details how that the drink will, for just £40 a month, provide a healthy “food substitute” that’s far cheaper than real food and can be prepared in minutes.
And this month, in a move that will put that claim to the test, the firm shipped the first 30,000 units of factory-made Soylent. One of the first recipients was Jennifer Roberts, a playwright from the San Francisco, who already on her sixth day of a Soylent diet.
She says, “I liked what he [Mr Rhinehart] had to say about efficiency of getting everything you need for your body without the time-consuming hassles of shopping and planning for, and preparing meals. I often found myself either skipping meals because I was either writing or not prepared to stop and fuel or too busy to get or make healthier food choices. It's frustrating how much time is spent on dealing with food.”
Perhaps that frustration is why she doesn’t mind the “neutral taste” of Soylent, which she compares to drinking “an un-sweet cake batter”. The same can presumably be said for the 10,000 customers a day now placing orders online.
Shipments to Britain are reportedly in the pipeline, but despite this Mr Rhinehart declined to be interviewed for this story. However in a long profile in the New Yorker earlier this week, he recounted how he first developed Soylent after the cost of food became a “burden” while working for a cash-strapped tech start-up in California.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he says his potion, which he created after reading up on nutritional data from the American Institute of Medicine and US Food and Drug Administration websites before buying the ingredients online, “changed his life”. And in his blog he says that drinking it for the first time left him feeling like the “six million dollar man” with “clearer” skin, “whiter” hair and a “notably improved” physique.
The logic, he told the New Yorker was that, “you need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself” and “you need carbohydrates, not bread”. This food eccentricity apparently extends to his personal life too, where he posts comedy sketches and images of kittens on his blog and reportedly only wears two pairs of jeans and orders cheap T-shirts from Amazon.
One early customer drawn to this eccentricity is David Cox, an academic at Harvard University in Massachusetts, who has already placed an early order for a supply of Soylent. He says, “I’m drawn to charmingly eccentric and austere vibe that goes along with Soylent - the idea that we can overcome the tyranny of food. At the end of the day, it's not so different from meal replacement shakes for the elderly or for body builders, but it's tailored for normal adults.”
Others customers are so excited by the prospect of the drink that they have taken to so-called DIY Soylent websites to share recipes and create their own formulas. In the spirit of “open source” software and following the idea of “life hacking” to liberate yourself from humdrum tasks, this is something that Mr Rhinehart has embraced.
That’s not to say there are not sceptical scientific voices though. During the early development of the drink, Mr Rhinehart blogged that “I started having joint pain and found I fit the symptoms of a sulphur deficiency. This makes perfect sense as I consume almost none, and sulphur is a component of every living cell.”
Sulphur has since been added to the product, but Noel Cameron, professor of human biology at the University of Loughborough School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, says this error is a sign that the project is “unbelievably naïve.”
He says: “How can you on one hand say this drink includes everything you possibly need, then admit you’ve forgotten to add sulphur? On what basis are you creating this drink then?
“The way to test all these things is a randomised case controlled trial. Test it, to see if it works. Don’t give it to your mates as he’s done, to see if it works. It seems like Soylent is a group of blokes from university who have got onto a bloody good wheeze.”
It’s not just the marketing or youthful nature of the project that Professor Cameron takes issue with though: “We are fast learning that control of appetite is quite a complex process, and it’s not just to do with the stomach filling up. It’s a much more complex system that, which included things like the movement of your mouth and mastication to release hormones.”
Ashley Blackshaw, a professor in enteric neuroscience at Queen Mary, University of London, is also sceptical. He’s an expert in how food intake sends signals through the body and his major concern is that “all sorts of trace elements and phytochemicals, such as lycopene which is found in tomatoes, are missing” from Soylent.
These elements, he explains, are often found in plants and many are just beginning to be understood. Lycopene, found in tomatoes but missing from Soylent, for example, has been linked to lower rates of prostate cancer.
However Professor Blackshaw has even more serious concerns: “There’s the issue over the link between the efficient bacterial fermentation in the colon and cancer. Everything in there is very finely balanced and out gut has evolved over millions of years, and if I even had a suspicion of a history of colon cancer, I’d stay away from a product like this.”
Most striking for many though will be the idea of abolishing enjoyment food. “There is more and more work being done on the links between food and mood,” says Professor Blackshaw. “A shortcut like Soylent throws all that out the window. We have to remember comfort food isn’t just a luxury to spoil ourselves with, but something that scientifically, we are increasingly seeing as something that should be part of our daily life.”
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