My Soylent experiments, or, don't try this at home.

You might have heard about Soylent, this drink made by a bunch of Y Combinator softwaremen who wanted to have an alternative to eating food. Supposedly it has all the nutrients you need to be healthy. Now, given my extended joking about Food Cube, I was naturally intrigued.

Plus, they made it sound pretty easy. Make a list of all the nutrients you need. Buy vitamins and stuff until you have all those nutrients. Blend them together.

So I gave it a try. A run to the local GNC, a couple of things off the internet, and a big spreadsheet, and I had Homemade Soylent Version 1. It included whey protein, maltodextrin, olive oil, salt, a multivitamin, potassium chloride, monosodium phosphate, iron, fiber, calcium plus magnesium, and potassium gluconate. I’d tell you the proportions, but I don’t recommend trying it.

It was awful. I made a 2500-calorie batch of it, drank 1/3 of it for breakfast, and felt sick all morning. I couldn’t even think. It felt like I’d eaten a rock. After about half a day (and a couple trips to the bathroom) I could live like a normal human again. Whoops.

So I tried again. (naturally.) Same ingredients, different proportions: more fiber (25g), less calcium magnesium (think I had a little too much before), less maltodextrin and protein powder (for less overall drink), less iron (18mg is just the RDA for women. for men, it’s 8mg).

I’ve almost made it through 1/3 of a day’s supply now, and I don’t quite feel sick. I don’t feel particularly well, though, either. Plus, the thing is quite noxious. I am having a hard time drinking it, and I’m a guy who likes almost any food. I am guessing that a bunch of people who try this are going to find that, like me, they care about taste and texture more than they thought.

Still, though, good luck to them! Since I bought the ingredients, both the canonical example recipe (as made by the folks who are manufacturing Soylent) and the multitude of other recipes (as found on their forums) have evolved quite a bit, so it’s likely that I’m just doing it wrong. But because every bad recipe means a day of drinking gross nonsense, I’m not inclined to experiment further.

(I did preorder a weeks' supply of the “official” stuff, though! I’ll let you know how that turns out.)


Julia -

This is horrifying! I don’t even know where to start!

First off, none of the people working on this project are in any type of medical field. The only person they have who’s even remotely close has a degree in Human Evolutionary Biology. That’s like me saying because I have a degree in biology I’m qualified to be a chemist - I’ve had some chemistry coursework but not enough to let me loose in a chemistry lab and have at it. They need at nutritionist or a medical doctor or something to back them up on this. Just reading the literature yourself isn’t good enough to market this to the world.

Second, their website has no citations, and no like… science. Wikipedia wouldn’t let their blog posts survive 10 minutes on their website.

Third, meal replacement already exists! It’s called Ensure (there are some other versions for tube feeds,too). That’s how we feed people in comas.

Also, for Y Combinator kids their website is surprising mediocre. I’m just all around unimpressed.

I’m done now, please try not to poison yourself with arbritrary concoctions of chemicals :-)

Dan -

1. I think they’re consulting with some nutritionists/doctors, right? google google… I don’t know; even if not, I feel comfortable eating something that’s probably got almost everything I need. I wouldn’t do it 100%; I still like regular food. But even if I did… what’s the concern? That I might be missing some unknown vitamin Q? I mean, sure, but I might be missing vitamin Q now too.

2. There’s not much science behind much of nutrition, either. And a lot of it is bad. (e.g. all the “low fat” stuff in the early 90’s.) Arguably, these guys are more scientific; they can truly experiment and know exactly what goes into their bodies, unlike maybe anyone before.

3. Ensure exists, but judging from their website, has a ton of sugar. I trust a few start-up guys to make something that’s healthy more than I trust any largish corporation. (particularly because they seem relatively open-minded and logical about the whole thing.)

I don’t mean to super hype the whole thing; there are likely downsides. Perhaps the scariest is something like “only fresh food helps your gut flora”, and eating only processed food would make you sick in weird, slow, and subtle ways. (well, really the scariest is something about the social/mental consequences of never eating, but we’re talking nutrition here.) I guess I’d hope that the early adopters (who track their own health pretty intensely) would find this out, and part time Soylent eating seems like it can’t be that bad (and certainly can’t be worse than the cheap Chinese food I’ve been eating for lunch a lot recently).

Julia -

They don’t say anywhere about any nutrionists or doctors that they’ve consulted with - at least not on the soylent website. I haven’t fully explored their individual personal blogs, but either way they don’t make any of it easy to find. All they have is anecdotal commentary and some blood tests from one guy.

On the deficiency note - that’s not what I worry about. I worry more about things like additives that are used to powder all these nutrients, or bizarre interactions between things that someone who is unfamiliar with medicine might not know about. Some of the statements that they make on their blogs make me deeply uncomfortable because they demonstrate a relative naivite about medicine - like saying he got his “genome sequenced” by 23andme - that science is as poorly understood as a lot of nutritional science is, and yet he seems to believe it immediately and without question. Or the fact that he wonders whether a blood sugar of 57 might be the reason he’s tired all the time. 57 is not a number that would concern a doctor in a young non-diabetic person.

As far as “bad science” - a lot of medicine is pretty bad science, we do a lot things in medicine “just because.” But nutrition is a well-defined field and I’m not sure where you’re all getting the statement that there’s not a lot of good science about nutrition. There’s some phenomenal nutrition science out there. It’s the weight loss nutrition that is perhaps more lacking than research about nutritional requirements. But I think part of their issue is that clinical science needs to be navigated differently from basic science because humans are not as consistent as petri dishes. Just a simple pubmed search about nutritional requirements yielded an abundance of pretty solid looking studies, including a lot of enteral nutrition studies. I found studies as far back as the 1960’s on the subject.

And yes, Ensure has a lot of sugar. But lots of patients with diseases like Crohn’s thrive on it anyway. And I find it hard to believe that soylent is low in sugar either.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the idea of liquid diet is bad at all. I spent 8 weeks on a liquid diet myself for medical reasons just last year. I do a lot of liquid only days. I just think that they are not qualified to be developing the product and are saying that they “invented” something that in fact has existed for more than 50 years. On top of that, they have the nerve to tell people who have PhDs in clinical nutrition that their science isn’t real. Mostly these guys just irritate me, I think.

I really want to have this conversation in person, what are you up to these days? I happen to have a lot of free time this month…

Dan -

About “bad science”: well, right. The issue might be that I just get nutrition science filtered through companies promoting their products, which leads me to distrust all nutrition science. (hmm. does this make me like a creationist who sees that we don’t know why the big bang happened and then decides to distrust all of archaeology/physics/etc? yikes! I’d be willing to reconsider this :)

But if the science on nutritional requirements is solid and we know what people need… then why not just make a mix that includes all that stuff?

Additives and interactions: right, there are all sorts of potential problems. I do hope they are consulting with doctors.

Are they unqualified to develop a medicine? Yeah. A food? Nah. All sorts of clowns invent foods all the time! I guess the problem arrives when they claim you can eat only that. I imagine they’ll cover their asses (legally and rhetorically) by saying something like “well, try it at your own risk and see if it works for you.” (which is fine for me, admittedly not for everyone.)

I mean, there is a lot of just plain old corn syrup and sugar in Ensure, which isn’t in Soylent (and they’re selling Ensure in shiny packages on supermarket shelves), which makes me wary about it. But you’re right, they should make it more clear why (in their minds) Soylent is fundamentally different from Ensure, or just admit that they’re making a (maybe) better version of an existing thing.

Anyway, I agree! I’ll follow up in an email.

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