I ate weird future food so that you’ll never, ever have to

FOOD by Aidan Morgan


Soylent: food of the future, batter for the body and substitute for solids. After experimenting with this pricey meal replacement, I can safely conclude it’s awful. I was going to use it as intended (i.e. as a complete replacement for non-granulated food) and eat a whole bag, but after a week of Soylenting I think I’m calling it.

Soylent, you win. From the future’s dim vaults you have reached back and defeated me in single combat.

For those who may not be familiar with the stuff, Soylent is the invention of Rob Rhinehart, a California tech entrepreneur who decided to create a perfect nutritional substance that could conceivably replace food. Rhinehart views “eating leaves” as a strange animal activity that humans could and possibly should transcend, and Soylent is clearly the powdery path to that transcendence.

Soylent has proven surprisingly popular with techies and other advanced people who are moving beyond cooking or chewing, but recently the stuff has begun to slide down the throats of Human GenPop (us, in other words). My friend and colleague Spencer started experimenting with a mostly Soylent diet and seems to be enjoying the effects on his health. I noticed an increase in the darkness and volume of his facial hair, but after a few days I realized it had just grown a bit longer, which apparently happens regardless of diet.

When I quizzed Spencer about his experience with the nutrient consumption paste, he offered to bring me a bag. Reader, I swooned with mild interest.

The bag was delivered to me the next day and thus began My Week Or So Of Soylent.

I loved the packaging. It’s aggressively clean and minimalist, providing nutritional information and other useful numbers (16.2 ounces, 460 grams, 2000 calories). It reminded me of an anti-static bag for computer components. The package further solidified its allegiance with the tech sector with the qualifying copy “Release 1.5”.

I opened the pouch and inspected the contents: a fine, flour-like substance with the look and scent of pre-mixed pancake batter. It was reassuring to see something so innocuous waiting for me.

The trouble began with the accompanying “Release Notes”, which, give me a break. Inside I found the complete formula for Soylent (it’s open source!) along with a detailed “Changelog” and a section called “Further Applications” (like adding peanut butter! Thanks, Soylent). I’ve heard it said that an algorithm is essentially a recipe, but Rhinehart had taken that metaphor and made it flesh. More accurately, he’d made it into a combination of powdered canola and sunflower oils, oat flour, isomaltulose, rice and potato starch, trehalose, gum blend, sucralose and salt. Yum?

The easiest way to prepare Soylent, the Notes told me, was to mix the contents of the pouch with water, refrigerate and consume within two days. There was no way I was going to drink my way through my one precious bag of powder in two days, so I flipped to the “Further Applications” section, which contained directions for single servings. What does it say? Mix one scoop of Soylent with two scoops of water. Where’s the scoop? Nowhere that I could find. How big is the scoop? It didn’t say, but it specified that a bag of Soylent has 6-8 single servings.

If Soylent is truly about precision and optimal nutrition, then this is bullshit. Six to eight servings? Does the scoop change size from bag to bag? Do they just throw in however much Soylent they please down at the factory? Fine powder should be a cinch to measure precisely, so why did the Release Notes’ instructions amount to a shrug emoji?

Confounded, I checked the bag itself, which stated that it contained four single servings of 115mg each. Problem solved (but still a dick move, Release Notes).

I decided to start with a “snack size” serving of about 250 calories in order to avoid some of Soylent’s noted side effects, which include “flatulence, bloating and headaches”. Chilled, the stuff was — well, it wasn’t horrible. It tasted of the airy bubbles in a loaf of bread, or perhaps the dark spaces between the stars. It had the consistency of pancake batter, which didn’t surprise me. I flirted with the notion of throwing in a couple of eggs and cooking the whole thing up on a griddle. Maybe I’ll save that recipe for a future bag.

About four hours later I started to notice the side effects. My stomach began to cramp in protest, searching for solid food and finding nothing. I may have been getting sufficient nutrients, but my stomach hadn’t been told. My lower gut gurgled and turned in confusion like a porcupine caught in an oncoming car’s headlights. Obviously, Soylent was meant for people who were already enjoying a healthy diet and not my usual mess of restaurant take-out and draft beer.

The next day I went all in, filling a tall glass with 115mg of Soylent and cold water. This time the mixture felt gritty — I recommend a blender for anyone going on a Soylent diet — and I had to sip slowly. My stomach cramped up again, but not as badly as the day before. Was I already turning into a post-human iteration of myself? Was Soylent 1.5 transforming me into Aidan 2.0? What further growing pains would I need to endure?

What happened next can best be described as “Soylent In, Soylent Out”. That’s all I’m prepared to say on the subject.

Over the next couple of days I mixed the stuff in with smoothies to avoid the strange Soylent taste and mitigate its effect on my digestion, but it interacted oddly with natural sugars to produce an overpowering sweetness (Soylent contains sucralose to mask the taste of the vitamins, but it isn’t particularly sweet). I found myself less hungry and pleasantly awake throughout the day, without the post-lunch crash that usually has me mumbling and drooling at my desk. By the end of the week I began to see how Soylent could fit into my diet, but as a complete — or even near-complete — substitute for food? I wasn’t prepared for that.

Its messianic technobabble and aspiration to replace solid food may be new, but I suspect Soylent’s spirit is as old as civilization, going back to Paleolithic humans who, bored of chewing on stalks, pounded them into a convenient powder. Soylent is probably the ultimate evolution of how we eat: nutrition as an invisible background process and food as pure entertainment, an occasional indulgence on the level of going out for a drink or seeing a movie.

Just as birth control separated the procreative and recreational aspects of sex, so Soylent is poised to do for food.

Soylent Man is coming, people, and he’ll have a bite of what you’re having.