“Soylent Green is people!”

Detective Thorn’s haunting final words from the 1973 science fiction film ‘Soylent Green’ may make you look at Soylent with understandable mistrust, but the name is merely a testament to the creator’s inspiration and sense of humour.

Soylent is an artificially synthesized food substitute created by 24-year-old engineer Rob Rhinehart in his own kitchen-turned-laboratory.

Tired of the time, money, and effort that regular cooking, eating and cleaning up involves, Rhinehart wanted a way to simplify the process. So he came up with the idea of creating a substitute that would not only be cheaper, but also more convenient and comparatively hassle-free.

Rhinehart reasoned that food is composed of various essential nutrients, and the human body needs a certain amount of these chemical compounds to function. If the body can be provided with all the nutrients it needs in one go, the need for food – as we see it - would be eliminated.

Soylent is a thick, beige, odourless liquid with a sweetish flavour made from starch, olive oil, rice and whey protein, and various raw powdered minerals and vitamins. It uses the Institute of Medicine’s daily recommended intake of nutrients as a baseline.

Rhinehart himself has tried living on Soylent with very little other food, for three months and reports excellent health. With Soylent, it is very easy to control the daily calorie intake, and thereby lose weight. Rhinehart also says that he experiences clearer skin, better reflexes, more energy, and greater mental performance. Soylent costs Rhinehart $154.82 per month, which is a quarter of what the average American spends in a month on food.

Sounds too good to be true?

There are certainly some concerns about Soylent. In terms of nutrition, it provides only about 5 grams of fibre which is much lower than the recommended daily count of 36 grams, along with being too high in sodium and too low in potassium.

Also, according to dietitian Pooja Bhargava,  nothing can replace the three essential macro nutrients carbohydrates, proteins and fats. By eliminating any of these or by consuming them in an amount less than the body weight actually needs, one will only defeat the normal functioning of body processes.

While Soylent is still under research and development and in the long-run, these issues may be corrected; it still begs the question whether Soylent can truly replace food.

A number of dieticians and nutritionists are sceptical. Firstly, digestion is a complex process and it is not merely the absorption of necessary nutrients. Food is a balance of various compounds that are inter-related. Even today, there are uncertainties about how the presence of certain compounds affects the absorption and functioning of others.

Plus, eating isn’t just about nutrition. Eating is communal, social, as well as psychological. Otherwise the very idea of comfort food wouldn’t exist, nor would the concept of banquets and food at celebrations.

People are easily bored by the same sort of food every day, and there is no reason for Soylent to be an exception.

Nonetheless, in a world plagued by chronic obesity on one side and severe malnutrition on the other side, with rising food costs, an ever increasing population, and food shortage, Soylent may well be a plausible supplement, if not a substitute.

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