Snack To the Future

Soylent illustration-01I began consuming Soylent 2.0 this April, three months after I learned about it online. Soylent 2.0 is a meal replacement beverage created by Rob Rhinehart, who marketed his product in 2013 by eating nothing but Soylent for 30 days and blogging about the experience. The idea of a liquid diet fascinated me. It was almost unbelievable that Soylent had all the nutrients my body needed. I’d be able to throw a few bottles in my backpack and forget about the dining halls. I would have more time to sleep and do homework. If I liked Soylent, I thought, living off campus next year would be a breeze, since I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking or shopping for food.

Even so, the name Soylent didn’t sit quite right with me. Hearing it, all I could think of was the famous line in the 1973 sci-fi film Soylent Green: “Soylent Green is people!” Detective Thorne, the film’s hero, screams the words as he discovers a secret that the Soylent Corporation doesn’t want the world to know: Soylent Green, the food substitute that most of New York City’s residents rely on for their survival, is made out of human beings. Why would Rhinehart name his meal replacement Soylent?

Rhinehart’s Soylent isn’t made from people—ingredients include filtered water, maltodextrin, soy protein isolate, high oleic algal oil, isomaltulose, canola oil, rice starch, oat fiber, isomaltooligosaccharide, and soy lecithin. The macronutrient ratio is 33:47:20, which means 33 percent of calories come from carbohydrates, 47 percent from lipids, and 20 percent from proteins. There are four Soylent products on the market: Soylent 1.6, a powder; Soylent 2.0, a bottled drink; Coffeeist, a caffeinated Soylent 2.0; and Soylent Bar, a snack bar with a salted caramel flavor. The sleek white bottle of Soylent 2.0 has a black cap and displays two pieces of information in black, sans-serif font: soylent. 400 kcal. Assuming you’re a normal American, you need 2,000 daily kcal, which means all you need to do to keep typing lines of code 24/7/365 is drink five bottles of Soylent 2.0 each day.

I decided to ignore my concerns and judge the drink itself. At the time I was taking a class on sustainable food and agriculture, and for my final project, the Yale Sustainable Food Program granted me $400 to purchase all the bottles I needed to survive for thirty days. To test Rhinehart’s claim that Soylent is nutritionally complete, my diet was 100 percent liquid Soylent, 0 percent chewable. There were concessions I wasn’t willing to make for the duration, like giving up coffee and staying completely away from the dining hall. Once a day or so I sipped burnt black coffee as my friends sated their appetites with chicken tenders and hard-boiled eggs. But for the most part, I took meals alone, in my dorm room and during breaks between classes.

As I grew accustomed to the tan, thick, and bland liquid, which conceals its true textural nature—sandpaper—until it reaches the esophagus, I was increasingly disinterested in consuming it. I lost thirteen pounds. I didn’t ever feel very hungry or very tired. Instead I had a consistent hum of energy from half past nine to just after midnight. I had ample time for classwork. I recorded my “average mood” each day, which was usually slightly negative or neutral. When I decided to free-associate with the word Soylent on day six, I wrote down control, serialization, and crazy. On day thirteen I wrote down diarrhea. In my Excel spreadsheet I created a column for writing down other notes, and the most common word in that column was alone. The second most common word was frustration.

Four bottles a day—10:30am, 1:30pm, 4:30pm, and 7:30pm—was my rhythm. It was four-on-the-floor energy, no more and no less than what I needed. I like to make electronic music, and without explicit intention everything I made while on Soylent was around one hundred beats per minute with a kick drum on quarter notes, the sort of commercial groove that leaves you longing for something with soul.

At 1:30pm, truly on the dot—I remember checking the time on my iPhone—while walking back from a logic class, I slipped on early spring ice outside the C.E.I.D. Perfectly on schedule, I had an open, chilled bottle of my chalky Soylent in hand, which I was sipping slowly. I must have spilled 40 calories or so, and I remember thinking I had made an irrevocable mistake. My mind shot straight to the boxes of Soylent in my dorm room, to the fear of being hungry right around 11:30pm that night, to the questions of whether, now 40 kcal short of my thirty-day caloric need calculation—two thousand per day times thirty—I would be slightly undernourished, and whether I was doing myself psychological harm by experimenting with this crazy liquid food. To my horror, I made eye contact with a student walking the other way on my right. She glanced in disgust at the slimy gray puddle I had created. This happened on day seven, April 4.

In my journal I often wrote that relationships with my friends were beginning to frustrate me. During that month, I thought it was because I had time away from the dining halls to lie on my navy blue duvet, look through my ceiling’s dusty skylight-on-a-slant, and think clearly about Big Questions. I spent hours and hours in that position, ignoring text messages, feeling anonymous, turning food cravings into nagging self-doubt. Pre-April I was spending that time in dining halls, laughing over chicken nuggets and Brussels sprouts with the very friends I would soon complain about in April’s journal entries.

But there is a better explanation. Soylent came up in conversation time and time again: what it tasted like, whether it was a life hack, how my digestion was. Those conversations, the brief kind you have with more casual friends, got old for me and my closer friends. “Let me guess—you’re talking about Soylent again,” was the biting remark that reminded me not to talk about my experience, my foray into the so-called future of food, too dull to dwell on. Someone in particular said that to me a few times, granted, but routinely I said it to myself.

Soylent 2.0, the latest and greatest, is ideology. Subsume the urge to eat and the joy of sharing a meal under obstacles to productivity. Stamp out the tiresome clatter of cooking from your busy and important life. Free yourself to do the things that actually matter faster and better than ever before. But do always remember: your productivity is an end in and of itself. You will get very hungry indeed if you notice that you’re all alone and you forget why you’re in such a rush. The black-and-white, less-is-more of Soylent offers no answer to that question. It won’t engage you in dialogue, the way the friends you used to eat with did. Sure, Soylent 2.0 is no Soylent Green. It isn’t made out of human beings. But it has a different secret. It will control you. It will empty you. And it will isolate you, too. I lived on it for a month of my life, sipping, digesting, and ridding myself of the very life forces that food should sustain.

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