Tuesday, May 20, 2014

In the Footsteps of Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus, and Painful Rectal Itch

by Michael Dorf

A recent article in The New Yorker alerted me to what may be the worst-named product since the original Saturday Night Live cast gave us (fake) jams with names like Dog Vomit, Monkey Pus, and Painful Rectal Itch. As in, "with a name like Painful Rectal Itch you gotta bet that it’s great jam."

Unlike Painful Rectal Itch jam, this new food product is real. And it's called . . . wait for it . . . Soylent. That's right, Soylent, as in "SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE!" That's your cue, Charlton.

Even stranger is the fact that the people behind (but not in!) Soylent did not accidentally give their product a name that evokes cannibalism. They did so deliberately, or at least knowingly. Go to the Soylent home page and there, directly under the heading "What's Soylent Made Of?" but before the ingredients info, you will find the following text: "Hint: It's not people." So Soylent's creators are aware of the, uhm, likelihood of confusion, and they've chosen to run with it. Elsewhere on the website, one learns that the name Soylent was taken from the novel Make Room! Make Room!--on which the film Soylent Green was based. To be sure, in the novel, Soylent is not made from people, but I'm guessing more people are familiar with the film than with the novel.

So much for marketing. What about the product itself? Here things get even weirder. As profiled in The New Yorker story and on its own website, Soylent aims to free us of the hassle and expense of eating. The first image on the homepage shows a 20-something pouring a blender of Soylent into a glass, with the caption "What if you never had to worry about food again?". That would be a good question if addressed to poor people in the developing world or here in the U.S. who were worried about food security--i.e., worried about food in the sense that they were worried about being able to grow or buy enough food to survive. But while cost-savings is one of the ostensible benefits of Soylent, it appears to be chiefly marketed to busy students and professionals. "What if you never had to worry about food again?" turns out to mean "What if you never had to waste time on that horrible process of finding, preparing, and, worst of all, eating food?"

In other words, the Soylent vision of eating (non-Soylent foods) is very much like Larry David's view of going to the toilet. In an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry dies and goes to heaven. There he is thrilled to discover that no matter how much he eats or drinks, he doesn't feel the urge to, or need to, relieve himself. He exclaims in his inimitable way, "pretty nice." So too, the Soylent people would have us believe, with eating.

Now, to be fair, Soylent's creator, Robert Rhinehart, says that Soylent can be used as a staple source of nutrition, with other (solid, etc) food used as a kind of entertainment. And I concede that there are obviously some people who regard much of their eating as a chore. If there weren't, there would be no market at all for Soylent, and there evidently is a market for it.

But I have a very hard time imagining that Soylent will gain more than a niche following for the obvious reason that most people actually like to eat, and like to eat with some variety. I say that as someone who has just about the exact same thing for breakfast every day -- a pot of green tea and a smoothie made from coconut water, kale, berries, banana, apple, orange, lime, walnuts, dates, chia seeds, and flax seeds. Given the time and money I could save by just pouring the Soylent package into a blender, I should be the target audience for Soylent.  And if I thought Soylent were as nutritious and tasty as my smoothie, I might well switch. But I'm not remotely tempted.

Why not? For starters, the feedback on Soylent ranges from barely drinkable to not bad, whereas my smoothie is really good.  I suppose I might like Soylent a whole lot more than other people do, but I see no reason to think that I would.

What about nutrition?  The nutritional philosophy behind Soylent is that foods are essentially delivery devices for nutrients.  That's partly right: if you don't get enough vitamin C you get scurvy; if you don't get enough vitamin D, you get rickets; etc.  But most foods (and especially fruits and vegetables) in their natural state contain so many "micronutrients" that you're better off just eating the whole foods than trying to isolate and consume the big-name nutrients.

For example, the first ingredient listed in Soylent is maltodextrin, a synthetic polysaccharide made from corn or wheat. It's not necessarily bad for you, but calories you get from maltodextrin do less other good for you than, say, calories derived from fruits, vegetables, or whole grains themselves. Likewise for the next two ingredients: rice protein and oat flour. There then follows a list of mostly unpronounceable chemicals which may well be nutrients but are only nutrients. They include at least two that may be affirmatively harmful: excess copper and zinc have both been linked to Alzheimer's, although oddly, there is some evidence that deficiencies of these metals are also linked to Alzheimer's. Given the uncertainty and the fact that Americans get plenty of copper from the water they drink (which travels through copper pipes), it's hardly clear that an ideal food should contain added copper and zinc.

Of course, the nutrition question that should be asked is: compared to what? I have little doubt that a diet of 100% or even 50% Solyent would be an improvement for people eating the Standard American Diet (SAD). And the environmental impact of Soylent is much milder than the impact of the SAD; plus, Soylent powder is vegan, which greatly reduces harm to animals, as well as the environment, relative to animal agriculture. (Soylent consists of a powder plus an oil mixture; the stock version of the latter contains fish oil; the Soylent website helpfully instructs vegans and vegetarians to buy only the powder and substitute their own mix, using flaxseed oil).

So . . . where does that leave me? I guess I end up hoping that Soylent sells like hotcakes, even though I'm doubtful that it will. I suppose they could start marketing it with the tag line "with a name like Soylent, it's got to be good."