Soylent, the seemingly wacky personal experiment of 24-year-old engineer Rob Rhinehart, is maturing into a full-fledged business.
Rhinehart and his team, who were running a Y Combinator-backed startup called Level RF last year, did what Paul Graham has called the “pivot of the century.”
Fascinated by inefficiencies in the industrial food system, Rhinehart designed and then started living off a meal replacement he cheekily named Soylent — after the dystopian movie Soylent Green where Charlton Heston discovers that society has been living off rations made of humans.
This Soylent, thankfully, is not made of humans.
It contains an assortment of carbohydrates,amino acids, proteins and dozens of other vitamins that are deemed medically necessary to for a person to live by the Institute of Medicine, plus other modifications Rhinehart made through the testing process.
“I’d like this to be something that is like coffee — a commodity something that’s available everywhere. Maybe a utility like water and power. Something that is ubiquitous and easy to consume,” he said. “I’d like to see it in grocery and convenience stores soon.”
Now Rhinehart says the company will be closing in on a finalized formula by the end of next month — a version 1.0, if you will. They’ll have a party in late August where they’ll invite press and members of the public. Then the company will gear up to do 140,000 shipments in September with $1 million in pre-orders. It costs roughly $65 a week, including shipping.
Most of the customers are young men, but there have also been a few Doomsday predictors and people preparing for a societal apocalypse that have tried to order lifetime supplies of Soylent, Rhinehart said.
The company has been posting updates of modifications to the Soylent formula, including changing theprotein source to a vegan one derived from a rice or pea protein isolate.
“In terms of a new food product, this is much, much larger initial manufacturing run than has happened in the past,” Rhinehart said.
A chance introduction got him in touch with the makers of MuscleMilk, Cytosport, who helped him find an factory in Modesto certified by the NSF. He also started working directly with suppliers; in early versions of Soylent, he would buy components off Amazon or Alibaba.
The taste is pretty bland, kind of malty even. “Soylent is not supposed to be this luxurious thing,” Rhinehart explained.
To be clear, Rhinehart is not necessarily arguing that people should consume only soylent. He’s more of a believer that we don’t really think about or even consciously care about the vast majority of our meals. So instead, his goal is to create a wholly nutritious and inexpensive source of food that he uses for most of his meals. He tries to savor the few non-soylent meals he eats, and says he even appreciates them more as a result.
So is it safe? Well, there are only 50 beta testers at the moment plus Rhinehart’s running journal of his Soylent-based lifestyle.
But all of the components of Soylent are approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Soylent wouldn’t need any kind of additional approval unless there was a new additive of some sort.
“The typical Western diet is pretty easy to beat in terms of nutritional value,” Rhinehart said. “You have to accept the pre-ponderable amount of testing the EFSA (European Food Safety Administration) and the FDA has done on these ingredients. These organizations are very conservative on the quantities of foods that they approve under six-sigma sorts of control.”
At the same time, there are already longstanding meal replacement products out there like Jevity from Abbott Nutrition and Nutren from Nestle, which are targeted at medical patients that can’t consume whole foods or need tube feeding.
So conceptually, medical foods have existed for a long time and they’ve kept patients alive for years. Rhinehart lived solely off Soylent for a month at the beginning of the year, and now he’s probably relying on it for about 80 percent of his intake.
But if you decide to consume it or live primarily off of it, you’re essentially trusting that because the 50 beta testers and Rhinehart haven’t had serious health problems as a result of living off Soylent, you probably won’t either. Because Soylent is also so new, no one has lived off it for years and years either. So nobody fully understands what the consequences of consuming Soylent for years will be.
“No one really worried about me when I had an awful diet of Doritos and fast food. But now that I’ve invented something that’s good for you, everyone is worried about me killing myself,” Rhinehart said. In his month of living entirely off his creation, he claimed his physique improved, his skin cleared, his hair got thicker and his dandruff disappeared.
Rhinehart has five dietitians and medical professionals who work with the company on an advisory basis. He also tests his blood every day for his sugar level and regularly posts panels of tests to his blog to show things like his platelet counts and sodium levels. He tracks everything from how far he can run comfortably to how many hours he sleeps on a regular basis. He’ll also offer a discount to any customers who want to regularly run medical tests on themselves too.
He’s tried to design Soylent from the most elementary level possible with raw minerals and vitamins.
He believes that other previous meal replacement products have fallen short because they mixed together traditional foods, instead of breaking down a person’s daily nutrition needs to their most basic level. Through constant iteration, he’s realized deficiencies in the formula over time. Some joint pain earlier this year led him to add a sulfur source to the mixture.
There is also a very active discussion board on the company’s site where enthusiasts share their own DIY recipes and modifications to the mixture.
“Soylent has taken on a life of its own,” Rhinehart said. “You may have an initial knee-jerk reaction to the name. But when you step back, it allows you to analyze or engage in a reasonable discussion about the nature of food and sustainability.”