According to the creators of Soylent™, yes. Soylent is a vegan, lactose-and-nut-free drink or dehydrated powder specifically designed to provide up to a quarter of a person’s daily recommended vitamins, minerals and calories in a single serving. On paper, Soylent is a complete, seemingly well-rounded meal replacement, but is this flavorless, oil-rich drink really what busy consumers have been waiting for?
Currently marketing version 2.0, Soylent no longer comes as a powder packet and vial of oil but rather as premixed, 400 calorie bottles supplemented with a fifth of the recommended daily values of vitamins and minerals. In theory, you could simply drink 5 bottles a day and meet all your nutritional needs. Of course, just because you could doesn’t mean you should, even if Soylent’s CEO Rob Rhinehart claimed that 90% of his calories came from Soylent for at least a year and a half. Other less extreme fans have also added the drink into their daily diets multiple times a day like this guy, who even started making his own Soylent-like recipes from scratch.
Besides the obvious gustatory repulsion of consuming exclusively Soylent, the creators of Soylent cautioned users on their 2.0 nutritional label that Soylent is not, in fact, intended to replace all meals. They also removed the section from their Soylent 1.5 release notes which walked consumers through transitioning to a Soylent-rich diet (between 66-100% of daily calories). Apparently, their consumer feedback and research revealed that the small intestines usually do not respond well to a rapid shift to fat-based liquid diets with only moderate amounts of fiber. Kudos to you Rob for sticking with it, but it seems the rest of us will opt out of that unique experience.
Soylent’s plain white bottles and minimalist black-and-white website suggest a sense of simplicity and ease about Soylent to the busy, desk-locked millennial. However, their ingredients are not exactly the epitome of simplicity. Although many consumers of quick, bland, and complete meal replacements may not care that Soylent contains no whole foods, shouldn’t meals still resemble food? Isn’t that the reason why dyes, emulsifiers, and false browning materials exist? (Remember the fake brown bottoms of Twinkies?) Soylent’s name is, after all, at least somewhat related to the over-processed, plankton-derived food of the dystopian world in the 1973 movie “Soylent Green”. Sounds appealing, right?
Although Soylent’s ingredients may not be simple and whole, they are fairly common. Of course, it contains soy; soy protein isolate is the formula’s primary protein source and third ingredient by dry weight. Found in just about every protein packed food item today, soy protein isolate is nothing out of the ordinary. It gives Soylent a complete amino acid profile, though all other parts of the beloved soy bean are removed, including the healthy fibers, carbohydrates and minerals. Not to worry, though, because the creators of Soylent have added these nutrients back in other forms.
Enter the sugar beet, a white, oddly-shaped root vegetable that is commonly refined and used for its sugars (though likely not the same pristine, red cultivar featured in Soylent’s calming promotional video). Soylent’s primary carbohydrate source, isomaltulose, which is made from sugar beets and commonly branded as Palatinose™, is hardly new to the scene either. Isomaltulose first entered Japanese markets as a sweetener in 1985 and was accepted in the US in 2006. Isomaltulose occurs naturally in honey and sugar cane in small amounts, but is manufactured commercially from sugar beets treated with enzymes that convert the easily-digested bonds of sucrose into the less common, less digestible bonds of isomaltulose. This has led isomaltulose to become popular in today’s world of artificial sweeteners due to its slow energy release and the fact that it is only about half as sweet as table sugar (sucrose). And as a bonus, the bacteria in our mouths cannot digest it either, making isomaltulose not only a promising alternative for diabetics, but also a dentist-friendly sweetener as well.
But enough with the common ingredients; what really makes Soylent 2.0 special is a little green algae known as Prototheca moriformis and it’s what makes Soylent’s name all the more fitting because this algae is used to make Soylent’s lipid source, high oleic algal oil. And yes, it’s completely safe to consume, earning the FDA’s Generally Recognized As Safe (GRAS) approval in 2015. Older versions of Soylent used canola and sunflower oil as their lipid sources, but in an effort to venture into more ‘sustainable’ territories, Soylent 2.0’s main source of calories and DHA – a form of those popular and essential omega-3 fatty acids – is derived from algal oil. And although the industry has seen algae as an ingredient in foods before, this particular form of algae is brand-new. Sourced from the San Francisco-based company Solazyme Inc. (soon to be rebranded as TerraVia™), AlgaVia® and AlgaWise® are lines of algae-derived protein and high oleic lipid isolates, respectively, which are used as vegan substitutes in baked goods and now, with Soylent, in meal replacements. This company first entered the industry with the intention to produce algae-based oils for biofuels, but quickly saw the potential for algal food products as well. The algae they use is high in both DHA and healthy monounsaturated fats and grow quickly and easily with low inputs, according to the researchers at Solazyme.
But, how does Soylent compare to, say, the USDA’s MyPlate recommendations for macronutrients (carbs, fats and proteins) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals that the body needs to function properly, like potassium and B vitamins)? Soylent’s micronutrients are added as supplemental powders similar to what is found in multivitamins and are listed as percent daily values, with one bottle containing 20% of the daily recommended value of each, so that’s simple enough. Soylent deviates from MyPlate’s guidelines in the macronutrients, however. Listed calorically, Soylent 2.0 contains 47% fat (21 g), 20% protein (20 g), and 33% carbohydrates (37g), which does not quite match up with the MyPlate model that suggests 45-65% of calories should come from carbohydrates, 20-35% from fat and 10-25% protein.
Why the shift towards fats in Soylent? Apart from the current health fads where oils from coconuts and avocados are earning the highest praise from nutritionists and foodies alike, fats provide palatability and texture that isomaltulose and soy protein do not. Fats are also the slowest material to empty from the stomach, which may help consumers feel like that bottle of Soylent sticks with them longer.
Unfortunately, what oil and liquid diets gain in simplicity, they lose in sensory
satisfaction. They do not provide many of the physical signals and joys of eating, like chewing. Additionally, because they contain a large amount of calories in a small volume, fats do not activate the stomach’s stretch receptors that tell the brain it is full exactly like a solid meal will. Moreover, Soylent is purposefully light in flavor and color, stripping your taste buds, eyes and nose
from sensing that a meal is on its way and that your nutritional needs are being met; to foodies, it is essentially removing the joy from eating, especially since flavor is, after all, largely determined by smell.
There is no doubt that there are perks to Soylent. Compared to other meal replacement drinks, like Ensure®, which are basically vitamin and fiber enhanced corn-based sugar concoctions, the producers of Soylent have made a product that is more than just a vehicle for vitamins and protein and can be made routine. Their packaging is simple, the shelf lives are long, and their product is aesthetically neutral, so there is, presumably, no need to incorporate dyes or preservatives aimed at maintaining a fresh-looking product. In this way, Soylent has the potential to cut down on food waste, additives, and packaging, particularly in the powder forms. Now sold as packs of 12 for $29, consumers are encouraged to subscribe to monthly deliveries and incorporate this drink into their diets on a regular basis. Although the idea of on-the-go meals is not new, somehow the minimalist approach of Soylent begs the question: Is this the hyper-efficient, isolated direction food is taking? Has our society become so consumed in work and obligations that we are seeking a food product that removes even food from mealtime? Is a 15-minute break to prepare a tasty and nutritious snack too great a hassle that some would instead reach for a perfectly balanced, processed liquid with no thought or taste required? When did eating become such a burden?
Perhaps this meal replacement appeals to those who ‘eat to live’, but personally, I would rather make a protein smoothie or quick snack from scratch than have to doctor up plain Soylent with berries, peanut butter, or chocolate as Stephen Colbert does here. For my on-the-go meal replacements, I’ll still opt for the protein and vitamin enriched bars, because quite frankly, I enjoy connecting with my food, with my eyes, my nose, my teeth, and my taste buds. To me, there is despondency in perfected beige liquid meals that scream of hospital recovery rooms or of simply losing touch with the colorful, joyful web of agriculture, cooking, health, and food.
Interested in delving deeper? Check out these helpful sources:
Quick and Balanced Meals:
Mary has been a CLEAR Fellow since March 2015 and is a recent graduate from UC Berkeley with a B.S. in both Plant Genetics and Nutritional Sciences. She is currently working as a laboratory assistant in a plant research lab, while her other passions rest in human health and microbiome studies. As a CLEAR Fellow, she hopes to use her background and passions for food, science, and health to help herself and others navigate through the confusing world of food systems today.