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Man Cannot Live on Soylent Alone

Rob Rhinehart has created a beverage that is “nutritionally complete”: in other words, if you want to, the only substance you will ever have to consume—for the rest of your life—is “Soylent,” his chalky-colored liquid concoction. In his Atlantic piece “The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete [1],” Roc Morin interviewed Rhinehart, and asked him about the genesis and motivation of the Soylent project. The interview revealed some interesting insights into Rhinehart’s understanding of the “natural,” and his rather Hobbesian understanding of the created world. He told Morin:

Mostly I think there’s just an emotional attachment to culture and tradition. People have this belief that just because something is natural it’s good. The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life.

His line about the “natural state of man” can’t help but call to mind Thomas Hobbes’ similar definition: that in the state of nature, man’s life is “solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short [2].” According to Rhinehart’s point of view, food is a basic and practical function that we employ to stay alive. The natural hearkens back to a time of frightening aggression in the created order, and technology is supposed to save us from this natural order of things.

But what of those who believe that “natural” is better? That biting into a fresh, ripe tomato is, in fact, the best thing you can do for both your body and soul? Rhinehart argues that our understanding of such things is skewed by cultural and social precedent. In actuality, he argues, plants are not our friends:

I mean, honestly, nutritionally speaking, canned vegetables are better than fresh ones because fresh ones are decaying. They’re out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them. But if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact. So, it seems kind of backwards I think, actually, to go for fresh. Why are these foods seen as healthy? Looking at all of these hundreds of different plant metabolites, that’s kind of missing the point because a lot of those things that have been tested are harmful. It’s just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side. These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It’s competition.

This point of view negates two important viewpoints: first, the perspective of Christians and other religious people who believe in an intelligent and ordered creation. Second, it undermines the perspective of biologists who believe that nature has evolved to work in conjunction as well as in competition. Food commentator Michael Pollan argues [3] that our social traditions regarding food aren’t bad—in fact, they have historically kept us healthy: before the days of nutrition experts and diet websites, “We relied on culture, which is another way of saying: on the accumulated wisdom of the tribe … All of us carry around rules of thumb about eating that have been passed down in our families or plucked from the cultural conversation.” Additionally, Pollan argued [4] in a 2007 article that evolution has created a symbiotic system between plants, animals, and people—and that we should think of food consumption as a “relationship”:

Species co-evolve with the other species they eat, and very often a relationship of interdependence develops: I’ll feed you if you spread around my genes. A gradual process of mutual adaptation transforms something like an apple or a squash into a nutritious and tasty food for a hungry animal. Over time and through trial and error, the plant becomes tastier (and often more conspicuous) in order to gratify the animal’s needs and desires, while the animal gradually acquires whatever digestive tools (enzymes, etc.) are needed to make optimal use of the plant.

In other words, the evolution of plant, animal, and human life has created interlocking compatibility—a system that helps keep our world, and ourselves, healthy. What Rhinehart is actually arguing for, Pollan makes clear, is “nutritionism”:

In the case of nutritionism, the widely shared but unexamined assumption is that the key to understanding food is indeed the nutrient. From this basic premise flow several others. Since nutrients, as compared with foods, are invisible and therefore slightly mysterious, it falls to the scientists (and to the journalists through whom the scientists speak) to explain the hidden reality of foods to us. To enter a world in which you dine on unseen nutrients, you need lots of expert help.

But expert help to do what, exactly? This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates’s famous injunction to “let food be thy medicine” is ritually invoked to support this notion. I’ll leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say, or socializing — makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe that it may make them more healthy.

Even Rhinehart can’t cast aside these food benefits entirely. In his interview, he tells Morin that he’s looking forward to a time when “people make food just because it’s beautiful—like gardening, or painting. I’m looking forward to the point where food can just be art.”

It’s interesting: Rhinehart can deny any sort of natural dependency that we have on food. But he can’t deny our aesthetic dependency on it: the way our souls starve for its color, texture, and diverse assortment of tastes. He only confirms the fact that our souls hunger and thirst in a way that can’t be quenched with Soylent. Why? Why is it that we can’t “evolve” past our love of food?

Perhaps we could. Perhaps, with time, we could learn to love the milky nourishment of Soylent, and wean ourselves off of solid substances. But honestly, I know very few who would want to undergo this sort of evolution. In our hearts and souls, we love the beauty of the fruits of the earth. And, in this sense—regardless of Rhinehart’s claims—natural food is truly good for us.

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#1 Comment By La Lubu On April 30, 2014 @ 1:03 pm

That food-can-be-“just”-art is the most bizarre proposition in his whole sales pitch. Food already is art; art that is pleasing to more senses than just the eyes. I can’t help but wonder if this guy has a sensory-processing disorder.

In any case, it’s clear he has never experienced sensual pleasure from food. Never enjoyed food for its smell, taste or texture. His product may be nutritionally complete, but is sensually empty—no flavor, texture, or color. It also takes no creativity or skill to make (cooking is a sensual and creative pleasure). Bah.

What the hell has gone so wrong in this man’s life that he thinks the joy and pleasure of cooking and eating is a problem to be solved rather than an experience to savor?

#2 Comment By elizabeth On April 30, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

Another issue with Rhinehart’s argument is his ignorant support of canned food. 90% of the cells in any human being are those of bacteria and other microbes that share our space and make us the community of beings that we are. Traditional cultures all include fermented foods that, it turns out, are very good for us. This fear of microbes is irrational. Most microbes are neutral and many are quite good.

But one of the biggest arguments against him is “BORING.”

#3 Comment By grumpy realist On April 30, 2014 @ 2:33 pm

Whaaaa?

Methinks this guy is a mad scientist wanna-be who would prefer we all uploaded ourselves into computer cyborgia and lived off recorded memories.

We eat food because it’s pleasurable and it satisfies the rumblings in our tummies.

You can take the BBQed pork ribs from me when you can pry them from my cold dead hands….

#4 Comment By grumpy realist On April 30, 2014 @ 2:35 pm

Also, I wonder if someone didn’t originally lift this from the Onion. Who in the heck if they were really serious about naming a universal food call it “Soylent”? To most anyone, that immediately brings the Harry Harrison SF novel to mind.

#5 Comment By Gracy Olmstead On April 30, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

grumpy realist,

According to the Atlantic article, that was intentional: “With tongue firmly in cheek, he named it after the ubiquitous food substitute Soylent Green found in the dystopian science fiction movie of the same name.”

#6 Comment By Patrick D On April 30, 2014 @ 2:57 pm

Bizarre. The guy knows the greater reality of his endeavor but doesn’t seem to understand it.

“What’s fascinating to me is not so much that I can live on something that’s designed deliberately, but how well the body manages to live on the random stuff that we eat. It’s such an adaptable, remarkable system.”

“It’s your gut bacteria. So, if you let those die off, there will be precious little waste. That’s basically what I did by consuming very, very little fiber. And, I felt great. But, when I would try to eat normal food again, it was very, very painful, because I didn’t have the bacteria to digest it. So, that was the trade-off.”

“We have testing data about everything in there. Everything is tested rigorously. We worry about a lot of things so that the user doesn’t have to.”

So his “value proposition” is that humans allow their highly adaptable, flexible digestive systems able to derive nutrition from “random stuff” to atrophy as those multiple sources of sustenance are replaced by a much narrower selection represented by Soylent… the implicit assumption being science understands everything human nutrition completely and the impact such a radical change with have on human physiology.

This guy has no understanding of risk.

#7 Comment By mrscracker On April 30, 2014 @ 3:17 pm

It’s a silly idea but kinda balances out all the food-worship that goes on.
Anyway, I actually prefer home canned green beans to fresh.The flavor’s more concentrated.Especially simmering with some ham on the back of the stove all day.

#8 Comment By HeartRight On April 30, 2014 @ 3:36 pm

Cooking made us human.

‘Why Are Humans Different From All Other Apes? It’s the Cooking, Stupid ‘

[6]
[7]

#9 Comment By FatHappySouthernBoy On April 30, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

“The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better.”

Correction, we have technology that makes life easier, not better.

#10 Comment By genotypical On April 30, 2014 @ 4:17 pm

OT, but this author has hit on one of my pet peeves. Those of us scientists who study biology are biologists, NOT “evolutionists”! The latter is a term employed by creationists to give the patently false impression that significant numbers of biologists do not accept the fact that evolution is the bedrock of our science.

#11 Comment By mrscracker On April 30, 2014 @ 4:49 pm

Just FYI:
“Jesus knew how to cook and “practiced the culinary arts” in order to feed his disciples, according to Father Giovanni Cesare Pagazzi, an Italian theologian…
“A careful reading of the Gospel shows us not only Jesus’ liking for conviviality, but also his excellent knowledge of and production and preparation of food,” writes Father Pagazzi. “He knew even the precise dose of yeast to be added to flour in making bread,” as demonstrated in Matthew 13:33.”

[8]

#12 Comment By Mandark On April 30, 2014 @ 5:31 pm

You guys are missing the point here. Soylent wasn’t meant to completely replace food or force anyone to stop indulging in food as we know it, it’s just meant to offer a pragmatic alternative. It’s a fully nutritional, affordable food source that can be stored for months to a year. Think of the effect it could have in reducing food waste, starvation and hunger, and poverty. It’s your call on whether you choose to eat it or not, but you can’t deny the potential this has on a global scale.

#13 Comment By Mandark On April 30, 2014 @ 5:32 pm

Plus by definition a man could live off Soylent alone. That’s the entire point.

#14 Comment By M_Young On April 30, 2014 @ 5:40 pm

Good to see the millennial generation can still refer to one of the greatest dystopian films ever (though it did wreck Beethoven’s 6th (the Pastoral) for me.

#15 Comment By Viking On April 30, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

Gracy and grumpy realist, Harrison’s 1966 novel, “Make Room! Make Room!”, did not feature cannibalism, nor did it, I believe, call it “soylent green”, but rather just “soylent”. And soylent was taken from the names of its components: soy(a) and lent(il). It was the 1973 movie which gave the world the ghastly slogan “Soylent Green Is People!”. So, Rhinehart is going back to the original meaning of the coined word, not Hollywood’s. Of course, since his “food” features neither of the legumes in question, it’s still somewhat shaky etymologically, as well as in other ways.

#16 Comment By Kevin On April 30, 2014 @ 8:09 pm

It is important to note that Rob still does eat food, just very deliberately. He still enjoys a masterfully prepared meal shared with friends once a day. The truth is, most meals are “enjoyed” forgettably and alone. Your instant oatmeal, deli sandwich, takeout Chinese kind of meals. Rob is quite right to say that meals like these ought not to hold a sentimental place in our hearts, and Soylent is healthier.

#17 Comment By geronimo On April 30, 2014 @ 10:05 pm

It’s all fun and games until the oil runs out. Then you die because you can no longer eat unprocessed food.

People should think long term.

#18 Comment By ThomasH On April 30, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

A tincture of this attitude might be a useful antidote to the idea that anything “artificial”, “processed,” “non-‘organic,'” “chemical,” or “GMO” is bad, but as a whole it is nonsense.

#19 Comment By Oisín On May 1, 2014 @ 6:17 am

This idea is not necessarily even scientifically strong – it very much depends on whether or not there is enjoyment in consuming his smoothies.
There was an article in either New Scientist or Scientific American a few years back (sorry, can’t find it), about an experiment in which people were fed on liquidised/blended meals, compared to a control group who ate the exact same food whole. Those in the control group apparently were able to metabolise the food – and absorb nutrients – better than those who drank/ate the blended soups. It seemed that actually enjoying food can increase your body’s ability to metabolise it better.

#20 Comment By Gracy Olmstead On May 1, 2014 @ 8:42 am

genotypical,

Sorry about that — changed it to “biologists.” Thanks!

#21 Comment By La Lubu On May 1, 2014 @ 9:09 am

The truth is, most meals are “enjoyed” forgettably and alone. Your instant oatmeal, deli sandwich, takeout Chinese kind of meals.

Apparently, you don’t know where to get a good deli sandwich or Chinese takeout! And good food doesn’t stop tasting delicious when eaten solo, either. You’re missing my point: eating good food is a pleasurable sensual experience that is still accessible to the majority of people, including those who don’t earn very much money. It’s one of the simple pleasures in life that we can still enjoy.

To be blunt about it, food is an equalizer, a leveling experience. My deli sandwich (which is usually brought from home, I’m a Sicilian food snob!) tastes just as good as anything that ever graced the plate of some millionaire across town. My taste buds get to experience something magnificent every single day despite the neighborhood I live in, the non-clean air I’m breathing, the low-rent school district my daughter is in, the fact we’ve never had a “real” vacation (meaning one where you actually stay in a hotel room instead of some relative’s couch, and go somewhere nice like a beach or a mountain instead of a backyard that looks just like home! *smile*)—my taste buds get the millionaires’ experience! When I eat a good meal, I’m getting the same peak experience I could never afford in any other arena of life. And most of those great meals? Are nothing more than “peasant food”. The poorest people on earth taught everyone else how to eat.

Which is one of the things brought out in Soylent Green—food, real food, was no longer accessible to working people. Only the elite of the elite got to sit down to actual food; everyone else ate library paste.

And that’s supposed to attract me? The uppity working class person that still gets to savor the taste, smell and texture of fabulous food, because even cheap ingredients (hell, especially cheap ingredients!) make good eats?! Gee, what’s next, ya gonna stab my eyeballs out so I can’t watch the sunset?

#22 Comment By stef On May 1, 2014 @ 9:32 am

My guess is that he’s a transhumanist, too. Doesn’t like breastfeeding (probably for the same reason he didn’t like salad: because it’s “animalistic.”)

I seriously do not want to know what he thinks about sex or childbirth. *shudder*

Also, the money quote: Currently we’re seeing a lot of interest from younger, educated males…

I bet you are, darlin’.

#23 Comment By David Naas On May 1, 2014 @ 11:52 am

Bad, BAD old science-fiction dreams, back to Wells.
Human beings are not robots who require “fuel” and occasional lubrication.

#24 Comment By mrscracker On May 1, 2014 @ 12:01 pm

La Lubu :
“And most of those great meals? Are nothing more than “peasant food”. The poorest people on earth taught everyone else how to eat.”
*********************************************
As demonstrated by the random parts of hog meat & innards currently considered hip & served in high rent establishments.

#25 Comment By cdugga On May 1, 2014 @ 12:39 pm

We can supplement nature if done right, but we cannot replace it.
Brings to mind the fight between those who call themselves environmentalists and the, whoever they are’s, that demonize environmental concerns by labeling them tree huggers. As if that were an insult! Most self proclaimed environmentalists don’t seem to understand that the kind of nature they think they want to preserve really isn’t around much and is very rare, even in national parks. They appear to believe that if we would just leave things alone then nature would do just fine. But with invasive species, changing climate, whether caused by cow flatulence or the hand of god, acidification of our air, oceans and groundwater, our fragmented ecosystems are unable to evolve and adapt to allow for the nature of the environmental dreamer.
So, when we hear somebody saying they can replace nature, we should know they can replace it with something, but it will never be a substitute for the real thing. And if somebody says we should just leave nature to do its thing, they are totally unaware of the nature of things.
Creation has become what we allow to be created more than what was created for us by deity. Both environmentalists and those demeaning them avoid that responsibility and cost. Like, I’ll have some soylent to spread on my salad if it will make it better, but don’t ask me not to cut away the fast growing vines and brush so that my tree can grow in the warmer world with half again more available CO2 then just a few hundred years ago. Nature has never been this way for the whole evolution of mankind. We’re in charge now. What are we to do about that? Deny it and follow the piper (soylent at wl-mrt for 4.99 vs fresh fruit and veggies at the exclusive holy foods for 3X’s that), or accept that a better world with a better quality of life isn’t soylent, isn’t cheap, and isn’t something to leave up to god, or purported free market of god willing.
The aesthetic of being human and part of a culture is a reflection of natural aesthetics they allow, encourage, or have to survive in. It appears that the cradle of civilization and much of humanity are rapidly de-evolving into minimum requirements. Many Americans already seem to believe that all they really need for the coming future is an assault rifle to defend themselves, their beliefs and their possessions, even while that kind of tribal culture commits a slow suicide on the nightly news right before their eyes.
A soylent future might allow more time for higher level pursuits than maintaining and preparing sustenance, but I doubt it. And it seems unlikely that those higher level pursuits would result in culture capable of appreciating the very things that could allow a better quality of life. A world where there are many hours of the day freed up to allow more play phone inanity along with more video game destructions and fantasy tv, will be reflected in the world around us, and the only winners will be the ones that profit from creating conflict in reality. Creative destruction. Personal accountability, or being accountable only to oneself. Liberty, but not in my backyard. Community subservient to business. The god that materially rewards the righteous and leaves the poor their just deserts. Let them eat soylent.

#26 Comment By La Lubu On May 1, 2014 @ 1:29 pm

Stef: hear, hear! If sensual food bothers him, it doesn’t speak well for his attitude towards sex!

#27 Comment By Philosofikal On May 1, 2014 @ 2:18 pm

This article is a failure. This is why.

“But what of those who believe that “natural” is better? That biting into a fresh, ripe tomato is, in fact, the best thing you can do for both your body and soul?”

[9]

Being natural has absolutely nothing to do with the positive or negative qualities of anything. Yeah, a fresh tomato is “natural”, but frankly, so is poop, and I wouldn’t want to put that in my mouth for its naturalness. Naturality is irrelevant.

“This point of view negates two important viewpoints: first, the perspective of Christians and other religious people who believe in an intelligent and ordered creation.”

Who cares about their viewpoints? Are their viewpoints proven or based on any kind of relevant knowledge or science? Just believing in something doesn’t make it true or relevant.

“This brings us to another unexamined assumption: that the whole point of eating is to maintain and promote bodily health. Hippocrates’s famous injunction to “let food be thy medicine” is ritually invoked to support this notion. I’ll leave the premise alone for now, except to point out that it is not shared by all cultures and that the experience of these other cultures suggests that, paradoxically, viewing food as being about things other than bodily health — like pleasure, say, or socializing — makes people no less healthy; indeed, there’s some reason to believe that it may make them more healthy.”

Isn’t it obvious that the central point of eating is to fuel the body? Of course, since eating is a universal and essential action, lots of beneficial culture has come up around food itself, but that is not the main purpose of eating, nor is it an essential part of the experience. It doesn’t matter, though, because those kinds of experiences are not targeted by Soylent or were ever intended to be replaced by Soylent. Which brings me to my final and most important refutation;

“In his interview, he tells Morin that he’s looking forward to a time when “people make food just because it’s beautiful—like gardening, or painting. I’m looking forward to the point where food can just be art.”

“Perhaps, with time, we could learn to love the milky nourishment of Soylent, and wean ourselves off of solid substances. But honestly, I know very few who would want to undergo this sort of evolution.”

You have failed to grasp the purpose of Soylent. Soylent was never intended to be a complete and total replacement for all meals, it is only intended to be a complete nutritional meal so that you COULD do this. Could is not the same as should. In fact, Rheinhart never advocated actually going full replacement at any point in time, nor does he do this himself. You recognized the silliness of this yourself by (correctly) acknowledging that very few people will want to actually do this, and yet ironically, you don’t get Rheinhart’s quote at all…

The true purpose of Soylent is to separate the actions of eating for nutrition and eating for pleasure, and by doing that, being able to do both to the fullest. Soylent ends the need for greasy fast food burgers on the run; Soylent ends the need for the cash strapped to eat garbage to stay on budget; Soylent ends the need to count calories, plan means, or have a salad instead of a main course. Soylent even improves the planned meals that you claim it destroys. Those meals not only can be eaten guilt-free because the rest of the diet is perfectly balanced, but it enhances them because of the contrast of the mild taste of Soylent to the deliciousness of a well-made meal. This is what Rheinhart means by making food art. In the end, Soylent destroys the problems that curse modern cuisine and enhances everything beautiful about it.

#28 Comment By grumpy realist On May 1, 2014 @ 2:19 pm

Ah, so it’s Ensure for the Young Libertarian gaming crowd. Explains everything.

And considering how much fun most of us have seated around the table with witty friends savouring things like a crisp salad and fine wines—-nope, not gonna happen.

#29 Comment By La Lubu On May 1, 2014 @ 3:51 pm

“Ensure for young libertarians.” LOL!!!

Perfect description!

#30 Comment By Dummy On May 3, 2014 @ 8:01 am

You know you’re on the side of the internet when >90% of the commenters take the same position.. I guess I can’t expect people to read deeper than the headline, though. I’m going to throw a couple hypothetical situations out there and see if you can extrapolate:

– A daily commuter who wants to spice up their workweek diet with nutrition instead of another waffle taco or similarly disgusting fast-food breakfast

– A night-shift worker(read: cafeteria’s closed) without a long enough–if any–lunch break to eat a proper meal

– A person without access to/funds to afford so-called “natural”(God obviously wanted us to create pesticides and GMOs to improve upon nature where he left off) food from the supermarket in order to supplement their diet with bioavailable vitamins and minerals

– Someone with a GI tract disorder that experiences direct pain, not pleasure, from eating certain kinds of foods

It isn’t being shoved down your gullet, folks. It’s for people that want it.

#31 Comment By Tyro On May 3, 2014 @ 9:45 pm

It should be noted that soylent received a lot of support from many fans when the idea is proposed. It is well and good to believe that soylent takes the beauty and pleasure out of food, but the fact is that there are many people that prioritize those things far, far less than you do when it comes to their food.

Some people wax rhapsodic about the sensual experiences of driving a well made car and the freedom of the open road. But lots of people just buy a used Honda Civic to get them from point A to point B..

#32 Comment By Joan On May 4, 2014 @ 12:00 am

I’ve known people who’ve fantasized about something like this. They were workaholics who resented having to interrupt the accomplishment process in order to take care of their bodily needs, not just eating but also sleeping and using the bathroom. Not all of them were college-educated but, by remarkable coincidence, all of them were white and male. A female friend of mine called the hypothetical stuff they wanted to be able to swallow in a few seconds so they could get right back to work “bachelor kibble”.

#33 Comment By Jack On May 6, 2014 @ 6:41 pm

I feel that the author is picking only from the parts of Rob’s comments which would support her opinion. Given the text presented, I can see where Gracy is coming from. However, Rhinehart has made made the statement that Soylent doesn’t exist to take over the human diet entirely. It’s for the times when someone is compelled to go to Taco Bell and back. I have no qualms with this.

#34 Comment By Guest On May 11, 2014 @ 11:26 am

@Jack

Why rush to Taco Bell for a meal? What drives that compulsion to opt for one cheap and fast meal over another? You should have qualms as to why someone is only able to think of food, a pretty crucial element to living organism like us, as either processed meats and corn derivatives or a reconstituted liquid.