“It’s just food. Relax,” the Soylent spokesperson reassured me as I prepared for one of the stranger challenges of my life: replacing my conventional food intake with a thick nutritional sludge for an entire month. The thing is, Soylent isn’t just food. The smoothie-like substance, which began life as a crowdfunding sensation last year before attracting heavyweight investors like Andreessen Horowitz, is basically powdered science — human nutrition reduced to its most basic essentials. Thousands of years of culinary knowledge have been tossed aside, all in the name of efficiency.
Soylent isn’t just a science experiment for Silicon Valley movers and shakers who don’t have time to eat: eking out maximum caloric bang for your buck with a nutritionally complete substance could eventually be a huge deal in impoverished areas of the world. But these are early days, and today, we’re talking about a journalist coming to grips with surviving solely on powdered food.
The name “Soylent” is a reference to the 1973 film Soylent Green, in which it’s revealed that a futuristic new food designed to feed an overcrowded Earth is made of people. Soylent is not made of people, as far as I can tell. But there’s still a substantial level of mental preparation one goes through before substituting it for all their meals. This is my last bagel. This is my last banana. This is my last scoop of ice cream. This is my last 18-year single malt. I suppose there are people in the developed world for whom food genuinely feels like a burden rather than a pleasure, but their existence is purely theoretical to me.
Alas, here I was, getting ready to switch from real food — stuff with texture, flavor, ritual, all the trappings of overindulgent American fare — to a beige liquid. Roughly 2 liters of it per day. So, what’s it like to spend a month in the post-food era?
The first challenge to living on Soylent is obtaining it, which is surprisingly difficult. Thanks to the white-hot buzz generated by media coverage, Soylent is asking new customers to wait 10 to 12 weeks for shipment deliveries. Return customers are given priority, so the life-giving paste might flow uninterrupted once you’ve gotten your first order; it’s just that getting that first order isn’t particularly easy.
There’s a workaround, however. Soylent is very open about its product — the details of the concoction, which have evolved over the past year to improve its taste, texture, and nutrition, are widely available. The company publishes both its official recipe and hosts a surprisingly active "DIY" forum where Soylent connoisseurs and food hackers of all persuasions trade tweaks, pro tips, and entirely new bult-from-scratch recipes catered to different audiences with names like "Liberation Chow," "Joshua Fuel," and "The Minimalist."
I didn’t personally mess with these DIY recipes, because they involve a level of planning and execution that is simply beyond my limited talents in the kitchen (or, really, in the laboratory). They’re also not tested for nutritional completeness, which means there’s at least a chance you’ll end up with some deficiencies over time. That’s not to say that Soylent itself advertises seals of approval from the FDA or world-renowned nutritionists — but it was formulated with FDA guidelines in mind. And, more importantly, I started drinking it long enough after the first guinea pigs that I had a reasonable assurance I wouldn’t develop scurvy.
Before your initial Soylent shipment arrives, the company sends out a couple tools to help you concoct the mixture: a nicely made metal scoop designed to measure out a single serving, and a transparent 2-quart pitcher made by Takeya for storing an entire day’s worth of liquid at once. The pitcher isn’t designed specifically for Soylent — it’s actually an all-purpose unit designed with iced tea in mind — but it’s BPA-free, so that’s a plus.
When the Soylent mixture itself is finally delivered to your door, you’ll find long, white boxes with "Soylent" printed across the side, which means your low-tech neighbors will definitely suspect you’re eating people. Each box contains seven packets of powder — one per day — paired with seven bottles of a fish oil / canola oil blend. The bottles look like those travel-size shampoos you find at drug stores or in hotel rooms; they’re convenient, but they seem wasteful since you’re unscrewing one and throwing it away every single day.
Making a full day’s batch is easy enough with the supplies included: dump a full packet into the pitcher, fill the rest with water, then add the oil and shake the mixture for 30 seconds. It’s actually quite a workout if you’re shaking vigorously, which you want to do to make sure all the powder gets blended in; failure to do so can result in big clumps of sludge stuck to the sides of the pitcher.
I found that objects in and around my kitchen were being coated in fine powder
The ordeal takes some minimal planning: you can drink it right away if you throw in some ice cubes, but it’s better if you make it at night and let it sit until morning to serve as the next day’s batch — the concoction seems to break down a bit in the fridge, eliminating clumps and making the whole thing go down a bit smoother.
Soylent’s spokesperson told me that they don’t expect most people to adopt a 100 percent Soylent diet, even though you technically can: each day’s packet contains roughly 100 percent (give or take a few percentage points) of your daily FDA-recommended allowance of fat, potassium, carbohydrates, fiber, and a selection of 23 vitamins and minerals. But I intended to go all in.
Living on Soylent
Nearly a year’s worth of hype had filled me with trepidation about tasting Soylent for the first time. Reviewers haven’t been kind: Gawker described an early batch as tasting like "homemade nontoxic Play-Doh," while The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo calls it "purposefully bland." I also worried that I was adding a literal bottle of fish oil to each batch right before I shook it. Would it taste like a fish shake? Because that doesn’t sound appetizing at all.
But I was pleasantly surprised. The best way I can describe it is if you put a few tablespoons of peanut butter in a blender and filled the rest up with milk. It was considerably thinner than I’d expected, but still rich, creamy, and strangely satisfying. It had just the smallest tinge of sweetness. And at 38 grams of protein per serving, I wasn’t surprised that it consistently made me feel full.
Of course, there’s a big difference between trying a few sips of Soylent and having it substantially replace your entire diet.
It’s a rough process, and I expected it going in. I had three or four bouts of moderate digestive distress — yes, gas. But the real problem is that Soylent ignores the social and entertainment value of eating: food is not merely sustenance, it’s a tightly woven part of our everyday lives. How many times have you commiserated with a colleague over lunch? Planned a date over dinner? Met with friends for drinks? A strict diet of beige liquid fundamentally changes the patterns of your daily life, and not entirely for the better. It isolates you in ways you may not necessarily consider.
Food is not merely sustenance, it’s a tightly woven part of our everyday lives
Social challenge cropped up almost daily. Lunch meetings and briefings weren’t really an option, unless I wanted to awkwardly nurse a thermos full of Soylent in a restaurant while others ate (I didn’t). Weekly office-wide trips for dollar fish tacos on Monday nights were off limits. And I had to pass on having drinks with a friend, eventually meeting up to sip on a calorie-free, nutrient-free Diet Coke while he enjoyed some of the most delicious-looking beer I’d ever seen. (There’s an argument to be made that I should’ve cut diet sodas out of the Soylent experiment, too, but I had to draw the line somewhere — I wasn’t ready to survive on water, tea, and coffee alone.)
And, social element aside, it’s hard to overstate just how incredible food really is. If it was simply a means for survival, cities around the world wouldn’t be packed to the gills with restaurants. On Soylent, a walk through town becomes an excruciating journey past sights and smells — teases of a culinary world that you’re entirely cut out of.
What did surprise me was that I never really tired of the flavor of Soylent. I expected that by the end of the first week, I’d be dreading every sip, but I actually fell into a groove where I looked forward to my next glass. And it was nice recouping significant time otherwise spent looking for and eating food — perhaps an hour a day or more. Furthermore, if I was ordering Soylent month to month, I’d be paying $8.50 a day to get effectively all the nutrition and calories I needed to stay alive for the price of a standard New York City lunch.
So it’s a trade-off between efficiency and, well, living. Soylent isn’t living, it’s merely surviving.
I fell short of my goal of eating nothing but Soylent for an entire month by five days. The reason was logistical — I needed to save this precious, hard-to-find powder so we could coordinate our video shoot — but I certainly wasn’t broken up about it. I lost about 12 pounds along the way with very little health drama. For the most part, I actually felt great.
And yes, I’ll admit: somewhere in the middle, I had part of a burger and a scotch, a momentary break in my resolve to subsist on crushingly boring liquid alone. Despite my best efforts, my human tendencies got the best of me: venture capital-funded meal dust may sate the body, but it doesn’t sate the soul. I have no regrets. And, to be fair, I was only cheating according to my own arbitrary rules; eating Soylent doesn’t demand cutting everything else out. Yes, eating nothing but a powdered substance that explicitly references a campy sci-fi film from the 1970s feels like the post-apocalyptic future, but it’s not practical or fulfilling. At least, not today.
Even after a month-long journey that tested my body and mind, I wouldn’t hesitate to keep eating Soylent here and there — perhaps as a breakfast and lunch replacement that’s more nutritionally complete than your average protein shake. But I’d love to see an easier, less messy way to do that; mixing scoops of powder, oil, and water isn’t a challenge I relish multiple times per day. Maybe there’s a premixed version in Soylent’s future, but then it becomes far bulkier to ship. That doesn’t really jibe with Soylent’s mission of delivering brutally efficient nutrition.
It feels like the post-apocalyptic future, but it’s not practical or normal
My first meal back from the abyss was, of all things, an apple. "These apples are amazing," my boss exclaimed, having just come from our break room with a softball-sized piece of fruit in his hand. I remembered my diet was officially over, and I practically ran to grab one. Needless to say, it was the best apple I’d ever had in my life: giant, juicy, crunchy, sweeter than the sweetest nectar. A month without much solid food does peculiar things to your psyche and your taste buds.
If you just hate food, I can pretty confidently say Soylent is the solution for you. Otherwise, it’s mainly a great reminder of why food is awesome: it looks good, it tastes great, and it brings us together. No pitcher of Soylent is ever going to do that.
Photography by Michael Shane