Q: I’ve been hearing about Soylent, a complete nutrition product that promises to take all the bother out of food preparation. It’s strangely appealing. I like the idea of food efficiency and having an easy-to-carry food for traveling. Do you recommend it?
A: Soylent had not been on my radar screen until you asked. Here’s the lowdown on the product with its upsides and downsides.
The name, says Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s chief executive, is derived from Harry Harrison’s 1966 science fiction novel “Make Room! Make Room!” Set in 1999 and a favorite of Rhinehart’s, the book ponders the impact of excessive population growth on food availability. To feed this burgeoning population, people consumed Soylent, made from soy and lentils. “Soylent Green,” a 1973 science fiction movie, based loosely on the book, inserted the use of human remains as an ingredient in its version of Soylent.
The Soylent of today, available since May, contain no soy, lentils or human remains. It’s classified as a food product by the FDA, not a dietary or nutritional supplement.
Soylent’s Web site (www.soylent.me) opens with this question: “What if you never had to worry about food again?” In 2012, Rhinehart was a stretched-thin 20-something working as a San Francisco software engineer. He found himself not eating well and incensed by the repeated drudgery of preparing meals, from sourcing foods to scouring dishes. Soylent is designed for healthy adults as a sole source of nutrition. “It breaks food and nutrition down to bare essentials,” says Rhinehart, who adds, “It’s helping me live better, and it has potential to feed the world.”
Soylent is two products: a package of powder and an oil blend made with canola and fish oil. The customer purchases both products and blends them in a particular ratio. The cost? Rhinehart estimates it at $9 a day.
No planning, shopping, chopping, cooking or cleanup. “Strangely appealing,” as you put it in your question.
The powder’s first or main ingredients are: maltodextrin, rice protein and oat flour along with key vitamins and minerals.
After sipping a whole package of powder and container of oil blend, you’ll consume 2,000 calories, 50 percent from carbohydrates, 20 percent from protein and 30 from fat, which is in sync with federal Dietary Guidelines for the average American adult.
A nutrition advantage: There are hardly any added sugars, saturated fat or cholesterol, three of today’s nutrition nemeses.
But adults come in all sizes, so this may be insufficient calories and nutrients for physically active men or women and in excess for people who are sedentary or want to lose weight.
Normally, we chew to consume foods. So does drinking your calories for extended periods raise physiologic concerns?
“We don’t have vast experience in healthy people, but we can apply lessons from people who require a liquid tube-feeding long term, delivered either by mouth or right into the stomach or intestine due to serious gastrointestinal disorders,” says Antoinette Saddler, a doctor specializing in gastroenterology and nutrition support and an assistant professor of medicine at George Washington University.
“These individuals can get the nutrition they need with relatively few adverse effects as long as the formula is nutritionally complete,” she says.
What about changes in bowel function and movements? “Healthy people who exist solely on liquid nutrition may experience changes in the frequency and consistency of their bowel movements, but that depends greatly on their fiber intake,” Saddler says. Soylent contains 27 grams per 2,000 calories, well over the puny fiber intake of most Americans and much closer to the recommended 14 grams per 1,000 calories.
●Convenience: Soylent is a no-muss, no-fuss approach to feeding oneself. “For someone who can’t or chooses not to make the time to prepare foods, convenience is the only plus I can list for Soylent,” says Anne Mauney, a registered dietitian and owner of a private nutrition counseling practice in Washington.
●Less environmental waste: Depending on how much food packaging you trash, consuming Soylent could decrease your environmental burden. But Soylent still requires manufacturing, packaging, shipping and electricity to ready it for sipping.
●Structure for weight control: Although Soylent’s target market is not those wanting to lose weight, use of liquid meal replacements for this purpose has been researched and proven beneficial for some. Why? Structure! Meal replacements, as they’re called, take the guesswork out of planning meals and counting calories. As with Soylent, you’re off the hook when it comes to food preparation. Plus, they’re easy to tote and quick to fix.
●Food isn’t solely fuel: Food selection and preparation and the act of eating are woven into the fabric of our culture, traditions, celebrations and self-expression. Socializing often involves food. And, for better or worse, according to the National Restaurant Association, Americans spend nearly half their food dollars on food purchased away from home. “Soylent is missing a critical feature of the food experience: pleasure! Drinking the same shake meal after meal is unlikely to be sustainable or enjoyable for most people,” Mauney says. Rhinehart says regular Soylent customers use it for 60 to 80 percent of their meals. He’s at 80 to 90 percent.
●Nutrient breadth: Foods contain a wide variety of fibers, vitamins and minerals, including some not yet identified but thought to be important to our health. “With Soylent, nutrient variety won’t be the spice of your life because your nutrients will come from the same food sources day after day,” Mauney says.
●Variety and satiety: A benefit of chewing and swallowing food is satiety, influenced by food’s aesthetic appeal, aroma, taste and texture. “Satiety, the sensation of being full, is influenced by the speed of stomach emptying,” says Saddler, who adds, “Liquids are generally emptied from the stomach more rapidly than solids.” This notion has led some nutrition experts to theorize that consuming liquids vs. solids may offer less satiety and prompt higher calorie intakes. As for taste, Soylent has been described on company message boards as bland, breadlike or yeastlike, with a bit of sweetness. Take that as you will.
●Gut-health questions: There’s a dramatic increase of interest in the role of gut health in weight control and disease prevention. Maintaining a healthy gut requires a balance of vast numbers of microorganisms. Consuming of a wide variety of dietary fibers can aid this balance. “It may be challenging to achieve the right balance of fibers with an exclusively liquid diet. For example, any product consumed as a person’s sole source of nutrition, should ideally contain prebiotic fibers due to their positive influence on gut flora,” Saddler says.
As the saying goes, to each his own. If the premise of Soylent appeals to you and works with your lifestyle and nutrition goals, then blend it up and give it a whirl. Perhaps consider it for a lickety-split meal or part of a structured eating plan, or pack it when you travel just in case. It’s healthier to sip Soylent on occasion than to skip a meal or down an unhealthful one. As for me and my family, I’ll continue to prioritize the drudgery of preparing and chewing a robust variety of foods in as unprocessed a form as I’m able.
Warshaw, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator, is the author of numerous books published by American Diabetes Association and the blog EatHealthyLiveWell found on her Web site, www.hopewarshaw.com.
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