On Soylent

I got the chance to try some Soylent today — a friend who backed the Kickstarter found he couldn’t even finish a glass of it, so we wound up with a bag of the powder (minus the fish oil part, since Dominic is vegetarian).

I’ve been following my colleague Elizabeth’s thoughts on Soylent this week; previously I’d just written it off as yet another example of Silicon Valley Bizarro World, but she makes some good points — particularly that the renewed emphasis on eating freshly-prepared whole foods can be seen as regressive from a feminism standpoint. There was a pretty good NY Times story on the subject this week, too.

I can relate to this stuff. I am also lazy about food (not to mention a terrible cook), but I’ve tweaked and optimized things over the years to the point that I don’t feel like food is a serious problem for me.

I tend to eat two meals per day, one of which is always the same (scrambled eggs for breakfast), supplemented with things I have found that are easy to graze on but still healthy (mostly nuts and cheese). I have a couple of default dinner things that I make when dinner is not a social occasion. They are dead simple and don’t take much time or energy to prepare or eat. Not a big deal, though I had to do some experimentation to get here, and I still have days where I am not very good at feeding myself.

It helps that, living in the Bay Area, I have access to other ridiculous startups, like Instacart… though I try not to rely on it overmuch, because when you work from home things like Going to the Store are kind of important for making sure you actually leave the house sometimes.

Anyway, I keep a running grocery list and eat the same things most of the time and go to restaurants a lot and occasionally cook meals with Dominic and don’t, in general, spend all that much time or energy thinking about food on a day-to-day basis. Which is good, because making choices is draining.

Basically, I tend to spend some time experimenting and tweaking things, and then I just incorporate those habits into my daily routine and never think about it again.

Still, I am always game for more experimentation, and was admittedly curious to try this new product with the polarizing name (brilliantly self-deprecating in-joke, or ridiculous Silicon Valley egoism?) and the big talk about redefining the human race’s relationship to food.

We mixed up a single serving of Soylent (using olive oil in place of the canola and fish oil it ships with). It smelled nasty at room temperature, so we popped it into the freezer for half an hour or so to cool it off.

Results? I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it tasted very similar to any other nutritional shake. It had that protein powder taste and was a bit gritty, but not awful, if a bit too reminiscent of Ensure. It tasted pretty much like any smoothie I might make at home.

Dominic and I split that one serving. I drank mine fairly quickly, and didn’t feel very satiated by it. I hadn’t been starving when I drank it, but I was a little peckish, and I didn’t feel like I’d eaten anything afterward. In my experience that’s typical of liquid calories, and of course the relatively low fat content doesn’t help.

About an hour later, I felt the general sort of lightheadedness that always comes from having a meal with too many easily-absorbable carbs. Dominic reported feeling slightly nauseated, and felt better after eating a salad.

I was expecting something a bit more earth-shattering, I suppose, than “Ensure but slightly healthier.” And the emphasis there is on “slightly” — it’s true it checks more nutritional boxes, but I’m dubious about other things about it (e.g. the reliance on maltodextrin, the choice to use canola oil, or the addition of sucralose).

Possibly there’s an inherent conflict between wanting high-quality, less-processed foods and wanting a product like Soylent, I don’t know. There are apparently a few things out there that are trying to hit that market, e.g. Phood, which I am now oddly tempted to try.

I spent a bit of time reading the “DIY Soylent” forum, bookmarking the recipes folks have created for low-carb variants, and then realized I’ve done all this before, back when I was drinking smoothies every day and trying to optimize them. “DIY Soylent” is just making smoothies, and I stopped making smoothies every day because it turned out to be a lot more work than just eating the ingredients.

The other thing I realized is that, as much as I don’t much like making choices, I do like food. I am an emotional eater, which is bad when I’m stressed out and my sweet tooth kicks in, but does mean that I have a positive emotional connection to the experience of eating. I like crisp vegetables, I like crunchy nuts, I like things with a variety of tastes; I like the feel of food in my mouth.

I might have some rather interesting associations here.

For one, like many people, I have tried “diet plan” things like Slim Fast shakes. i have gone down the road of meal replacement before, and while I know Soylent is perhaps more nutritionally-balanced, it’s entirely possible I associate a liquid diet with those cycles of self-punishment, cheating, and shame.

I have spent my fair share of time geeking out about (or obsessing over) my diet. I have constructed complicated smoothie recipes for daily consumption. I know well the addictiveness of tracking fitness on sites like SparkPeople, the misery and feeling of deprivation that comes with counting calories. The dangerous delusion that you can control everything, the Herculian efforts of self-control, the inevitable burnout.

I know from experience that this kind of thing can prove a dangerous distraction for me, causing me to focus more on optimizing some set of numbers than on how I feel (and incidentally causing me to favor processed/packaged food over fresh, because of its perfect quantifiability).

These days, my food goals are more along the lines of “eat a salad every day” and “avoid added sugar”. I’ve found those are the sort of guidelines that I can stick to, that still keep me focused on eating well without danger of obsessing over numbers.

But it gets worse. I was once on a liquid diet for six weeks after breaking my jaw in a car accident. I drank a lot of Ensure and still lost 15 pounds. I felt constantly foggy and lightheaded. By the end of it, my mom was putting things like mac ‘n’ cheese into the blender, because I was that desperate for real food. To this day I can’t tolerate the smell of chocolate Ensure.

When they finally unwired my jaw, I had a new appreciation for the simple acts of biting and chewing. The other times like that in my life involved recovery from dental surgery. So, maybe, drinking my calories in liquid form makes me feel powerless.

I do get it, though. Being embodied is a pain in the ass.

We’re all shackled to the flesh, pilots of these meat-coated skeletons that are always needing something: food, sleep, bathroom breaks… and don’t even get me started on the travails of injury, illness and aging. I sincerely do hope and plan to one day upload myself into a computer and leave behind these ludicrous biological requirements and limitations.

But the thing is, we aren’t brains in jars (yet), and when we lose touch with “the meat”, something is lost. I worry about getting too reductionist about these things, because I’ve done it — I was, after all, a cyberpunk in the 90s. “Case fell into the prison of his flesh.”

As a “knowledge worker” whose hobbies are largely sedentary, I’ve come to crave the things in life that get me out of my own head, remind me that I exist within a body and that body is alive in the world.

I don’t mind this because I’ve found, over the years, that I have the most mental clarity when I take the time to be mindful of the physical. The link between mind and body is real, and food in particular has a tremendous amount of psychological power.

When we’ve all been transformed into pure information, and we’re sitting around the virtual campfire swapping recollections of the time we spent in the flesh, no one will look back with fondness on Soylent. But maybe that isn’t the point.

I think one of the reasons Soylent has drawn so much ridicule is that it seems to be saying there’s a magic bullet, a one-size-fits-all solution to this “problem” — a problem that maybe shouldn’t exist in the first place.

To criticize the market for Soylent is to criticize the society which created that market: a society which strives to anesthetize our senses, force us to live vicariously through media, convince us to mistake products for value and productivity for happiness. A society where convenience foods are unhealthy, where we’re all too busy to get to the gym, where we’ve been taught to feel at war with our bodies instead of accepting of their flaws.

In other words, I’m deeply suspicious of a system that puts so much effort into creating conditions where it’s so hard to get this right, and then offers to sell me an over-hyped product to solve it.

So, no — though I think the conversation is fascinating, and I’m glad this is working out for some folks — I don’t think I want to drink nutritional slurry for every meal, thanks just the same. It’s all a bit too dystopian for me.

Or maybe I just need to hold out for Soylent 2.0.

8 thoughts on “On Soylent

  1. I sincerely do hope and plan to one day upload myself into a computer and leave behind these ludicrous biological requirements and limitations.

    I am always saying this is coming soon! They’ll take you because you can code, but I don’t think anyone will invest in uploading me into software. I’m pretty ok with that, though. ;)

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  2. With cooking full meals and the relationship women have with the kitchen, the main difference between now and then is that for most women I know it’s a choice not an expectation. What, they don’t make their partners do the cleanup? Big rookie mistake. I work and I cook for us but it’s a means of creative expression not a wifely duty. And sometimes we have cereal for dinner.

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    • True, it’s more of a choice now (probably more or less so depending on demographic), but I think — especially when it comes to feeding kids — people can still be very judgmental. You’ve never had anyone disapprove of cereal for dinner? I don’t have kids, but I’ve seen friends get flak for that sort of thing. Hopefully that’s in the process of changing, though.

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  3. (e.g. the reliance on maltodextrin, the choice to use canola oil, or the addition of sucralose).

    Argh! I was going to try it (based on Elizabeth’s review) – but now I can’t due to my artificial sweetener allergy. Boo.

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