There’s an unfortunate myth in San Francisco: that Soylent is a healthy, viable replacement for normal food.
When I challenge people drinking it on its healthiness, I’m usually met with confusion. Isn’t Soylent good for you? Doesn’t it have all of the vitamins and nutrients you need? Isn’t it well balanced?
Not really, no. Here’s why.
Soylent was originally created as a way to save time. As the founder explains in his first article on the subject:
“In my own life I resented the time, money, and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption, and clean-up of food was consuming… I don’t want to lose weight. I want to maintain it and spend less energy getting energy.”
He seemed to feel that in the Silicon Valley world where everyone ought to spend 16 hours a day coding, food was a waste of time and needs to be condensed into the fewest possible task hours on his scrum board. That’s unfortunate, but not necessarily bad.
What’s more concerning is the next paragraph, which explains the founding hypothesis for the now-company:
“I hypothesized that the body doesn’t need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains. So, I resolved to embark on an experiment. What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy?”
This is what Soylent is founded upon. A hypothesis, arrived at from the desire to save time eating, that our bodies do not need food, but rather the chemicals and elements it contains, and more importantly, that we know what those chemicals and elements are.
And that, we’re going to see, problematic.
As recently as 20 years ago, this food pyramid was still being taught to students in the U.S.:
There were two ideas at the center of it:
We now know, thankfully, that this is pretty much entirely nonsense and caused significant harm to an entire generation of Americans, likely leading to much of the modern obesity epidemic. Fats are great, grains are almost completely unnecessary and should be minimized. Dairy is suspect. Fruits are alright but have a significant amount of fructose.
Thankfully, the U.S. agencies that make these recommendations have changed course and now recommend a healthier diet consisting of primarily vegetables, fats, meat, and minimal grains.
Just kidding. Here’s what their recommendations look like now:
And despite all the evidence saying that saturated fat is a completely fine part of your diet, their protein food tips still say to minimize it:
“Lower fat versions of many processed meats are available. Look on the Nutrition Facts label to choose products with less fat and saturated fat.”
They are also still spreading the belief that eating cholesterol raises your cholesterol, something that, again, we know simply isn’t true.
Now, let’s pause and consider why this matters. When you say “healthy,” and I say “healthy,” we could both, in our heads, think we understand what “healthy” means, while both having very different ideas of what it is. If you still believe in the sugar-industry-funded food pyramid then you might think you need to eat a loaf of bread a day. Your idea of healthy contains a lot of bread and pasta, which is wrong, but if I just ask you “do you eat healthy?” you would say “yes!” and you wouldn’t be lying, per se, just misinformed.
When someone says a food is healthy, we have to ask what they mean by healthy. Are they are up on the latest research? Or are they using old, bad data and trusting government agencies that are still being influenced by lobbying, fake data, and bad science?
Well, let’s try to figure out what Soylent means by healthy, in order to evaluate their claims.
If you visit Soylent’s site, here’s how they describe why it’s healthy:
“Soylent’s nutritional makeup includes protein, carbohydrates, fats, fiber, and vitamins and minerals such as potassium, iron and calcium. It includes all of the elements of a healthy diet, without excess amounts of sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol.”
There are a few implicit statements here we need to unpack:
In order to understand whether or not it’s healthy, we’ll need to dive into each one of these, and see if they have the right idea about health in each of these categories, and how honest they’re being about them.
Let’s start with how they conclude their explanation, saying “[Soylent] includes all of the elements of a healthy diet, without excess amounts of sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol.”
There are two claims here:
Sugar being bad we’re all on the same page about, but what about saturated fats and cholesterol? I’ve already called these out as old myths that arose from marketing, but let’s dig in a little deeper on why the old ideas about them being bad aren’t true.
There’s no good evidence suggesting that saturated fats are bad for you, only that they aren’t quite as good for you as monounsaturated or polyunsaturated fats. This is, again, part of the collection of myths that came out of the sugar industry, and one that has been very stubborn about going away, despite research suggesting it was a mistake and that we should reduce carb intake and replace it with the saturated fats we used to eat more of.
The same is true for cholesterol. It turns out that eating cholesterol does not raise your cholesterol in the simple ways we used to believe, and that eating some cholesterol is important for your brain and for sexual health. Alzheimer’s patients who switch to a high-fat diet see a decrease in symptoms, and we’re moving away from looking at dietary cholesterol as a risk factor for heart disease as we used to believe.
Worse, eating a diet too low in cholesterol can increase your risk of dementia and memory loss, which may explain why we’ve seen a rise in neurodegenerative diseases around the same time we started vilifying these foods.
Saturated fats and cholesterol are at the very least not bad, and there’s evidence that they could be an important part of your diet. There may be more risk from not consuming them than consuming them when we look at the neurodegenerative risks in particular.
This is a problem for Soylent. When they advertise that they’ve minimized saturated fat and cholesterol, that should be a warning sign to you for two reasons:
So it seems two-thirds of their “we don’t have excess amounts of this stuff” section is problematic, but what about their claims about sugar?
I don’t think anyone will disagree that sugar is bad. We know that pretty conclusively. What we can challenge, though, is the claim that they don’t have “excess amounts” of it.
In Coffeist, one of Soylent’s more popular products, there are 9g of added sugars out of 400 calories. If you’re a smaller person and only need ~1,600 calories a day, you’d be getting 36g of added sugar. But if you’re a relatively active, fit person, you might need more like 2,400 calories, which would give you 54g of added sugar.
That’s a problem. The amount of added sugar you need in a day is 0, and anything above that is “excess,” but even if we’re generous and allow them to include the American Heart Association recommended limits, they’re still above them. The AHA recommends ~37.5g a day for a man, 25g a day for a woman, and assuming you’re active and not eating under your daily caloric needs, you’d be getting above that amount with Soylent.
So when they say “[Soylent] includes all of the elements of a healthy diet, without excess amounts of sugars, saturated fats, or cholesterol.” They’re wrong, or at least being “true but misleading,” in three ways:
This is the most concerning of their three claims, but as we’ll see, the other two aren’t that much better.
When Soylent says it has all of the vitamins and minerals you need, there are a few implied claims that we need to unpack:
But as we’ll see, there are a few problems here, too. First off…
This claim around having the vitamins and minerals you need is based on recognizing that there are these things in food that we need, and that in order for Soylent to replace food, it needs to have those things too.
The need for some of these vitamins and minerals is obvious and gives rapid consequences if neglected. If you get no sodium in your diet, you die. If you get no Vitamin C, you get scurvy.
But there are also more subtle effects from deficiencies in certain vitamins and minerals. Get too little Selenium and you can develop Hypothyroidism and live with it for a long time without it being bad enough to be treated. You could be low on Potassium for a long time, be suffering harm from it, and never really notice it.
Now, to be clear, Soylent does a good job including all of the vitamins and minerals that we know about in their drinks. But what’s more interesting is the question: do we know all of the vitamins and minerals you need?
No one has ever sat down and taken apart a human being and reverse engineered all of the specific vitamin and mineral inputs you need to function optimally. Most of them have been figured out because people started dying of something, adding some food to their diet fixed it, and then we did that enough until we were able to isolate what the specific thing that fixed it was. Vitamin C was discovered long after sailors knew they needed barrels of limes or sauerkraut on long journeys. Odds are good that we don’t know everything about what we get from food, just what we know so far.
This imperfect information about vitamins and minerals is problematic, because while a lime probably has some other things in it that are beneficial that we’re yet unaware of (let’s call it Vitamin X), Soylent doesn’t. We could be getting something vitally important from regular lime consumption that we’re completely unaware of, but when we strip away all the unknowns in food and just mix together a bunch of powders from what we do know about, we lose Vitamin X. And it could very well be that Vitamin X is like Vitamin D, and it takes years, even decades, for you to develop cancers and health complications from its absence.
The point is, we only know what we know so far, but to assume that we’ll never find another important part of nutrition that we’ve been getting by default without knowing about it is ludicrous.
So does Soylent contain all of the vitamins and minerals we know about so far? Yes. Does it contain all of the vitamins and minerals you need? Probably not. I assume it would add them later as we discover them, but who knows what 3 years without sufficient Vitamin X does to your body. We may have not discovered it yet because all vegetables contain Vitamin X, but when you stop eating vegetables and start drinking magical silicon valley food powder… who knows what new deficiencies we’ll discover.
That covers points 1 and 2 of their claims around vitamins and minerals, but there’s an issue with claim 3 that we need to highlight. This idea that a vitamin is a vitamin is a vitamin.
We know that Soylent contains all of the vitamins and minerals we know about, but that does not necessarily mean you can absorb or benefit from them.
Let’s take an extreme case. Say every morning I gave you a multivitamin and a diuretic. You would take them both, and an hour later, be quietly sobbing as your insides aggressively evacuate into the toilet.
Now here’s the question. Did you get your vitamins? You certainly consumed them, but it seems unlikely that they properly absorbed into your body before getting projectiled back out of you. There is a difference between “consuming your vitamins and minerals” and actually absorbing them.
So let’s come back to Soylent. It may have all of the vitamins and minerals you need, but do you absorb them the same way? The only way you would know is to consume only Soylent and nothing else and get your levels tested after a few months, maybe longer, but we can make some inferences.
We know that synthetic supplements are not absorbed the same way as when we get them in real food, so even though Soylent has everything, we’re likely not using all of it the same way since it’s not in its original form. In that case, “100%” may be more like 20%, since we can only use some of it. Worse, the process of eating seems important for absorption. Chewing, for example, helps with absorbing vitamins and minerals, as well as for making full use of protein.
And, yes, this is another area where we don’t have a clear answer, but there are two possibilities:
I’m going with number 1.
Alright, and now for the third claim:
And once again, let’s break this up into its implicit claims as we’ve done with the past ones:
In a bottle of Coffeist, you’ll get 21g of fat, 37g of carbohydrates, and 20g of protein. In terms of calories, that’s 189 calories from fat, 148 from carbohydrates, and 80 from protein. As percentages, that’s 45% fat, 35% carbs, and 20% protein.
This is okay, but it’s not great. If you want to maintain a healthy weight, that’s a lot easier at below 150g of carbs a day, and if you lived on Soylent (2,000 cal diet) you’d be getting almost exactly that. I would have ditched most of the carb filler and opted for more fat instead, but that would have made it much more oily and less shake-like.
What’s more interesting though is the other question: what is the quality of the protein, carbs, and fat?
This is where things don’t get necessarily bad, but definitely suspicious.
Most of the protein in Soylent comes from Soy Protein Isolate, which they describe as having a “robust amino acid profile,” and while that’s true, there’s plenty to at least give us pause when it comes to processed soy as our dietary protein source.
I’ll be honest, the jury is still out on processed soy. But that unsureness is enough to not want to consume too much of it. Normal soy seems to be pretty much fine, but all of its processed forms seem like they could bring different cancerous and sexual health related issues with them. It’s very back and forth, but that’s enough to make me suspicious of its benefits, and definitely enough to not want it to be my only protein source as an animal that evolved to eat other animals.
Their carbs seem fairly benign, but their Glycemic Index, the measure of how much the drink affects your blood sugar levels, is concerning. Soylent 2.0 has a glycemic index of 49, which is about the same as orange juice, Snickers bars, and spaghetti. That’s not so bad on its own, but if it’s all you’re consuming, then every meal is hitting your blood sugar the same way as a sweet drink or plate full of pasta would. That’s not good.
All of these issues with their claims about why their healthy should give you pause. But even if you’re not on board with the logic so far, there is one, central problem underlying all of it, which is enough to be suspect of any claims to healthiness from Soylent or other invented foods.
While I respect what Soylent is trying to do, it falls into the same trap as weight machines. There’s a certain gestalt to natural human processes, and when you try to simplify it to its core pieces and recreate it with technology, you lose something and don’t get the full benefits.
Sometimes what you lose is harmless, but the danger with Soylent is that what don’t know may slowly kill us.
Is it worse than McDonalds? Probably not, but at least you don’t feel good about eating McDonalds, and that’s where the problem is. This idea that Soylent is healthy tricks you into thinking that if you have your Soylent, you’ve done your good-eating-deed for the day, instead of thinking of it as a last resort like a protein bar.
For us to say that it’s healthy, we would have to know that it has a direct boon to your health, or is at least comparable to real foods like vegetables, meat, and nuts. We have no evidence of that. Maybe it comes close, but there’s so much unknown about it and these kinds of synthesized foods that we can’t call it healthy.
The default for evaluating some food that isn’t found in nature shouldn’t be that it’s “healthy until proven bad,” rather, bad until proven healthy.