“What if you never had to worry about food again?”

The website for a new meal-replacement product called Soylent, after posing that question, paints an enticing picture of the freedom and convenience of a food-free future: “Prepare multiple meals in minutes — no need to shop for individual ingredients or plan ahead. Spend less than $10 per day on food and less than $4 per meal. Eat balanced and wholesome — get all of the essential nutrients required to fuel the human body.”

The future of foodThe man behind Soylent is Rob Rhinehart, a 25-year-old software developer. Annoyed by the time and energy meals required, he researched human nutritional requirements to find out what was really necessary. Then he gathered various ingredients that provided those nutrients (e.g., maltodextrin, rice protein, oat flour). The resulting powder, when blended with water, formed a thick beige liquid (writers have used slurry, sludge and goop to describe the consistency), and the meal of the future was born. “Maximum nutrition with minimum effort,” the website says.

Many doctors contest his claim that the human body needs nothing more than Soylent to live (he himself has lived on it for months at a time); more realistically, he suggests consumers might find it convenient to just replace some or even most meals. It could be a staple on hand for the days you are too busy to stop for lunch or nights when you haven’t shopped for dinner and are contemplating frozen pizza or fast food.

Rhinehart sees it as an evolution in food. “In the past, food was about survival,” he wrote on his blog. “Now we can try to create something ideal.”            

Ideal maybe, but certainly not anything like organic: Soylent is made from highly processed ingredients — Rhinehart claims people who criticize processed food really don’t understand it. Processing, he says, can make food more nutritious, cheaper and longer lasting; it is a technology that can be used for good, and the body doesn’t know the difference. “Whether your calcium comes from milk from a cow you own yourself, or from some industrial process, it’s all the same for your body, as long as it's in a bioavailable form," he told the website Ars Technica.

The name Soylent will bring to mind (at least in people of a certain age) the 1973 movie “Soylent Green,” in which a mysterious product created to address a food shortage turns out to be made of human bodies. Rhinehart chose the name to stimulate discussion and also telegraph his contrary attitude toward the foodie movement. “The general ethos of natural, fresh, organic, bright — this is the opposite,” he told The New Yorker magazine.

His Soylent, in fact, contains no meat at all; it’s made from purely vegetarian ingredients, though the inefficiencies of farming those crops represent a problem Rhinehart would like to solve. Someday, he envisions all of Soylent’s ingredients might be produced by a single strain of algae, making farms and factories unnecessary. Soylent-producing algae could be shared throughout the world; famine would be a thing of the past.

For now, Soylent is getting plenty of attention in the media, and investors are noticing too. Last October, the company received $1.5 million from a crowdfunding campaign. Soylent is available now online.

Read more, including articles on beef quality and safety, in the October digital edition of Drovers/CattleNetwork.