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Soylent: The Frozen Peas of A New Generation

I have not yet done the deep dive on Soylent, the 1.6 powder or the 2.0 liquid, but I'm going to assume that the eponymous product is not the evil sham portrayed in the movie "Soylent Green." One thing I love about it, it's a great conversation starter. Everybody's got an opinion about food, including Rob Rhinehart, CEO and founder of Soylent, who in February of 2013 not only got people talking, but started a food-alternative community, first with his blog, "How I Stopped Eating Food," then with his product.

My dinner conversation last evening occurred over a delicious repast of VERY fresh grilled ling cod, pineapple/jalapeño salsa, roasted vegetables, corn tortillas, avocados, and pinot noir prepared by my foodie daughter and her foodie boyfriend. Yum! And it was so lovely to have my home-cooked meal of fresh ingredients prepared by (someone else's) loving hands.

I told my companions that I had just listened to the a16z podcast entitled "The Future of Food." It features an interview with Rob Rhinehart and Chris Dixon, who led Andreessen Horowitz's investment in Rhinehart's startup. The gist of what Rhinehart and Dixon had to say was that Soylent makes all kinds of sense in the lives of busy people, that it has an important place in a spectrum of nourishment options, and that it is an environmentally superior source of nutrition to most animal-based foods.

One of my companions found it implausible that Soylent would ever truly substitute for food across a broad swath of society. Eating food, he suggested, is too deeply embedded in our cultural imperatives. Both he and my daughter granted that it might suffice as an occasional dietary supplement, like Ensure, for a certain segment of the population that does not seek culinary satisfaction with every bite they ingest. But, really, they implied, yuck. And people would never give up the joys of sourcing great food and the delights of cooking and eating according to Michael Pollan's shibboleth: "Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much." (The subtext to this argument, of course, is that one requires the money, time, and energy to access such delights.)

In the role of devil's advocate, I maintained that the use of Soylent could become widespread as earth becomes increasingly resource-constrained. You can't advise the food rioters in Venezuela with their starving babies to go to the market and pick out some fresh, local, inexpensive, nutritious ingredients and whip up a meal using easily available energy and fresh water. But hand them a few cases of Soylent, shelf-stable for a year, and then, once their empty stomachs are not rebelling, calmly find a course for moving their nation forward.

Caveats to widespread acceptance of Soylent abound, of course. Among them,

  • transportation costs

  • inputs for manufacturing those alluringly minimalist white plastic bottles

  • long-term physiological changes from drinking liquid meals

  • excessive farting

  • industrial monoculture production of soybeans.

The Soylent team is onto these possibilities, and they are not trying to fool anybody. Transparency, Rhinehart insists, moors their corporate mission.

To anti-Soylent naysayers who cite the cultural wall that supposedly mitigates against widespread change in the eating habits of our society, I say don't bet on the wall's stability. My research on the history of food processing in America shows me very clearly that our ways of obtaining, processing, and eating food change fundamentally across generations. Just one example is the frozen food paradigm that developed once Clarence Birdseye brought an Inuit technology of flash-freezing to everyday American foods. People resisted. People were suspicious that suppliers would use their new preservative capabilities to hold products off-market and raise prices. Some freezing technology really didn't work very well at first, and the gag-inducing results retarded the rollout of frozen products. But the advantages outweighed the doubts.

The entire method of food marketing changed from the ground up, starting in the 1920s and 1930s. Stores were redesigned to accommodate freezers. Huge parking lots were built so that housewives could do their food marketing on a weekly instead of a daily basis. And those housewives went on to become the women's libbers of the next generation because frozen foods freed them from the laborious preparation that fresh food required (one of Rob Rhinehart's initial prods to find a food substitute).

Backlash ensued as it always does in America when time exposes problems with cultural change. With apologies to Birdseye, frozen food pretty generally presents an inferior taste and texture when compared to fresh. But when fresh is unavailable, or when life demands tradeoffs, frozen food (ignoring environmental consequences) keeps people fed. And this simple imperative changed forever both the physical infrastructure of the United States and jump-started a revision of the social role of women as a class.

Soylent goes one big step very much better than Birdseye -- it takes nutrition out of the "chill chain." No refrigeration necessary. Huge, in any feed-the-world scenario.

Sure, freezing unpalatably alters the texture of most foods, and impairs some nutritive content. And Soylent just doesn't hold up as a desirable alternative to the dinner my daughter and her boyfriend cooked for me. (I was so contented, I didn't even mind doing the dishes.) But as an alternative to a fast-foot-outlet/convenience-store desert? Yes, give the people Soylent, at least for one or two of their meals.

As Soylent gains traction, unintended consequences will reveal themselves. (Permanent slack-jaws? Weak teeth?) But we need solutions in managing global food systems, and I'm staying tuned to possible solutions.

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