As many of you discovered from my scathing review of Visalus, I’m not a huge fan of meal replacement shakes. They are often cheaply made, include questionable ingredients and fillers, and leave your body void of necessary macro-and micronutrients.
So when I heard about the crowd-funded product Soylent, which is scientifically engineered to provide “complete nutrition” in liquid form, I will admit that I expected to hate it before I could even do my first Google search. Bias aside, after much research and pouring over their ingredients, here is my take on whether it’s worth the money (and yes, the risk).
First off, what the heck does Soylent mean?
The term Soylent was coined in Harry Harrison’s 1966 Make Room! Make Room! novel which solved the world’s food supply shortage with a product called Soylent; a supposed blend of soya and lentil (spoiler alert: although hard to do, it was something much worse than soybeans!).
Soylent is a pouch of powder that has been engineered to include a full day’s worth of perfectly blended macro- and micronutrients for the human body. Simply add water and a Soylent Oil Pack (fish oil and canola oil) and you have what they call the “nutritionally complete food replacement”.
The Creator Rob Rhinehart, in his popular online essay How I Stopped Eating Food, says:
“I feel full after drinking a single glass of Soylent and while the smell of Mexican food from the street used to drive me crazy, now I am unaffected. It’s like finding a new partner you really care about. When all your needs are met, you don’t have a desire to stray.”
Wow. For an engineer, he’s pretty poetic.
Which is my next point. The Creator is an engineer. Hence the crowdsourced start-up, the over-use of molecule models on their website, and the forward-thinking DIYSoylent, an open forum for people to hack (nerd translation: create) their own Soylent-esque recipes. Although most of the hacked recipes look like they’d taste about as good as my toilet seat, I’m pretty impressed with Soylent’s commitment to making nutrition accessible to all and providing a great resource for sharing those recipes.
In fact, another great quote from Rob Rhinehart’s essay touches on that exact subject:
“What about the single mom, the poor student, struggling entrepreneur or artist, the unemployed, or the elderly? These people desperately need energy, and its harder for them to be healthy than anyone else. Living on fast food and ramen is cheap and convenient, but unhealthy. Shopping at places like Whole Foods costs a fortune to many people and cooking healthy recipes takes practice and time.”
I agree with Rob on this point — healthy and nutritious meals should be available to all people; not just those who can afford to be the food elites. So the question is: dollar for dollar, is Soylent the healthier option for the average American?
To that, I may answer with a yes but before you go put yourself on their new orders wait list, let me take you through the pros and cons of Soylent and then explain why I, myself, would never drink this stuff and don’t think you should either.
- Not a low-fat diet! I appreciate that Soylent includes fish oil as part of their oil blend. Sadly, they also use canola oil (GMO alert!).
- It’s great that they are getting their iron from food-based sources (rice protein and oat flour). It’s not great that their rice comes from China.
- Unfortunately, Soylent’s customer service confirmed that their rice is sourced from China. With the latest revelations of China’s polluted agricultural land and cadmium poisoning in the rice fields, this is enough to make me not recommend Soylent. Even China’s own state-run news agency, Xinhua, advised that one should diversify their rice sources to avoid the highly contaminated regions (which they won’t identify).
“Experts recommend that people should not consume food and drink from one particular region for long, instead they should diversify to lower the risk.”
But how can you diversify if you are drinking the same shake two to three times a day? You don’t. And so you hope and pray that you’re not drinking a dose of poison in that “nutritionally complete” meal.
- Soylent is not certified organic, GMO-free, or allergen-free.
- Canola oil, a major ingredient in their Oil Packs, is one of the cheapest forms of fatty acids and linked to cancer.
- Maltodextrin is the first and foremost ingredient listed in Soylent, which means that this “food replacement” contains more cheap, corn-based artificial sweetener than any other ingredient. There is nothing good to say about maltodextrin and it is not real food! According to Livestrong.com, “The consumption of maltodextrin has similar side effects and health risks as most food additives. These side effects include allergic reactions, unexplained weight gain, bloating and flatulence. Specific allergic reactions associated with the use of maltodextrin include rash, asthma, itching and difficulty breathing.”
- Soy Lecithin. Perhaps once in a while, this commercial emulsifier would be fine. But every meal of every day? I would be very worried. In the eloquent words of Meghan Telpner in her article “Soylent Killer“:
“Soy lecithin has been found to be extremely estrogenic. That means it functions like estrogen in the body and can cause hormonal imbalances. So while all these dudes are sipping on their Soylent while gaming, they could also potentially be shrinking their junk and growing breasts.”
- No taste (aside from the sweetness of all that artificial maltodextrin). My husband opted to be the guinea pig on this one and can attest to the fact that Soylent is in fact, really sweet but lacking any distinct flavor. Of course, this could be seen as a positive to some since most shakes that are flavored taste fake and synthetic. The company itself suggests you consider “adding fruits, nut butters, and/or spices for flavor”. Unfortunately, fruits would make this already carb-heavy shake even more carb-heavy and nut butters would make this already caloric-rich shake even more caloric.
- Synthetic Vitamins — Soylent uses a slew of chemically-made vitamins such as vitamin D2 (as ergocalciferol — despite our bodies needing D3), Niacin synthesized commercially from 3-methylpyridine, Vitamin C not from whole food sources but from ascorbic acid (which is derived from glucose/GMO corn), and the list goes on. This may not be a deal-breaker for those of you who already take synthetic vitamins but for me, I stick to whole food vitamins since we don’t know enough about synthetic vitamins and whether they truly absorb into your bloodstream or cause other harmful side effects to our cellular systems. We are made to eat food, not food-like things.
- Little to no work for your digestive tract. Although I’m a huge fan of giving our digestive systems a break every once in a while (i.e. through Intermittent Fasting, which I do regularly), I don’t think that having only liquid-based meals is healthy. Our bodies were designed to digest food. While the FAQ’s say that your bowel movements should remain normal, the Creator Rob Rhinehart found that while formulating the product, he experienced the opposite.
“…when everything going in to your body is diffused in to the bloodstream, you don’t poop. I only have to remove a few grams of fiber from my system per week.”
– Rob Rhinehart, Soylent Creator
- More questionable ingredients such as the thickener Xantham Gum (used to increase the fiber content and derived from GMO corn) and possibly the worst of the worst: Sucralose! I have seen this one ingredient, linked to everything from head aches to seizures, cause more problems than any other ingredient out there. People who use it daily, as suggested with Soylent, have been known to experience extreme migraines and flu-like symptoms when they cut it out and have to detox from it. What does that tell you?
- Soylent is based on a high-carb macronutrient breakdown of 50% carbs, 25% protein, 25% fats. This doesn’t work for all body types and could be problematic for those who are carbohydrate-intolerant (it’s a thing!). I will also say that I don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all diet that works for everyone so having a shake that’s engineered for “the average person” doesn’t help those who have specific needs (i.e. pregnant women).
Who Should Use Soylent?
In a perfect world, no one. In America? Probably most of you.
Let’s call a spade a spade: the average American, eating anything even closely resembling the Standard American Diet, is daily consuming processed food, conventionally-raised crops, toxic chemicals, cancer-causing additives, and a total lack of vegetables (no, ketchup is not a vegetable). So perhaps replacing one meal a day with Soylent would be a step up to their nutrition — even with all the toxic additives and lack of effective nutrients. Because despite the fact that Soylent contains conventional/GMO ingredients, a toxic dose of artificial sweeteners, and synthetic vitamins that could be causing undue stress to your organs, most North Americans are eating that (and much worse) each and every day. So what I’m saying is that the best thing would be for people to eat real food. The next best thing would be to cut out all that processed food and use something like Soylent (the lesser of two evils, so to speak). Of course, the latter comes with a compromised life expectancy and overall quality of life.
Of course I wish that everyone would adopt a real-food diet but I understand that eating 100% organic, being a SAHM with the time to make home-cooked meals, being able to buy local grass-fed meats and pastured poultry at my local farmer’s market and all the other “Food Elitist” luxuries I enjoy are not common. But it shouldn’t be a luxury. I believe it’s a basic human right to have affordable food that isn’t poisoned with chemicals, genetic engineering, or pesticides. It’s why I’m a regular contributor to organizations that fight for food rights and why I refuse to support companies that contribute to our food production problems.
But what is “affordable” food? Americans spend less on groceries than any other country in the world — a measly 6.6%. We are entitled to our $0.99/lb ground beef and think that a dozen eggs should cost two bucks.
Listen up people: quality food is not cheap and never should be.
We need to come to terms with the fact that food makes up the majority of most household budgets in other areas of the world and that our sense of food cost is ridiculously skewed. Generally speaking, if we were spending less on decorative pillows for our living rooms and new wardrobes every year, we’d probably have an easier time buying quality foods for our families.
That said, eating well is like a ladder: the first rung for most people is to just start exercising portion control — eating three square meals a day (instead of skipping breakfast and pigging out on restaurant-sized portions at lunch and dinner). The next rung is to cut out highly-processed food (i.e. fast food), then adding fresh fruits and vegetables (nutrients), and so on and so on. Unfortunately, going 100% organic and non-GMO is the final rung in the nutritional ladder — one that many people simply can’t afford and will never reach.
Which is why I say that I may recommend Soylent, if it’s a step up from what you’re currently eating, but I would never ingest it myself.
Natasha Drisdelle (aka Domestica) is a mom of twins, baby-weight survivor, and health & fitness blogger who lives in California’s Silicon Valley. She posted her before-and-after pics on the immortal internet as living proof that morphing into a gelatinous baby-growing-factory doesn’t have to mean your bikini days are over. You can find her on Google+, Facebook and Twitter, cutting through the myths and guilt that keep women from realizing true health.