What Makes Food Cyberpunk? Part 2: Soylent, Everything the Body Needs

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When you hear the word Soylent what immediately comes to mind is the 1973 movie Soylent Green. After all, who hasn’t heard the famous line, “Soylent Green is people!” as uttered from the lips of the illustrious Charlton Heston. The real-life Soylent is a 100% nutritionally complete meal replacement that is neither green, nor made of people. However, in its current formulation, it is made from soy protein, algal oil, Isomaltulose (a sweetener), vitamins and minerals. The idea of a all-in-one meal replacement has been explored elsewhere in science fiction, such as in The Matrix. As Dozer remarks in reference to the slop they eat aboard the Nebakanezer, “It has everything the body needs.” Interestingly, the creator of the real Soylent, Rob Rhinehart, said that he derived the name from the novel Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison. In the novel, Soylent’s name comes from soy and lentils. Besides a small hint of people ages 65 and over being forcibly retired there is no suggestion that Soylent is made from people in the book. That is also the case in reality. In fact, it isn’t even made from soy beans and lentils.

soylent green
“Soylent Green is people!” – Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston), Soylent Green

Soylent, as a non-fiction food alternative, began as an experiment by Rhinehart in February of 2013. The goal was to create a single source of sustenance that would be nutritionally complete, everything the body needs. Rhinehart intended to eat nothing but his own early concoction of Soylent for 30 days and report his progress on his blog, Mostly Harmless, which you can still read if you are interested. In the subsequent months, he revised the formula and then ran a crowdfunding campaign on the Tilt platform, which grossed over three million dollars. As of this writing, it is the most funded food related crowdfunding campaign ever. Since then the product has become available via a company called Rosa Labs through the Soylent site. It was originally sold as a powder, but can now be acquired as a non-perishable liquid in the form of Soylent 2.0. Rhinehart had hacked food, not surprising since he is a software engineer by trade.

When I heard about Soylent, I was intrigued but quickly found it was out of my comfortable price range, but then discovered that they had also launched a DIY site to compliment the actual sold product. On the site, they also list the formula for the official product if you are so inclined to make it yourself. There is a massive amount of recipes to choose from that others have created, or you can create your own. The recipes get pretty cheap, under two dollars a meal. Be warned that the initial investment in the ingredients will rival your monthly grocery bill. The DIY Soylent site allows you to build and share your own recipes. There are guides that allow you to build a customized nutrient profile, which shows your required nutritional intake (according to the Food and Drug Administration) based on height, gender, activity level, and weight goal. There is even a tool that tells you if you are in danger levels for certain nutrients that aren’t good for you in too high of concentrations, Vitamin A is on this list. This appealed to the DIY punk/hacker in me, so I designed my own recipe. What I created was highly dependent on pea protein and when finished had the texture and taste of split pea soup. I didn’t stick to it, but the feeling of control over your nutrition is liberating. It is liberating in the sense that you don’t have to rely on corporations to provide nutrition that meets your requirement, which they often fail spectacularly at. If that isn’t punk then I don’t know what is. The only thing that could make this more punk is if Soylent compiled their own suggested nutritional requirements based on scientific literature and ignored the possibly biased/corrupted government guidelines. I missed traditional food by the end of my personal experiment and moved back to my old diet, but I am considering reintroducing Soylent supplementally.

Matrix Soylent
“It has everything the body needs.” Dozer, The Matrix

I’m not the only one who felt this way. Chris Ziegler writing for The Verge tried the official product and decided that although he didn’t mind the taste it left a lot to be desired socially. Not only did it give him some pretty significant gas (apparently this subsides once your body has had time to adjust to the new diet) he said, “Food is not merely sustenance, it’s a tightly woven part of our everyday lives,” in reference to how a Soylent-only diet isolates you from social situations such as dinner dates, drinks with friends, or lunch meetings.  “Yes, eating nothing but a powdered substance that explicitly references a campy sci-fi film from the 1970s feels like the post-apocalyptic future, but it’s not practical or fulfilling. At least, not today,” he says near the conclusion of his article. Or as Mouse might say, “It doesn’t have everything the body needs.”

Does using Soylent as a meal replacement really affect your social life to the degree that Ziegler suggests? Although Soylent is marketed as being all the body needs, they are also quick to point out that not everyone has to eat it for every meal. They suggest that you can eat Soylent when you don’t have time for a nutritious meal, or you need to add more nutrition into your ordinary diet. This means that you could still go out to drink or have a dinner date. Nothing here is absolute. So this isn’t really a valid criticism of Soylent.

Mouse The Matrix
“It doesn’t have everything the body needs.” – Mouse, The Matrix

Soylent definitely has a place in our society. The food system is broken and hopelessly corrupted by food companies. For instance, the amount of meat that that the FDA suggests you eat is out of sync with the science. This is because the meat lobby spent a lot of money to ensure their place in the guidelines, despite the reality of the situation. Protein can come from any number of sources and be as high quality as what you can get from meat. This is especially true of beef which is the most expensive meat and is also expensive in terms of water usage and the effects of the methane on climate change. That being said, the health food world is similarly afflicted. Many of the “natural” or organic foods have little or no basis scientifically for the claim that they are superior to conventionally grown and produced food. For instance, there is an organic foods lobby that is at the forefront of the GMO labeling debate. Their goal is to diminish the appeal of conventionally grown food and brand it as unhealthy while showing that their more expensive food model is superior (this point is debatable). That’s not to say we shouldn’t label GMOs, but we should be aware that there are private interests at play that have capitalistic goals behind this movement. Soylent sidesteps this debate by focusing on a single source of nutrition. The nutritional value of Soylent is not snake oil and has been independently verified. In addition, the open source style model they are using with their recipe and DIY community shows transparency.

But what if at some point in the dystopic future Soylent, or something like it, is used to feed the lower class rather than attempting to provide access to traditionally grown food? In Soylent Green, it exists because the world is so overpopulated that the government has had to resort to extreme measures to feed the population. In The Matrix, it is because of the war between man and machine has desolated the world and severely limited access to resources. In the South Korean film Snowpiercer though, it is more insidious. The higher class members of the society feed the lower class food bars made from bugs so that the limited resources for high-quality food can be kept for the “elite” class. Although the movie is completely satirical and allegorical, it does highlight a problem that could arise out of something like another depression, or an oppressive regime when climate change forces us to change our consumption habits. This doesn’t mean the food is bad, just as technology is never inherently bad. It simply means we should be aware of the potential for abuse and have an ethical discussion about how it may be used in the future.

snowpiercer bug food

Soylent isn’t for everyone, but if you are a hacker or other kind of cyberpunk that needs a nutritionally complete meal with little effort, then Soylent is a great substitute for pizza and cola. It is a good option if you want to take control of your nutrition in a science-based manner and side step the world of food and the huge amount of misdirection taking place there to get you to consume one product or another. You will feel at home with your food from an apocalyptic future.

The first entry in this series can be found here: What Makes Food Cyberpunk? Part 1: The Cola Wars

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