The End of Food?

Not long ago at National Geographic, we took a look in our April edition at Soylent, the edible mixture unappetizingly referred to as a meal replacement. Soylent may be best described as a smoothie of raw nutrients, exactly what your body needs each day and nothing more. It’s story of development—featured this month in the New Yorker—is perfectly logical. A bunch of young, male entrepreneurs trying to launch a tech start up realized a vitamin slurry would help avoid the chore and expense of eating actual food.

Over the past two years, Soylent has grown into a viable business. And that’s in spite of the unusual decision for the developers to post the recipe for free online—which has spurred fan fiction offshoots that go by names like “chocolate silk,” “premium bachelor chow,” and “I hope this doesn’t kill me.” For all the initial discomfort about drinking your dinner, there’s veracity to founder Rob Rhinehart’s claim that as much as we all enjoy food, not every meal is unique or even memorable. A product like Soylent isn’t coming after fun dinners and potlucks with friends, it’s trying to replace forgettable meals like frozen, unhealthy food eaten for convenience, often alone. So far it’s found its audience. According to the founders, they now receive $10,000 in orders every day. Demand is so high that new customers are asked to wait 10 to 12 weeks for their initial shipment.

The soupy substance’s other implication has to do with farmland and water. Distilling raw nutrients isn’t simple or cheap, but it’s far less intensive than growing actual crops using water, energy, and land. A staggering ten percent of water in California is used to grow almonds. It’s easy to imagine the benefit of getting the same magnesium, potassium, and Vitamin E that you’d find in almonds without having to farm them.

Soylent’s official slogan is “free your body” but others, including writer Lizzie Widdicombe, have curtly referred to it as “the end of food,” a phrase both confusing and a little sad. Most humans like food, not just the food itself, but the experience of food. Yet perhaps the meal replacement’s best application might be as a meal alternative—as a back up to swap in for both inconvenient meals and in case of a larger food crisis no one saw coming.