What is healthy eating really? When nutritionists try to answer this, it's usually in the context of a prescriptive diet (gluten-free, vegan); nutrient deficiencies like folate and Omega-3 fatty acids; and systemic problems like an unhealthy microbiome. In other words, it's complicated. What if eating were as simple as one shake a day? That's the big idea of 24-year-old software engineer Rob Rhinehart. He has created a nutritionally all-encompassing beverage he calls Soylent (a cheeky reference to the 1973 sci-fi thriller, 'Soylent Green,' starring Charlton Heston).
Rhinehart's creation is a beige powder that consists of carbs, vitamins, and minerals. Mix it with water and an included small bottle of olive and fish oils, and you've got – theoretically at least – everything you need to survive in drinkable form. Rhinehart barely consumes anything but Soylent. He went 30 days without any real food after he first crafted Soylent in 2012 and still relies on the concoction for around 90 percent of his diet. "I'm not the kind of guy that's going to go to a farmers' market and cook," said Rhinehart. "I kind of resented that every recommendation to eat well and healthy seemed like it was going to take a lot of time and work. I can appreciate food as an art form, but for me, it's more about efficiency."
After raising $1.5 million in venture capital in 2013, Rhinehart's California-based start-up company will ship its first commercial units in January, but already a lot of folks have taken an interest in a foodless, or at least a reduced-food future: The company also generated another $1.5 million in preorders through a crowdfunding campaign. In devising Soylent, Rhinehart's concept was to break down nutrition to what the body minimally needs to function as a biological machine. He did his own research, consulting textbooks and World Health Organization guidelines, for example, and came up with the following formula, which he posted online (it's been changed some since): Maltodextrin (carbs), Oat Powder (carbs, fiber, protein, fat), Whey Isolate (protein), Grapeseed Oil (fat), Potassium Gluconate Salt (sodium), Magnesium Gluconate, Monosodium Phosphate, Calcium Carbonate, Methylsulfonylmethane (Sulfur), Creatine, Powdered Soy, Lecithin, Choline Bitartrate, and Ferrous Gluconate (Iron).
Soylent can be favorably described as having a sort of wholesome, cookie-dough-without-the-sugar flavor. Or, less favorably, it might be compared to Metamucil. (The company has hired a culinary director to help with the "blandness" some tasters have complained about.) Rhinehart advised that mix-ins, such as cinnamon or fruit, can enhance the Soylent experience. A 500-gram pouch of Soylent, plus the oils, provides 2,200 calories – intentionally, since that's how much the FDA recommends for a full day's energy needs. If you subsist entirely on Soylent, it'll cost you about $9 per day (based on divvying up the pouch into three "meals" a day). "I see it as an easy form of food," says Rhinehart, "a simple, cheap, staple meal."
Rhinehart's point is not to do away with food altogether, but to gain a little more time in life. "Food is awesome. It should be enjoyed to its maximum extent, especially in a social setting," says Rhinehart. "If I have some time to kill, then I'll go and enjoy a nice meal with friends, or put some effort into a nice dinner." Cooking, as with much else, Rhinehart adds, is "a lot more fun when you don't have to." [$65 for a one-week supply; deliveries start in early 2014; preorders available at campaign.soylent.com]