What is Soylent?
A short explanation of the popular Complete Food
"I dare you not to eat for 30 days"
An audacious claim like that is what formed the basis of Soylent. What if you could live off a single nutritious shake (or call it goop) for a month? The same meal each time. Over and over. That is how Soylent (the company), 'soylent' the defacto name of these type of products, and Complete Food as a category name were born.
It was not chefs, artisans, nor public health officials who started this movement. It was hackers, tinkerers, and innovators. Looking away from the computer, they looked at food and thought to themselves "We can do this differently". And thus a new type of food was created.
A Short History
Way before Soylent, there were the 1960s. This was the first time that people were seriously considering meal replacements. It began with substitutes for orange juice (Tang) and non-dairy creamer. What followed was mashed potatoes in a package and even whole breakfasts that fits in a glass (check out this vintage ad).
The 1990s proved to be the real testing ground for meal replacements. Companies like Ensure and Boost competed fiercely to capture market share amongst health-conscious people. Their products were ready-to-drink and looked similar to milk or a milkshake. Ingredients included water, maltodextrin, sugar, milk protein concentrate, canola oil, and soy protein isolate.
And then there was Soylent (Rosa Foods, Inc.). A complete meal replacement that exploded onto the scene. The company, founded by Rob Rhinehart, managed to raise $1M via a crowdfunding website and has raised over $72M in venture capital. That sounds like enough to start a new category of food, and it did.
Because of the initial efforts of Soylent, the category of Complete Food was born. Where Ensure and the like were for elderly people or a person on a diet. Soylent catered to common people with a lack of time. Now you would have no excuse anymore to go to McDonald's, eat hotdogs or any other bad foods (unless you want to, of course). Soylent started a movement of quick and healthy meals for the average Joe.
On the now empty blog of Rob Rhinehart, he shared his story of living of his new meals for 30 days. This sparked the first interest in the idea and led to many news publications. Some pondered if it's healthy. Whilst others really took it for a 30 day spin.
The product itself was a powder, to which you would have to add a little bit of oil. In the first half of 2014, the product started to ship. And over the next year, it underwent 4 changes where ultimately the fats (from oil) were incorporated in the powder. In the next 3 years, the powder would keep on evolving and now adheres to the 2020 RDI guidelines.
So, soylent might sound a bit familiar. On the one hand, you could say that it sounds like soy + lent (from lentils). And that is certainly what the name references to, indirectly. It's actually named after the movie Soylent Green. And where the original book states that the food products there are made from soy and lentils, the movie suggests otherwise.
Health and Regulations
Soylent has claimed to be a complete meal from the start. And in large part, the FDA agrees with them. The products have generally been received well and compared to the average diet are probably a lot healthier. But as with any new product, there were some hiccups along the way.
Many people experienced gastrointestinal illness after eating the meal bars (now discontinued). And in late 2016 the sales of the powders were also temporarily halted. A single ingredient was found to be the culprit and the sales of the powder continued after reformulation.
At the end of 2017 the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) halted the sale of Soylent in Canada and currently the products are only available in the US.
Since Soylent's inception many other companies have sprung up around the world. Some focus on using only organic products and include many nuts and berries. Others have decided to add many flavours to the powders. And the idea hasn't been contained to the US alone, now it's possible to get products like Soylent all around the globe. For a comprehensive list of companies involved see Blendrunner.
Three types of Meal (for now)
Soylent and its contemporaries have (to this day) developed three different types of meals. Each with the understanding that it should be complete, each with a different twist. First came the powders. Add water and you have a complete meal. Then came complete meals in a bar (of which some were square). And finally, there were ready-to-drinks. Here's the lowdown.
The powders come in many shapes and forms (figuratively speaking). Like Soylent, many offer a healthy balance of macronutrients that adhere to, or are guided by, national and international guidelines (e.g. FDA, EFSA). Some producers make a ketogenic (high-fat, low-carbs) version. And some choose to only add organic products. With powder, there is something for everybody.
The bars started as a new take on the cookie. What if your snack could be a (small) complete meal? Some great innovators made square meals and inspired others to follow suit. Unfortunately, Soylent isn't selling bars at the moment. Other producers sell different versions which mostly vary between 250 and 400kcal. Some are sweet (and Chocolate based) whilst others mainly get their energy from nuts & seeds.
The drinks are a truly novel invention by Soylent. Where there were already drinks high in sugar (Ensure and the like), there was no real meal replacement available as an RTD. The drinks score highest on convenience but are a bit higher in price. Since the launch, a few companies in Europe and Australia have also produced RTDs.
That is where the industry is at the current moment. There are different types of meals for different needs and with many flavours to choose from, you will never be bored. But what will the future bring?
Dystopia or Bright Future?
Where is all of this going you may ask yourself? Isn't there a lot of pleasure to be found in food? Or is it just functional? We believe that both can be true. For every moment where food has a secondary role in your life, you take a Complete Food. For every moment where you eat socially or want to relax with some cooking, make yourself a wholesome meal. Different moment, different meal.
We see a bright future before us. A world where fewer people suffer from diabetes, obesity and other preventable diseases. We believe that our relationship with food hasn't been that great in the last few decades. With Complete Foods, we think we can restore some sanity.
If you were inspired by this article to give complete foods a try, feel free to check out our webshop or see the different brands on Blendrunner.