Dinner in a glass: Why is there a growing interest in Soylent?

  • Meenakshi Iyer, Hindustan Times, Mumbai
  • Updated: Nov 09, 2015 17:03 IST
SupermealX is a powder-based food substitute that packs in the necessary nutrients required by an average human being in a day.

On a night out with friends, when 32-year-old entrepreneur Harsh Batra claims he’s on a liquid diet, he’s not implying alcohol. He is talking about a thick, beige-coloured shake with hints of vanilla and a whey-like texture that keeps him going through a night of partying and a morning session of cricket. A bottle of this shake accompanies him everywhere. For over a year now, Batra, a fitness enthusiast, has been replacing his breakfast and lunch with SupermealX, his version of the American food substitute, Soylent.

Created by Rob Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley techie, Soylent is a powder-based product that packs in the necessary nutrients required by an average human being in a day. Simply add water, and lunch is served.

Calling it his “longest running experiment to date”, Batra recently received a go-ahead from the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India, and will start shipping the product soon.

The new techie diet

While health shakes and meal replacements have always attracted athletes, a widely circulated piece in the New York Times recently brought to attention a trend in Silicon Valley. Coders, engineers and venture capitalists are actually turning to liquid meals. With products such as Soylent, Schmoylent, Schmilk and People Chow available in the market, techies are fast adopting Rhinehart’s lifestyle. But can it replace solid food altogether?

“Yes,” claims Batra, who has been sustaining himself using his recipe since 2013. “Food in the future will be limited to social gatherings and eating out,” he says. Like him, busy and health-conscious urbanites find it cumbersome to shop for food and cook at home on a daily basis. While eating out is an option, it is not necessarily healthy. Some may enjoy the occasional weekend cooking, but they find it tiring if they have to make food every day.

And then there are some like 29-year-old entrepreneur Shirsendu Karmakar from Delhi, who suffers from a series of food allergies. He, too, created a vegan Soylent recipe, through trial and error. “Not having to cook also means no washing or cleaning up. On a serious note, this shake gave me the required energy and mental ability that an average meal could not,” says Karmakar. Similarly, Pune-based software professional Ayan Mullick dislikes having to cook for himself and has been getting Soylent shipped from the US for the past seven-eight months. “It’s simple, easy and eliminates the need to cook, clean and buy groceries,” Mullick says.

A glass of SupermealX contains all the necessary nutrients required for a balanced diet.

Rhinehart’s journey with Soylent

Humans have always consumed solid food — whether it was by hunting or farming. So, are these healthy mixes the next stage of evolution?

When 26-year-old Rhinehart started trying to simplify meals, he met with more criticism than wonderment. Like other inventions born out of need, in his case, food bills became a burden, and he wanted a permanent solution. “As an engineer, I reasoned that we could rebuild food in the image of what we needed rather than trying to extract our requirements from a mess of naturally occurring crops,” Rhinehart tells us via email.

In 2012, after months of research on nutritional biochemistry, he managed to compile a list of 35 nutrients required for survival. These nutrients, in the form of pills and powders, became the initial recipe for Soylent. Instead of consuming them one by one, he added water and put them in a blender. After being on it for a month — which means successfully replacing all three meals — Rhinehart went public with his product.

Harsh Batra, a fitness enthusiast, has been replacing his breakfast and lunch with SupermealX.

The food of the future?

Batra followed Rhinehart’s journey and conducted similar experiments based on his recipe shared through open source forums. He admits to being satisfied with the results. “I get a lot of requests from people suffering from diabetes and food allergies, those looking to adopt a healthier lifestyle or stay fit,” he says.

But will this liquid diet have mainstream appeal? It is a resounding “No” from noted food columnist Vir Sanghvi: “I am sceptical about this fad. It may work for people who are very busy, but not for the rest of us. We don’t function on the notion that food is for sustenance alone,” he adds.

Healthwise, too, it’s a thumbs down for this one-size-fits-all diet, feels Indrayani Pawar, team leader dietician at Hinduja Healthcare Surgical. “Such diet fads are not ideal as every person has a different requirement of nutrients. Besides, every body part performs a function. For instance, we have teeth to chew and saliva to break down food,” Pawar says.

Earlier this year, Steve Case, the CEO of Revolution, a company that invests in ideas, argued that powdered food supplements is not the future. “The future of food, with all due respect to my visionary colleagues in Silicon Valley, is not Soylent,” writes Case, in an op-ed for Re/Code, an independent tech news, reviews and analysis site. Food is an important social connector and products like Soylent negate that, he observes, adding that the future of food lies with companies and start-ups that make healthy food more accessible. “Put another way: the future of food is food,” writes Case.

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