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Q&A: Rob Rhinehart, creator of Soylent, on super-fast food

Q&A: Rob Rhinehart, creator of Soylent, on super-fast food

Posting in Food | From Issue 07 January 13, 2014

Could a liquid food made for those too busy to cook someday make us all healthier and solve global food shortages?

Rob Rhinehart is a young engineer who sees food as an interruption in life. For him specifically, it's something that takes time and effort away from what he loves, which is work. In our new domain of young, workaholic post-graduates trying to build start-ups, food has apparently become a bother. Grabbing slices of pizza and fast-food burgers became a dangerous habit for Rhinehart so he decided to create a healthy food that required almost zero prep.

The idea came to him only a year ago, and after months of research, he produced a formula for liquid food that could completely supplant regular meals, was easy and cheap to prepare, yet fully satisfied all nutrition requirements. He self-experimented with it for three months. He made some tweaks. He now has $3 million in funding -- $1.5 million from a crowd-sourced campaign that was then matched by various venture capitalists. His team is poised to launch the product via an e-commerce distribution this winter.

Soylent (yes, the name comes from the sci-fi novel, Make Room! Make Room!) comes in a powdered form, and is made of starches, proteins, olive oil, minerals and vitamins. It will cost about $3 per meal, and is meant to provide 2,000 healthy calories per day. The first U.S. orders are expected to ship this winter.

SmartPlanet wanted to know what makes Soylent different from similar products on the market, who will give up a filet mignon or truffles for a plain liquid drink, and why Soylent may one day help extend our average life span.

SmartPlanet: What is Soylent made of?

Rob Rhinehart: It’s food, both chemically and in the traditional sense. It has all the calories and all the nutrition that the body requires. It comes as a powder that has a very long shelf life. All one has to do is add water and drink it. Although some people add extras to it such as coffee or flavors. But the default version is everything the body needs and nothing else.

People are adding to the formula?

Yes, people even bake with it -- you can make all sorts of things.

What do they bake?

Muffins and pancakes, even tiramisu. I'm not much of a cook myself but it's interesting to see how far people have taken it.

On your blog you mention that it tastes like "a sweet, succulent, hearty meal in a glass," but The Economist called it "tasteless." So which is it?

It’s a little sweet, a little savory. It has salts, fats, and good carbohydrates that interact with taste buds in different ways. It’s non-specific actually. Which is a good thing, because if you had a very specific flavor then you would get sick of it. The soft drink industry uses [this same tactic of non-specific taste called] sensory specific satiety. So for the same reason people don’t get tired of drinking sodas you will not get tired of drinking [healthier] Soylent.

What ultimately inspired you to make Soylent?

For a long time I'd been thinking: What if we had a food pill that could take care of hunger when you didn't want to spend time preparing food. At the time I was working on a start-up and I was very busy. I didn't have much free time and I didn't have much money. It was frustrating to solve the problem of making food over and over again. I don't like to repeat myself. And as an engineer I thought, 'What if I could automate this?' You could still eat whatever you wanted but what if there was something that you could live on entirely that was quick and simple and cheap?

And you started to self-experiment with different variations?

Yes. I lived on it for 30 days exclusively to see if it would work and to my surprise, not only did I feel full, I got extraordinarily healthier. Before I was living on foods that were calorie dense because those were easiest, a lot of pizza, cheeseburgers, and fast food.

You didn't want to be bothered with prepping more healthy meals?

When I work on something that I find very interesting and very stimulating it's frustrating to get out of the flow. Everyone has had that feeling of being happy and excited to be doing something that they really enjoy. And to be interrupted, especially since it takes a lot of time to get back into that state of flow, can be very frustrating.

Would you say you enjoy food? Do you like eating?

Yes. I have my favorite foods, like sushi and barbecue, and I really enjoy the whole experience of eating. But to do it three times every single day seems kind of repetitive and takes a lot of time. Since Soylent makes up a majority of my intake I enjoy eating a lot more because it's something that I choose to do. On my terms. And I don’t have to worry about eating well because my default meal (Soylent) is so balanced.

In your blog you mentioned that there is little reliable data in the field of "nutrition science" where you found that poor stats conflict with other studies. So you chose to ditch the nutrition studies and went straight to biology.

Right. I spent a long time on reading nutrition papers. Food is extremely complex. It’s made of thousands of different chemicals and you're testing on people who could have any manner of different lifestyles. It is impossible to control for every variable as something on a macro level like nutrition. I wasn't getting anything useful from the nutrition and diet studies. A lot of it just confirmed the assumption like: Lots of fruits and vegetables are good, avoid fast food. But no one was focusing on specific biochemical or metabolic details of consuming food. There lot of weak correlations, but not a lot of mechanisms of action, not a lot of falsifiable data. So I focused on what is actually going on within this biological machine. It seemed a lot more clear-cut: This mineral is used in this enzyme.

I know you spent a lot of time researching and educating yourself but who did you speak with to check your formula? To make sure this could work?

I talked a lot with a close friend who is a biologist at Harvard. I talked to my doctor about measuring the physiological effects. I also connected with different government agencies like the FDA and USDA, Institute of Medicine and the World Health Organization. As we do more research and have more understanding we can continue to optimize it and improve it.

Soylent is made of carbs, proteins, fats and a lot of minerals and vitamins. Can you give us some more details?

We have a 50:30:20 ratio of carbohydrates, fat, proteins, but within that you want a specific omega-6, omega-3 body acid ratio, you need a complete profile that is minimally allergenic or inflammatory. You want carbohydrates that are easy to digest. Having to be concerned with all this stuff for every single meal would be an incredible burden.

Just because Soylent works for your body, as well as presumably for many of your early volunteers, how do you know it’s going to work for the masses?

Well, first of all, it’s got to be healthier than the typical diet which, for most, is horribly unbalanced. In terms of the specific biochemical pathways in different people there's not much of a difference in the different minerals, electrolytes that a human needs. So having something this basic and essential will work for pretty much everybody. Of course, there are allergies, which is based on the geometry of certain proteins, so we use a protein source from rice that is minimally allergenic. We're trying to make it as broad spectrum as possible.

What world problem is Soylent solving?

We've always been trying to get the energy that we need in a simpler fashion. If the whole population is not working in agriculture then people's time is freed up to work on other things. You enable service industries and engineering and science because people aren't spending their whole days plowing fields. Soylent is just an extension of that optimization process.

Even over the past decades we have solved a lot of problems. The agricultural yields have increased significantly. Food processing has significantly lowered the cost of food and given us greater control. People are spending much less time on working on food consumption than before and I think that's encouraging. I think people should have the option. I think in the future cooking and eating will be an art and a cultural activity, something that we'll be doing purely for leisure.

In the developing world a lot of people don't have a lot of micronutrients or calories that they need in a day. And even if they do, people spend their entire lives just trying to feed themselves. And liberating the human body from this burden I think could greatly increase our freedom.

In terms of making Soylent a sustainable business, who is your main market?

Right now the cost is about $3 per meal. We've seen the market to be busy young people who are working on their careers, grad students, people with not a lot of disposable income who need a simple option. We're also seeing others showing an interest -- a lot of single parents, a lot of business travelers, truck drivers, people that who don’t have a strict routine by which they can plan a good food behavior schedule.

On average, in the U.S., it takes about 90 minutes out of a person's day to prepare and eat. It might be nice to have that time to do something else. You could catch up on work, or sleep.

What makes Soylent different from Ensure, protein shake or Plumpy'nut. Why would people choose Soylent over what is already on the shelves now?

Soylent is regulated as a food and not a supplement. There are products on the market that would be a supplement, designed to fill in the gaps of an otherwise regular diet. Most are filled with lot of simple sugars, saturated fats, basically a very poor nutrient ratio. They are not designed to be lived on. But the design of Soylent is to act as a food. Soylent gives you all the calories that you would need in a day in order to be very active and focused and sharp.

How are things going now as you head into launch?

Manufacturing is going quite well. We have all of our ingredients en masse and we have a whole manufacturing process and all of the infrastructure set up and ready to go. Right now we're basically just waiting on our contract manufacturer to turn out everything that we need to satisfy all of our initial backers as well as buildup enough of the backlog so that people can reorder immediately.

So you continue to have a lot of demand? I know that during your self-experimentation phase you had a lot of volunteers willing to test-try Soylent.

There’s far more demand than supply right now. We continue to receive new orders every day.We have put in quite a lot of effort into finalizing and optimizing and tweaking the final formula. This is something that's very important for us to get right on the first try. So we made some minor changes, but at this point we're all locked in.

Can you talk a little bit about those changes? 

We've been working a lot on the fiber. Fiber is a very interesting issue because it affects your gut bacteria which is very important but no one is certain yet which specific strains are important, what ratio or source of soluble or insoluble fiber would be optimal for the general population.

You have mentioned you’d like to make Soylent open source, so that it could be freely made by anyone.

Yes, hundreds of people are making it on their own. I'm a huge advocate of open source and sharing information. There's still always going to be a strong market for us making it because it saves people time.

What do you ultimately want Soylent to be?

I want this to be something that could feed the world. Seeing how food and agriculture behavior has been changing over centuries, we're heading in the direction of not being able to provide for everybody. We're trying to cram thousands of animals together, and to gain more and more land. We need to scale up processes such as growing plants and animals that are by their own nature inefficient. Focusing on the constituents of the food, by looking at it on an elemental and chemical basis we can basically cut out these very wasteful, agricultural, and arguably unethical practices. We can be very efficient. My dream is to have it be able to be synthesized almost directly from sunlight, water, and air, which is essentially what plants do.

What was the most surprising thing you’ve learned through this entire process?

I was most surprised by how much better I felt living on Soylent. Studies are finding that aging may be caused by the buildup of all of this gunk, for lack of a better term, in the body. So our systems just wear out over time. I wondered if we could optimize our consumption then perhaps these processes would not wear out as quickly. In theory, if we provided enough external energy into the system it could continue to repair itself and sustain itself much, much longer.

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure