Is Food Just “Fuel”? Soylent Sparks Debate

Wall-E shakes of the future? Image: Pixar/ Disney. GIF: Jennifer Fox

At this year’s SXSW in Austin, Texas, we attended a panel called The Future of Food Processing. It was made up of four very healthy-looking young men sporting pricey-looking casual outfits—the sort of thing you could just as easily wear to a business meeting as you could to an indoor rock-climbing center. 

They are the four progenitors of 21st-century inventions that will, if these men have their way, diminish our reliance upon such gastronomical pleasures as soft-scrambled eggs and steak. They represented, respectively, plant proteinbased eggs, Soylent (a powder containing one meal’s nutrients), “steak chips,” and “Beyond Meat,” (“the first plant protein that looks, feels, tastes, and acts like meat”). The conversation among the quartet centered on efficiency and innovation: They spoke of noble goals such as alleviating world hunger with their products. The synthetic egg inventor stated that unlike the humble egg itself, his product would improve over time. Like iPhones, he explained, his “egg” would hit the market in various improved iterations, unlike the egg, which stays the same, and has never improved itself. 

The word that didn’t come up during the panel: “pleasure.” And theNew York Times tackled that very issue this week. Soylent, a phenomenon the New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe chronicled a few weeks ago, has been making headlines in a major way. The appeal? Visit its website, and a bespectacled, muscular man is pouring soylent into a glass, alongside the words, “What if you never had to worry about food again?” For $85 you can purchase seven bags (21 meals’ worth) of the stuff, which comes out to about $4 per meal. You mix the powder with water, and boom. No need for meals. 

The Times article features a video of a gastroenterologist, a food writer, a sommelier, and a personal trainer all sampling the concoction, which some have compared to “my grandpa’s Metamucil.” All four found it lacking. It “tastes like grit,” said the gastroenterologist. “It tastes very healthy…and is like smelling cardboard,” said the sommelier. “There’s no way any normal person would really want to drink that.”

Dining reporter Julia Moskin considered that the powder could be shipped to hurricane and other disaster zones, therefore becoming a potential “boon for humanity.” But Times writer Farhad Manjoo, who subsisted largely on Soylent for a week and a half, declares that “everything about Soylent screams function, not fun,” deeming it “the most joyless new technology to hit the world since we first laid eyes on MS-DOS.” Ouch.

He goes on to say that “Soylent’s creators have forgotten a basic ingredient found in successful tech products, not to mention in most good foods. That ingredient is delight.” Are tech advancements making food irrelevant? Many people seem happy to replace the variety of their daily caloric intake—from Thai food to German food, soup to nuts—with something that meets all the nutritive basics but doesn’t consume energy of creative or appetite-relateddecision-making. The New Yorker writer visited ten students clutching “water bottles filled with beige goo.” One computer-science major told the reporter: “It fills you up for five hours. It’s good for studying.”

If food should indeed represent fuel, not pleasure, the world of Soylent is certainly an efficacious one. But some of us see food as a window into learning about cultures other than our own, as an enormous source of delight, and even as one of the primary reasons life is amazing.

And you?