The psychology of Soylent and the prison of first-world food choices

Aurich Lawson / Lee Hutchinson / Thinkstock

I’ve spilled a lot of virtual ink on Soylent over the past year—I count thirteen pieces, including the five-day experiment from last summer when I ate nothing but the stuff for a full week. This, though, is probably the last Soylent-specific piece that I’ll write for a while. It’s the piece that I’ve wanted to do all along.

Here we’re going to talk about how the final mass-produced Soylent product fits into my life, without any stunts or multi-day binges. More importantly, we’re going to take a look at exactly what might drive someone in the most food-saturated culture in the world to bypass thousands of healthy, normal, human-food meal choices in favor of nutritive goop. It’s something a lot of folks simply can’t seem to wrap their heads around. Today it’s relatively easy to make a healthy meal, so why in the hell would anyone pour Soylent down their throat?

But if you’re asking that question and genuinely can’t see an answer, then you’re demonstrating both a profound over-projection of your own cultural norms and also a stunning lack of empathy. Food is for some people a genuine struggle. Just because many in the first world have the ability to go to a grocery store and stock up on healthy stuff doesn’t mean it’s easy, or even possible, for everyone. Blithely dismissing someone’s inability to whip up a healthy meal by tossing off a condescending “Soylent? Gross! You don’t need that! Just go cook something quick and healthy!” can be about as wrongheaded and insensitive as telling an alcoholic that they could fix all their problems by just drinking less or telling a clinically depressed person that they’d feel better if they’d just stop moping and cheer up.

Everything in its place

Soylent has been released and it’s in my house—great big boxes of the stuff, in fact. The difference between this time and my last encounter with it is that this go-round I’m not attempting to exist wholly on Soylent. Rather, I’ve been including it as an occasional component of my regular diet, tossing back a mug or two when I’m hungry but in the middle of doing other stuff.

So far, I haven’t forgotten how to eat normal food, nor have I found myself forsaking the heritage and culinary traditions of my native people (though as a fifth-generation American with a mutt-like mix of western European ancestry, I don’t really know what the hell my heritage and culinary traditions would be other than “beer, assorted”). I’m certainly not abandoning social interaction and slurping Soylent in solitude. I am eating it by myself, but I work from home. Unless I’m out interviewing someone, my lunches are almost exclusively quick solo affairs. For what it’s worth, I like eating lunch alone—I’m introverted, and spending time in silence and contemplation, whether it’s with an artisanal báhn mì sandwich from Nobi (just down the street off NASA Rd 1—highly recommended!) or with a mug of Soylent, is all equally refreshing.

Dinner is the big family meal of the day at Casa Hutchinson, and the fact that I’ve got boxes of powdered Soylent in my kitchen hasn’t changed that. My wife and I still eat together, and so far Soylent has stayed off the dinner menu. Either we’ll cook up something while catching up on our respective days, or we’ll go out to dinner together and do the same. At least to this point, Soylent has not driven any wedges between me and my friends or family.

Everybody Soylent!
Enlarge / Everybody Soylent!
Lee Hutchinson

Foodpocalypse

But those wedges are one of the things Soylent’s critics fear the most: that the beige concoction will dissolve the interpersonal glue that the preparation and consumption of food provides. Other objections abound as well, and they run the gamut from reactionary and easily dismissed to thoughtful and troubling.

The easily dismissed ones concern Soylent’s “soy” content (there are only trace amounts) or its lack of originality. It’s not the first liquid nutrition product, but Soylent’s combo of affordability, calories, and purported nutritional completeness make it stand out over competitors like Ensure. In fact, according to the nutritional information on the Ensure site, drinking enough Ensure to reach 2000 calories would result in a person consuming a truly ludicrous 120 grams of sugar. Other non-medical products have similar issues, and actual medical-grade enteral nutrition products are far more expensive than Soylent.

Those objections about social dissolution, on the other hand, do genuinely sound troubling at first. Reducing food to a powder that can be mixed and drunk undermines millennia of evolution and culture and removes one of the fundamental differences between humans and other animals, even other hominids. We homo sapiens actually cook, and a significant part of our culture comes from that cooking and the rituals surrounding the preparation and consumption of food.

These are absolutely valid points—if one is arguing for or against the total replacement of “normal” food with Soylent. But not every meal needs to be a festive life-affirming display of cultural pageantry where we march from kitchen to table bearing the carefully plated masterpieces of locally sourced delicacies while hidden speakers blare the “Circle of Life” song from the Lion King. Sometimes, I need to eat over the keyboard while transcribing an interview, and sometimes I need to eat in the car. Soylent isn’t replacing a culturally significant meal in those instances. As with all things, moderation is the key.

There are objections to which Soylent still has no good response. Sitting atop all of them is the fact that in spite of all we’ve learned about how the human body works, the nature of nutrition is still not entirely understood. Soylent attempts to provide the micro and macronutrients that a person needs in a day—but does it deliver? The final shipping product contains a whole raft of ingredients (which creator Rob Rhinehart and the Rosa Labs folks say will be changing over time as the formula evolves), but the quantity and mix of those ingredients is based on current US RDA standards. It’s still not wholly certain that simply hitting roughly 100 percent of the RDA standards is enough.

“Real” food—vegetable or meat or mineral—is a complex mixture of compounds and materials, with synergies forming between seemingly unrelated foods when eaten together. There is substantial evidence that eating two different types of foods yields more nutritionally than the sum of their parts would suggest; Soylent, with its componentized approach to nutrition, might be missing the nutritional forest in favor of the ingredient trees.

There’s no way to overcome that objection at this point. It may very well be correct, and Soylent may be missing something that a more holistic blend of ingredients would provide. Scientific studies on the effects of mid-to-long-term Soylent consumption on a person are nonexistent, and all we really have is anecdotal evidence that people have eaten it for many months without suffering any apparent problems. Rhinehart and several other early Soylent users are even tracking their blood chemistry (in fact, Rosa Labs purchased a Siemens Dimension XPand Plus Integrated Chemistry System to perform that analysis in-house), but there is so far no formalized research.

In other words, while it’s likely that Soylent probably isn’t doing anything bad—the ingredients, after all, are all well-known and well-studied—we just don’t know.

Perspective

Even if you’re not a vindictive foodie worried about Soylent’s destruction of culture, the stuff has a tendency to evoke an almost visceral disgust reaction from a large number of people. It’s beige. It doesn’t look particularly appetizing. It’s got the consistency of diluted pancake batter. In spite of the creators’ best efforts, it’s still kind of gritty. It tastes nondescript—sort of bread-y, sort of earth-y, vaguely artificially sweet. Its inoffensiveness is itself somewhat offensive; the physicality of it, coupled with the apparent intent (“EAT THIS FOREVER! NO MORE REAL FOOD!”) seems to put a lot of people firmly into the “I hate this” camp.

But in spite of the negative reactions, Soylent famously demolished its crowdfunding goal and raised millions, then pulled in additional venture capital financing as it moved toward production. Clearly someone was interested, but why? Is Soylent a fad—a millennial reincarnation of the pet rock or parachute pants? Will we all be looking back in 10 years wondering how anyone could ever be so dumb as to forsake a home-cooked meal for some nutritive slurry from a bag?

Soylent has succeeded so far because it has two overriding attractive factors going for it that prove irresistible to two large subclasses of geeks: it promises to remove the chore of food, and it promises to remove the choice of food.

One person’s routine is another’s unknowable terror

Let’s look at the former first: the “chore.” As many have pointed out in past comment threads on Ars and on other sites, cooking isn’t hard at all—whipping up a wonderful pan-seared salmon with a bit of olive oil takes literally less than 10 minutes. The Internet is bursting with easy recipes that can be quickly pulled together from simple ingredients. There is no excuse, I have heard many people say, for not being able to produce a healthy and delicious meal even if you’re pressed for time.

To quote Ben Kenobi, what they’re saying is true—from a certain point of view. Though it may not be obvious to someone who keeps a full pantry, effective and sustained cooking requires an incredibly complex long tail of supporting knowledge and skills that a lot of geeks—me included—simply don’t have. With the possible exception of baking, cooking is a decidedly analog process, relying as much on deduction, intuition, guesswork, and experience as it does on measured ingredients and conditions. This “fuzzy” process can induce anxiety and actual fear in people who have never cooked before—especially geek types.

How to cook ground beef: a minefield of undefined terms and uncertainty.
Enlarge / How to cook ground beef: a minefield of undefined terms and uncertainty.

Here is a simple recipe for cooking ground beef. I plucked it randomly out of Google because it looked easy. But right away, it’s filled with things that either require you to already be familiar with cooking or that will send you down endless rabbit holes of additional research. The recipe’s introduction talks about how to pick fresh beef and how you may or may not want slightly fatty beef. But how do you know? What effect does that have on flavor? Is it important? Can it be quantified? How do you make an informed choice about what you want your food to taste like based on these kinds of squiggly, soft parameters? Further, there are steps in the recipe labeled as “optional.” How do you know whether or not you need those steps? What are the parameters defining optional, and what effects on the outcome of the recipe will they have?

Step one says to “film the pan with a little” oil. How much is a little? It says “film,” so does “a little” in conjunction with “film” mean to ensure the entire bottom of the pan is covered in oil? If so, to what depth, exactly? Or does “a little” semantically override “film” and you really only need a few millilitres? If so, how many?

Step two says to “warm the pan over medium to medium-high heat.” Which one is it? What set of initial conditions are we attempting to achieve? “Medium” isn’t a temperature, so exactly how hot should the pan be? How do we know when it’s hot enough? Should we get a thermometer and attempt to measure when the pan has reached thermal equilibrium with the burner beneath it?

Steps three and four are even more problematic. Step three says to break the meat into “several” pieces, but then step four says to “continue breaking the ground meat into smaller and smaller pieces.” Why are these two discrete steps? Is there supposed to be a delay between steps three and four? What constitutes “several” pieces? How do we know when the beef is sufficiently broken up?

And then, worst of all, we have to “sprinkle with salt and any spices”—how much salt? Is there a preferred ratio of salt to beef? And what kind of spices? There’s a tremendous variety available—how are we supposed to know, based on this recipe, which ones to use and in what quantity?

Clarifying the view from the other side

Obviously, if you’ve browned hamburger before—which I have—you know that most of the questions in the above paragraphs are overwrought and silly. “Medium” is about halfway on the dial, and exactly how hot the pan gets doesn’t really matter as long as it’s not stupid-hot. Then you put a dollop of oil in—how much doesn’t really matter, as long as it’s a small amount, and really if the meat isn’t too lean you don’t even need the oil. Then you put the meat in and you poke at it until it’s not pink anymore, and you’re pretty much good to go. Boom. Done. There’s the beef.

But no small number of people really haven’t cooked before, even simple stuff like browning that hamburger. And to non-cooking geeks—one of Soylent’s biggest target segments—even “simple” recipes are a minefield of missing information and utterly undefined terms. Geeks in particular prefer data to be quantified—how can an outcome be understood if the inputs are uncertain? It may sound strange to folks comfortable in the kitchen, but these kinds of things can be literally paralyzing, and they’re a huge reason why some geeks think they “can’t cook.” There are YouTube tutorials and other self-help things they can turn to, but the intimidation level on learning a new life skill can be very high.

To turn the problem on its head for perspective: expecting someone without experience in the kitchen to jump in and make healthy food from a recipe is a little like expecting a non-technical person to sit down and compile a complex Linux application from source. It’s not exactly hard—I mean, you don’t even have to write any code! You just download your tarball, make sure you have your dependencies, set the options you want, and then it’s just configure, make, and make install. The computer does all the work! You just sit there and watch it cook, er, I mean, compile!

Chefs: what's so hard about this? It's just a series of discrete steps that you do, one after the other. Anyone can learn it!
Enlarge / Chefs: what’s so hard about this? It’s just a series of discrete steps that you do, one after the other. Anyone can learn it!

And then there’s that long tail. Even for those who don’t fear the cookbook, cooking is an activity that must be surrounded with a complex support scaffolding. You must maintain a supply of both staple and feature ingredients—you need stuff to make stuff, and unfortunately a lot of ingredients have a set shelf life. It might be easy to make a quick grilled chicken sandwich for lunch if you have everything necessary for it, but that means buying bread and condiments and a package of organic chicken breasts and lettuce and tomatoes and some nice provolone cheese and then struggling to eat all of it before it all goes bad. If you’re making sandwiches with regularity, this isn’t an issue—but not everyone can commit to a regular cycle of grocery purchasing and consumption. For folks who can’t or don’t want to, Soylent is one possible alternative.

Everyone has to eat, obviously, and so “cooking” is much more of a central human life-activity than “compiling a Linux app from source.” However, the parallel here is that to someone who’s not at least a semi-skilled computer user and who’s never faced down a bash prompt, compiling that application seems not just intimidating but actually impossible. And that same feeling of hopelessness is present for people who have never learned how to properly cook. Both activities ultimately boil down to a discrete series of steps guided by a mix of instruction, experience, and intuition; both look equally impenetrable to an outsider.

People are born with neither the ability to cook nor compile; both are taught, and chastising even an adult for not knowing how to cook a healthy meal makes about as much sense as chastising an adult for not knowing how to code or how to compile an application from source. Each of those two different ridicules demonstrates an identical lack of empathy and an accompanying equally stunning sense of privilege that you should probably check immediately.

(If you can both code and cook, then congratulations! You’re skilled! But if you’re still making “yecch” faces at the idea of someone liking or wanting Soylent, then you’ve still got a massive empathy problem—read on.)

A prison of food

Far more serious, though, are the people who feel they can’t control their eating. Whether or not you believe food addiction is a legitimate disease, it is undeniable that there are no small number of people who have expressed a desire for a product like Soylent in order to snatch away the temptation to eat badly. There are a number of threads on the official Soylent forums from folks who appear to be looking to Soylent as the catalyst for a lifestyle change. Consider this poster, from a thread titled Soylent for Food Addiction:

I am on Soylent because I can’t control my eating. I have been dealing with depression for many years and Food is my go-to comfort (and self destructive) vice….

Soylent is like no diet I have ever been on before. It’s the only Diet I’ve ever been on that is not based on FOOD…I didn’t start Soylent for this reason…I mostly started cause it was just something interesting I found on the interwebz and cause they were brave enough to call it Soylent…but I quickly realized that this would be a way to combat my food addiction and abuse.

Or this poster, from Can’t wait for my Soylent:

As I stood in the grocery store this morning, overwhelmed and depressed at the state of my health and diet, trying to get back on track eating healthy while still making sure I got enough calories, I though “I can not WAIT for my Soylent to arrive.” I believe I am a prime candidate for this. Deciding what to eat is a major downfall for me and usually where I fail. When I do tend toward “healthy” choices, I tend to end up going bland and therefore don’t like what I’m eating and also usually end up in a severe calorie deficit as well (more than I should, healthily). Most meal replacements are full of sugar, lacking vital nutrients and also leave you in a sever calorie deficit. I’ve often joked that I needed to find some equivalent of “People Chow,” something I could just make a huge batch of that would give me everything I needed. I’m hoping Soylent will be just that.

This is my buddy Matt.
Enlarge / This is my buddy Matt.

But the most personal example of this type of mindset and reasoning for approaching Soylent is my buddy Matt Hirsch. Matt’s graced the Ars front page a few times, most notably as my drinking buddy in the Soylent video I posted last August (he’s also done a lot of behind the scenes camera work for some of my past Ars stories). I’ve known him since junior high, and I was the best man at his wedding, but he’d be the first person to tell you that he’s eaten and slothed himself into a pretty bad place.

“I’d call myself the paragon of unhealth,” he said when I caught up to him for a chat about his feelings on Soylent. In spite of his notoriously picky taste in food (something that my peer group has mocked him about for decades), he actually asked me for a bag out of my month supply and let me know that he’d ordered his own. When I asked him why, his response was in line with what some of the forum posters had said.

“I’ve always been a picky eater—strictly a meat and potatoes (mostly as french fries) type of guy,” he explained. “It’s not unusual for all my meals for an entire week to be literally nothing but meat. Or entirely carbs. It got slightly better when I got married, but then got much worse after our first child—to the point now where I eat fucking hot dogs and chicken nuggets for lunch almost every day.” Matt’s about eight months older than me, making him about six months past his thirty-sixth birthday, and the life choices are beginning to crash down on him—hard.

“It’s to the point now where I can actually feel myself getting unhealthier with every meal,” he said. “I’m not the best at trying new foods—it’s mostly a texture thing, but taste as well—and the foods I do eat are killing me faster than the average person. I’m to the point now where something has to change, and while I can start yoga or Couch-to-5k for exercise, I saw no hope for my diet.”

This is Matt's dog, Leo. He doesn't have anything to do with this story, but just look at his awesome stupid face.
Enlarge / This is Matt’s dog, Leo. He doesn’t have anything to do with this story, but just look at his awesome stupid face.

Matt’s last experience with Soylent didn’t leave a very positive taste in his mouth—literally—but despair is a powerful motivator. “I read Rob [Rhinehart]’s original blog post about starting his Soylent journey, and while I love cooking and eating food, the parts about general nutrition really resonated with me. So I finally decided that I was tired of feeling like shit nearly a hundred percent of the time and figured I’d try to replace just my crappy lunches with Soylent.”

The obvious question to ask Matt and other folks in this kind of position is why not just pick up some healthy eating habits that don’t involve pouring food-powder into a pitcher and glugging it down? With all the potential food options available—and Matt, for his part, shouldn’t have any problem popping down to the local Whole Foods or whatever and buying up plenty of healthy staple ingredients—why go with Soylent?

For an answer, look at the recurring themes in these messages. “Hopelessness” surfaces a lot, as does “despair.” I’m no doctor, and I certainly am not qualified to diagnose depression, but it sounds like a lot of people are turning to Soylent seeking rescue as much as they are seeking basic nutrition. Food can be a wonderful thing, but for people struggling with food-related issues, it can be like a damaging drug that you can never quite quit cold turkey.

Soylent is food methadone. It’s not quite the magic food pill from science fiction, but it does have a lot of that pill’s qualities. It’s satiating without being delicious; eating it won’t provide the endorphin rush that overeaters experience when gorging; and it’s easy to prepare. It’s a thing you can replace snacks or some meals with (or even all meals, if you want), without having to fight urges. Or, to put it another way—when you’re used to eating chicken nuggets and hot dogs exclusively, the effort that might go into either making a healthy salad or going to a restaurant and ordering one might seem overwhelming next to just eating some more nuggets or just ordering the hot dog. Soylent, then, can be just a thing that fuels your body without triggering anxiety or more depression about eating the wrong thing.

Punditry pounces

But “the wrong thing” is entirely subjective, and just as some people are terrified at the idea of having to cook food, others are just as terrified about the notion of not cooking food. Some of the reactions have been downright alarmist, while others appear to be well-meaning but totally tone-deaf. That second link, for example, says Soylent is terrible and then haughtily describes the amazing dinner the author had for £55—about $93 at current rates. If I paid $93 for a dinner that wasn’t fabulous, I’d contemplate burning the restaurant down.

A few gung-ho Soylent proponents overdo the hyperbole and talk about forsaking normal food completely, and much of the pearl-clutching comes from what gets interpreted as a literal attack on food. Be it for reasons of personal taste, or convenience, or ethics, or whatever else, the idea of Soylent is truly repugnant to those who see it as a beige boogeyman, coming to steal away humankind’s cultural heritage and reduce us to clock-punching, sludge-drinking automata, unable to know the joy of eating family dinner.

But Soylent, properly utilized, is nothing more than a tool in a toolbox. It is neither inherently good nor inherently bad. It isn’t the end of food, and it won’t take away Sunday dinner; it won’t jam a tube down your throat and force you to subsist on slurry, and it also almost certainly won’t eradicate world hunger, even in spite of its founder’s noble rhetoric about transforming food into a utility.

It’s not even super-duper crazy affordable right now. The cheapest way to get Soylent is to purchase a recurring 4-week subscription, which costs $255. This works out to $9.10 per bag or about $3.03 per meal—a number that our own Deputy Editor Nate Anderson found quite high. Nate is definitely a healthy eater, and he made the observation that he already feeds his family on far lower than $3.03 per head per meal. Soylent would need to drop far below that range to register on his radar.

That is an eventual goal—competing at the “rice and beans” level of about $1.50 per day would be a requirement in order to gain traction in any kind of developing market (not to mention Soylent’s requirement for large quantities of clean water). But in its current form, Soylent is in no danger of overwhelming the developing world and displacing subsistence agriculture or other traditional food-creating activities. And while we’re at it, it’s not going to drive us into Matrix-like pods, either.

Consuming Soylent with my buddies BJ & Peter at Matt's house last year. Actually, by this point in the afternoon we might have moved on to hard liquor.
Enlarge / Consuming Soylent with my buddies BJ & Peter at Matt’s house last year. Actually, by this point in the afternoon we might have moved on to hard liquor.
Lee Hutchinson

So what is it good for? Right now, Soylent is a relatively low-cost, apparently healthy product that folks in the United States can use to supplement or replace snacks or meals. And it’s important to emphasize that, marketing aspirations of Rob Rhinehart and Rosa Labs aside, that’s all it is. In spite of many people pinning their hopes of rescue from a prison of choice and the enticing tyranny of junk food addiction, Soylent’s creators haven’t necessarily set out to cure depression or salvage someone from a pit of unhealthiness.

Much like how Soylent can be altered by adding additional flavoring, its customers are shaping its market and purpose with their intentions. International orders are slated to begin at some point in the next few months, which will open things up to non-domestic customers, but the “Soylent revolution” won’t be a giant beige tidal wave that wipes all cooking and social interaction off the table. It sounds like it has the possibility of helping some unhealthy folks start a journey toward less-unhealthy living—after all, even if it turns out Soylent isn’t really all that great for you, it’s almost certainly better than a Whopper and fries—and it will also unquestionably make Rob Rhinehart and some of the Rosa Labs people (and their VC backers) a whole hell of a lot of money.

But don’t sell your knives and forks just yet. Real food isn’t going anywhere. Even though I’m Soylent-ing it for at least a bit on most days, I’m not at all giving up on my garlic chicken recipe. I don’t have to. On the other hand, if it helps pull my buddy Matt and other despairing, unhealthy folks back from the self-described cliffs they feel they’re standing over, then Rob Rhinehart has truly done something good.

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