Diet of the Future?

Doc Says No to Soylent

Liquid diets are nothing new to doctors, whose patients often live on them for short or long periods of time. So what’s the big deal about Soylent?

Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty

There are many cultural phenomena that leave me scratching my head. I don’t get the appeal of most reality shows, for example. Replacing the bread in a sandwich with fried meat makes me worry the apocalypse is nigh. For some reason Justin Bieber is still famous. But little has perplexed me in recent years quite so much as the supposed miracle that is Soylent.

If you happen to have missed all the coverage of this wondrous food replacement, it is the brainchild of Rob Rinehart, a 25-year-old entrepreneur. Apparently dissatisfied with all the inefficiency that goes into the production, preparation, and consumption of food, Rinehart read up a lot on nutrition and whipped up a powdered product on which he has been surviving for over a year. He is now proselytizing about its benefits and shipping it to interested customers, reportedly in the tens of thousands.

“What if,” its website asks, “you never had to worry about food again?”

Could it be the end of food? Could this new beverage be the next phase in human nourishment?

Color me skeptical.

I will admit at the outset that I was never going to be part of this product’s target audience. Yes, there is some hassle involved in going to the store, purchasing bacon, taking it home, cooking it, and cleaning up afterward. Thankfully, those tiresome steps lead to a lovely reward: You get to eat bacon. Bacon will always win for me in a head-to-head against something that could accurately be described as “slurry,” no matter how tidy the prep for the latter may be. And I’m probably going to say the same about any actual foodstuff you could name.

But let’s just say I’ve gotten tired of all the wear and tear on my teeth, and am eager to replace food with a liquid nutrition delivery system. What is all this hoopla about Soylent? Why does it get to be the end of food? Do none of Rinehart’s lifehacking new customers have recourse to Ensure?

Were you to show up at the hospitals where I am on staff, I could introduce you (well, I could if it weren’t a socially awkward HIPAA violation) to many patients who have subsisted in whole or in part on liquid nutrition for years. Anyone who really wants to throw in the towel on chewing can order any number of nutritionist-developed products with a minimum of fuss. Heck, you can order 24 cans of Jevity for much less than you’d pay for 21+ “meals” of Soylent.

Would I recommend this for any of my patients who didn’t have a neurological or gastrointestinal problem that precluded eating food? No, I would not. I share the concerns of many unconvinced scientists that Rinehart is kind of making this up as he goes along, and doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He poo-poos the importance of phytochemicals, but (as reported by The New Yorker) once tried to live on an all-kale diet. While I don’t believe that the various antioxidant chemicals in plants will cure our every ailment, neither do I think it’s wise to blithely cut them out of one’s diet entirely.

But even assuming Rinehart has devised a liquid diet on which one can survive, so what? I mean, good for him for completing a science project successfully, but why all the hype? What does Soylent have going for it other than missionary zeal and a revoltingly kitschy sci-fi throwback name? When did we all forget about the existence of Slimfast?

For all you people who having something better to do than eating, you probably won’t kill yourself living off of Soylent. That’s as rousing an endorsement as I can muster. But it’s no more the end of food than Nutren was, no matter the breathless headlines.

Which is good, because food is delicious.