On Soylent

Soylent

As most of you know, I love to eat, and I also love to take my time when I do it. My ideal meal is reasonably good for me, takes 30 minutes or so to cook, and is enjoyed at my leisure over the course of an hour or more, depending on how much time I have. Because I don’t always have time to eat good food on my own timeframe and I don’t derive much satisfaction from eating while rushed, I’ve often looked for ways to maximize both my calorie-to-dollar ratio and my time-to-calorie ratio. During my extensive college road-tripping days I developed a system of trail mix, tuna snacks, and SlimFast (don’t worry, just for the extra calories—I would drink it instead of water) that I could eat quickly and easily while I was on the road. Protein shakes and quick & simple staple meals have long been part of my core diet, and my last year in the Mayor’s Office I started packing trail mix for lunch to save time and money. In the last 2 ½ months, though, real estate (which has been going incredibly well; I’ve already sold three houses, two of which have already closed and the third of which is on track to close in mid-January) has been keeping me even busier than I was when I was working at City Hall, which has really tested the limits of my ability to feed myself good food while also doing what I need to do.

As luck would have it, the first Kickstarter batches of an ambitious little “powdered food” product called Soylent started shipping towards the end of October, just as I started getting really busy with real estate. I wasn’t one of the first backers, but a friend of mine, who was, offered to gift me his first batch based on my having expressed interest in it last summer. Given my life philosophy of always saying “yes!” to new experiences that aren’t obviously going to be catastrophically detrimental to my health, I took him up on the offer without a moment’s hesitation. At the time I still viewed it more as a curiosity than anything else, though, and my assumption was that it would taste terrible and that would be the end of it.

The origin story of Soylent is pretty straightforward—and also, given life’s tendency to imitate art, probably inevitable. At some point in the recent past, a programmer in San Francisco named Rob Rhinehart decided that eating was taking up too much time that he could be spending coding instead, so he set out to come up with a solution—as expressed in the company’s motto, “maximum nutrition with minimum effort.” What he came up with is a food replacement powder that’s designed to provide 100% of an adult’s nutritional requirements in less than 5 minutes per day. He’s been living on a diet of 90% Soylent (he still enjoys some “recreational eating” with friends) for over a year now, and there’s a great Reddit AMA with him here that’ll give you a better idea of where he’s coming from with the whole thing. As the idea got publicity, gained traction, and generated some actual data as well as a lot of iterations on the original formula, he eventually decided to start selling it to other people. The Kickstarter was a huge success, and you can now buy Soylent directly through the website, with a 2-3 month waiting period for new customers or a shorter turnaround time for existing customers who sign up for monthly resupplies.

I knew most of this by the time I opened up the shipping box I picked up from my friend’s porch in late October and followed the instructions for the first time, but I was still skeptical. Using the 2-liter polypropylene iced tea pitcher that’s included with one’s first order and represents a 1-day, 2000-calorie supply, I mixed together a big packet of what looked and smelled a lot like cake mix, a pitcherful of water, and a little plastic bottle of fish oil, and then put it in the fridge to cool off. The instructions clearly state not to drink warm Soylent because it tastes terrible; it was somewhat heartening, though, to read that it only lasts about 48 hours in the fridge. It might have been constructed in a lab from molecular raw materials hailing from all corners of the globe, but at least the Frankensteinian smoothie that they combined to create had a shelf life that somewhat resembled that of an avocado.

A few hours later, after posting the requisite picture of the box on Facebook (see above) and promising in the comment thread to eventually write a blog post about my experience, I poured my first rich, frothy glass of the future, contemplated it briefly…and then took a sip. The future, it turns out, tastes kind of like watered down pancake batter. It’s certainly not bad, but it’s just barely good enough that drinking it is neither a chore nor something to look forward to in and of itself. The instructions recommend starting off slow and then building from there, so that’s what I did.

Breakfast is the meal that I skip most often, so that seemed like the best place to start if I was going to start slow. A 21 oz serving of Soylent contains 670 calories, 38 grams of protein, and 33% of pretty much everything the USDA says that a healthy American is supposed to consume in a day, so nutritionally speaking it’s kind of like a protein shake on steroids, and I’ve used protein shakes off and on as dietary supplements at various times in my life, so it was a pretty easy transition. I started drinking my breakfast every day and loved it; as a result I went from actually sitting down and eating breakfast maybe once or twice a week to never missing it, regardless of how busy my day was. It took me about a month to get through my initial two-week supply, and by the time I did I was chugging a serving in the morning every day, taking along a 20-oz refrigerated tumbler for my travels on the busy days, and getting my full 2000 calories per day out of a plastic iced tea pitcher on the days when I was too busy to cook (there was a full week in November during which I made precisely one actual meal for myself). I transferred my friend’s “early backer” account over into my name and re-upped at the $3/serving, 84-meals-per-month plan, totally sold. I’m not planning on going back anytime soon.

I drink Soylent because of the convenience, first and foremost—it’s a good price point, it’s nutritionally complete and environmentally sustainable (they even switched to an algae-generated oil blend in the most recent version, so it’s now entirely vegetarian), and it’s super quick. After living with it for a couple of months now, though, I’ve also come to enjoy the less tangible aspects of my new relationship with food.

I’ve always enjoyed fasting as an occasional exercise because it eliminates the considerable amount of time and mindshare that I spend each day thinking about, procuring/preparing, and eating food. Soylent is like fasting in food form: it keeps me focused, it frees up a surprisingly large amount of productive time in my day, and it changes my relationship to my diet in a way that, for me at least, has been largely positive. Not only do I virtually never skip meals now or just eat junk food regardless of how busy I am; using a lab-generated food powder to meet most of my nutritional needs, it turns out, has also increased the sacredness of food in my daily life and made me appreciate it that much more. There’s nothing more relaxing at the end of a long day than walking to the co-op grocery store at the end of my block, buying some local organic vegetables & meat, and cooking myself a nice steak or a good stir-fry and then sitting down and taking as much time as I want to enjoy my food.

My days now are usually too busy to allow me that luxury for more than one meal per day, though, and I’ve had days in the last two months that have kept me running around for 15 straight hours without a break. Soylent is by far the most elegant solution (except for the terrible gas in the beginning) that I’ve found to the problem of how to feed myself well regardless of what my schedule is like; it’s already become a sustainable part of both my budget and my diet. If you want to give it a try yourself, just let me know and I’ll send you a packet.

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