What better way to start a website about the science of food production than with an article discussing a future without food?
Actually, what is being analysed here is not the end of food altogether, but rather replacing the intake of the required chemicals and compounds needed by the body, normally obtained by consuming fruit, vegetables and the like, with an alternative. Specifically, we are looking at a meal replacement called Soylent, designed to provide all the necessary carbohydrates, lipids, proteins, vitamins and trace elements needed in one “meal”.
Although the idea of a food replacement product isn’t new, having been used in medicine and to treat malnutrition of children in parts of Africa, the idea behind the creation of Soylent was inspired by it’s creator’s frustration at the cost and inconvenience of getting the nutrition required whilst he and his friends were working on a number of tech start-up ideas. Scarcity of time and money pushed him into looking for alternatives.
Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s creator, explained to Lizzie Widdicombe of the New Yorker that he considered obtaining the essential components from food was inefficient.
“You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” (Lizzie Widdicombe, ‘The End of Food’)
Rhinehart studied the body’s required nutrients and trialled a number of drinks made from oils and powders containing these dietary components in their basic form. He wrote a blog post after having lived on his own creation for 30 days detailing the ideology and methods behind his idea.
Leaving aside critiques of Soylent citing the loss of sociability or enjoyment of eating regular meals as a downside, there is some debate about whether Soylent provides all the nutrients required by the body. I found no published studies on this. Although long term effects of any deficiencies would be difficult to test for (and unethical save for in a cohort study), the number of enthusiasts in the DIY Soylent community could provide the basis for a comparison study with enough statistical power to draw some conclusion on the effects of short and medium term use of the product.
However, the nutritional problem may arise in the context of what we don’t know, or what we are still learning, about nutrition than what we do know. Widdicombe’s article noted that a number of the doctors she spoke with advised that although someone could survive on Soylent it’s lack of phytochemicals could cause issues, citing some epidemiological studies which correlated lower cancer and diabetes rates with the consumption of some classes of phytochemicals (here is one journal article from 2014 regarding a possible link between Lycopene, a phytochemical, and prostate cancer rates. I haven’t researched this or other links between phytochemicals and adverse health effects in detail).
Another problem was raised by Joy Dubost, a dietician, in an article in Time where she said that besides the product’s claims not being substantiated;
Taking the pleasurable experience out of eating is counterintuitive because savoring a meal helps release hormones that regulate satiety and suppression of appetite. “If you’re not enjoying your food, chances are, you are going to overeat or undereat,” says Dubost.
These two problems appear to be relevant only to the consumer who replaces all or most of their meals with such a replacement, and may have little relevance to a person who has a baseline diet consisting of foods that are lacking the basic nutrients required anyway – a current problem of epidemic proportions. A possible consumer avoiding Soylent because it may increase the possibility of contracting diabetes only to resume a diet of minimal nutritional value with high sugar content is of course absurd.
If Soylent or a similar meal replacement product could be used as a cheap supplement by those who may not be able to afford (in time or in cost) regular healthy food, and should the ingredient list keep up to date with the progression in our knowledge of nutrient requirements, then surely there is place for it. What it needs first is an independent study comparing a range of usage amounts (replacing all meals, most meals, some meals) in one group with a second group of people holding a range of regular eating habits (healthy, unhealthy and categories in between). This would give us a better understand the bioavailability of each of the nutrients in the product and identify what categories of people would benefit from consuming the alternative.
What excited me the most about Rhinehart’s idea was not the product but a possible way of producing the ingredients – using algae. He has a utopian idea of producing a ‘superalgae’ that could produce all the necessary ingredients, which may be an idea constrained by the ability of the algae to survive with a large number of inserted genes, but the idea has some merit. We have been able to produce bacteria and yeast that secrete desire proteins for some time (insulin, for example) and perhaps a variety of microorganisms can be designed to cheaply, efficiently and with small environmental effect produce the compounds required. Including these compounds in the diet could reduce the land pressure and cost in feeding a growing world population and reducing current problems with malnutrition in both first and third worlds.