Soylent Vs. Food
By: Elizabeth Crouch
Soylent is a novel food product that aims to replace traditional eating by providing 100% of necessary nutrients in an efficient and inexpensive manner1. Soylent recommends consuming the product as a shake, and one meal costs approximately $3. Online, various lifestyle aspects of Soylent are debated vigorously2. For a different approach, let’s evaluate the nutritional, community, and charitable claims of Soylent from a Biblical perspective.
To address its nutritional claims, it’s first necessary to review how Soylent classifies itself. Technically, Soylent is a food rather than a drug product, and all of its ingredients are GRAS (generally recognized as safe). However, Soylent is not designed to add to one’s diet, but rather to replace all other food in the greater service of efficiency and nutritional wholeness. Typically in science or medicine, these types of claims need to be backed up by data; randomized control trials are the gold standard. In this case, individuals would be randomly assigned to either replacing all of their meals with Soylent or maintaining their regular diet. After a prolonged period of time, the individuals could then undergo extensive testing to assess their mental acuity, physical fitness, and specific organ system health. This author could find no record of these trials. In fact, such a clinical study would be difficult to initiate, for the following reason: many nutrient deficiencies manifest in serious, life-threatening diseases, such as scurvy, a lack of vitamin C, and Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome, a deficiency of thiamine. Korsakoff syndrome is irreversible. Others have also pointed out that the nutritional claims of Soylent are unsubstantiated3.
It’s useful in this instance to consider how God, the great engineer of the human body and provider of its sustenance, chose to provide for our nutritional needs. He could have created one nutritionally complete food that would grow in all climates. But look instead to the Garden of Eden, where God told Adam and Eve, “Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food.” (Genesis 2:8-9) Essentially God chose to give us diversity. This is substantiated scientifically by the idea of bioavailability, or the amount of a substance that is able to be absorbed into the body. Essentially, vitamins and minerals often require other co-factors to be absorbed. For example, the fat soluble vitamins (Vitamins A, D, E, and K) will not be absorbed unless fatty acids are consumed as well. While the simplicity of Soylent is to be admired, the monotony of the diet contrasts with the diversity that God designed to provide us a complete repertoire of vitamins and minerals.
Soylent, as it is designed to be consumed, also potentially impacts community building and community members. Acts 2:42 described the early church as “devoted . . . to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” Biblically, food is more than just fuel. It’s part of the social glue that ties us together, and allows us to fellowship. In regards to community members, Soylent explicitly states that it is only designed for adults, and furthermore “After extensive nutritional and usage research, we determined that both men and women can use the same Soylent formula, adjusting the caloric requirements as needed.” Unfortunately, that research is not available on their website. Soylent again appears to stretch its qualifications. Is it really known that men and women have identical nutritional needs? Upon what source is that based? In the world of biomedical research, most experimentation uses male subjects because menstrual periods are an undesirable additional variable. The NIH recently called for a revolution in the way these experiments are designed in order to consider the female biological response4. So it’s unlikely that much evidence is present to evaluate the nutritional needs to men and women. In summary, Soylent is difficult for community building both relationally and in its ability to nourish persons other than adult men.
Finally, one of the goals of Soylent is to be able to provide 100% of a person’s nutritional needs for $9/day. Reverse-engineering allows one to think about this admirable and attractive possibility for the developing world, but in reality there are the enormous barriers of providing blenders (and reliable electricity) and clean water to prepare the shake. This type of assertion typifies Soylent in many ways. While claiming to be more, thus far Soylent is safely used only as an occasional meal substitute for busy, likely single people. But the company’s creativity and the desire to push nutritional convention is commendable. Essentially, Soylent is the opposite of junk food. Its presence could therefore play a part in an increasing consciousness about the content of our food, and how to fuel our bodies to make the most of our talents
Elizabeth Crouch, MD/PhD is a pediatrics resident at UCSF Medical Center.