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Thursday, June 13,2013

Cheating Mother Nature

Is Soylent the real deal for a liquid meal?

By Joseph Wirth
Photo courtesy of Rob Rhinehart
Rob Rhinehart

When Rob Rhinehart was living in San Francisco taking a start-up funding course in the summer of 2012, he noticed a startling economic segregation in the progressive city’s food culture. As he explored the hills and crannies of San Francisco he kept noticing that more affluent people in the Bay area were clearly healthier than poorer people, and he decided he wanted to do something about the high cost of staying healthy.

Rhinehart, a 2012 engineering graduate from Georgia Institute of Technology, started experimenting in January with his newest entrepreneurial endeavor, Soylent. The neutral-tasting “meal in a drink” white powder substance combined with water allegedly offers every basic nutrient the human body needs. Soylent can be a quick, cheap and healthy substitute for most meals, Rhinehart says.

And Soylent is not far from becoming a reality as its crowdfunding campaign ends on June 21. Rhinehart’s Soylent Inc. has far exceeded its original $100,000 goal on Crowdhoster.com and has now raised more than $500,000. Products will be distributed to more than 4,300 Soylent orders beginning in August.

Here in Boulder, one of the healthiest cities in the United States, nutrition coach Curtis Thompson says that he doesn’t think Soylent has any nutritional merit, and that although meal-replacement formulas may work on some people in the short term, in the long term Soylent is a negative tradeoff of the user’s health for convenience.

“When I look at it, it just doesn’t make sense from a logical perspective,” Thompson says. “I think that the American public and the majority of people are looking for a quick fix for everything. We’re a pill society, and we want a quick fix and convenience.

People think that they can do something really quick and still be healthy, and in the long term it just doesn’t work out that way. Health is something that is earned.”

Thompson says he has also read Rhinehart’s blog and researched Soylent’s partnership with Crowdhoster, and he is not convinced that this campaign is anything more than a get-rich-quick scheme.

“People are just throwing money at it and saying ‘Wow, terrific, this would be great,’ and I just don’t see the science behind it,” Thompson says. “He’s using the Internet and the blogs very effectively, and that’s what the people he works with specialize in; none of them are nutrition experts. If you look at this whole thing, the first thing that comes to mind is that they’re just trying to get a quick hit on some money, and they’re using the Internet to do that.”

Even with the criticisms, Soylent has raised five times the amount of Rhinehart’s original goal, and they did it emphatically. Rhinehart and Soylent Corp. reached $100,000 within the first two hours of the campaign.

“Literally, it was so fast, and it’s just an incredibly quickly growing campaign,” says Ajay Mehta, a spokesperson for Crowdhoster. “It speaks a lot to the founders and their idea and their grand vision.”

soylent_3.jpg

Some of the ingredients in Soylent | Photo courtesy of Rob Rhinehart

He says Crowdhoster supports Soylent and its mission. Crowdhoster gets 5 percent of the money that’s raised on its platform.

Mehta says that Rhinehart was able to create a large audience for himself through his personal blog as he was in the process of creating Soylent, and that there are no “big” donors. The Crowdhoster page shows that the crowdfunders are people who want to try Soylent out for a week ($65), a month ($230) or other options, including two- and three-month supplies of Soylent. The shipments will be available to customers only in the U.S., for now.

Although Thompson and other nutritionists have been skeptical of the science behind Soylent, Rhinehart says the science is rather simple. He says there are about 35 essential nutrients that people’s bodies need. All of those nutrients, which include proteins, fats, carbohydrates, electrolytes, potassium, magnesium and a lot of other vitamins, along with a couple more antioxidants, are what goes into the Soylent powder.

Rhinehart says that Soylent could be the future of food, and that the concept of only eating raw, whole food is backwards thinking.

“People in California were very adamant about using the latest technology in cars, hardware and software, and they demanded primitive forms of food, only wanting organic, raw food that our primitive ancestors ate, and that seems really strange to me,” Rhinehart says. “If food is so important, why would we use an ancient form? We don’t use leaves for clothing anymore. For the longest time I thought I was crazy because no one else saw it that way, but I think this is an idea that’s time has come.”

Thompson’s opinions on food are the exact opposite. He says that humans have stuck to the primitive forms of food because food is obviously important, and substitutes are simply unhealthy.

“Looking at the history of mankind, food has been a priority,” Thompson says. “If you go back several thousand years, what you did every day was go out and find healthy food. I don’t know if that shortcut is going to work because so far if I look at all of the people that take the shortcuts that he is trying to take right now with his product, they are not being successful. America is doing this on a grand scale, it’s a giant experiment. We’re eating an intense amount of processed food and synthetic vitamins, and right now the results are not good.”

Rhinehart describes Soylent as an innovative way to tackle the problems with obesity in the U.S. and help play a part in contributing to better global food security. He admits that Soylent sounds too good to be true, and he knows that everyone still needs to eat to some extent.

“It sounds hard to believe, but it is awesome,” Rhinehart says. “I sleep better, I have more energy, I have more free time, I save money, it’s great. The drawback is if you’re really into food and need a good meal all of the time, because you don’t get that. It is purposely not very flavorful or stimulating, it’s more refreshing, like water. I think we need food that doesn’t do a lot for the body and is just about the taste, and simultaneously we need a more efficient form of food like Soylent that makes sure that everyone has their nutritional needs met.”

Thompson argues that not every nutrient is good for every person, and that one size, or drink, does not fit all.

“The amount of nutrients matter on an individual basis, it’s all about bio-individuality,” Thompson says. “I have yet to see a person do [better] on [meal replacement formulas] than on real food.”

To Rhinehart, Soylent is simply better than what nature can provide, and he says he knows that it’s going to be a long road to change people’s eating behavior, because Thompson’s perspective is so ingrained within people.

“[Food culture] will be a lot better off when people realize that we can use technology to improve things,” Rhinehart says. “We can make things that are far better than nature provides, just like how people used to ride horses and now we drive cars.”

Soylent isn’t made of people like the 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green, which is the inspiration for the name, but it is made from elements people are ultimately from, in terms of sustaining nutrition. Soylent can be ordered online, and Rhinehart says he hopes to have it in nutrition and grocery stores nationwide and expand Soylent abroad as soon as possible.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com

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