Sunday, August 9, 2015

"Since John Harvey Kellogg gave C.W. Post his first enema"

I generally like Justin Fox, but in this Bloomberg piece, he's working really hard to avoid the obvious conclusion.
On Monday, software engineer Rob Rhinehart published an account of his new life without alternating electrical current -- which he has undertaken because generating that current "produces 32 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector." Connection to the power grid isn’t all Rhinehart has given up. He also doesn’t drive, wash his clothes (or hire anyone else to wash them) or cook anything but coffee and tea. But he still lives in a big city (Los Angeles) and is chief executive officer of a corporation with $21.5 million in venture capital funding.

That corporation is Rosa Labs, the maker of Soylent, a “macronutritious food beverage” designed to free its buyers from the drudgery of shopping, cooking and chewing. In the 2,900-word post on his personal blog, Rhinehart worked in an extended testimonial for Soylent 2.0, a new, improved version of the drink -- algae and soy seem to be the two most important ingredients -- that will begin shipping in October.

“Macronutritious” is a bit of a stretch. Soylent is not all that nutrient dense (make sure to note the calories).


The following summarizes the nutrition facts and ingredients for Soylent 1.5.[35] The nutrition facts are based on one serving of 115 grams (4.1 oz).[35] Each Soylent pouch contains four servings.

Soylent 1.5 Nutrition Facts
Serving Size 115gServings per Container: 4
Calories from fat200

Amount per Serving % Daily Value*
Total Fat23g35%
Saturated Fat2.5g13%
Trans Fat0gN/A
Cholesterol0 mg0%
Sodium360 mg16%
Potassium866 mg25%
Total Carbohydrate57g19%
Dietary Fiber3g12%

For less than a fourth of those calories, here's what you get with a bowl of black beans.

I'd also recommend adding some nonfat Greek yogurt to your spicy bean soup as a sour cream substitute

Nor do you have to cook to do better than Soylent. I did a quick check at the grocery store last night and I found lots of frozen entrees that gave you more nutrition for less calories than Rosa Lab's product.

Basically, when you cut through all of the pseudo science and buzzwords and LOOKATME antics, Rhinehart is simply peddling a mediocre protein shake with the same tired miracle food claims that marketers have been using since John Harvey Kellogg gave C.W. Post his first enema.

Here's what happens when actual scientists look at these claims:

Susan Roberts, Professor at Tufts University's Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, likened Soylent to already available nutritional shakes. While there might be some benefit to Soylent's low saturated fat content, she said, there are certain risks inherent in a non-food diet. "[T]here are so many unknown chemicals in fruits and vegetables that they will not be able to duplicate in a formula exactly," she said in an email. She says that, if Soylent is formulated properly, a person could certainly live on it, but she doubts they would experience optimal health. She fears that in the long-term, a food-free diet could open a person up to chronic health issues.

Tracy Anthony, Associate Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Rutgers University, speaking to us in an email, criticized the formula specifically:

    [T]he fast-digesting soluble protein source (whey) in combination with the simple sugar source (maltodextrin) creates a product that is very high glycemic. This product would not promote healthy glucose control, satiety and cognitive well-being with insulin spiking at each point of Soylent consumption.

She also echoed Roberts' sentiment, that ingesting the minimum nutrition required by the human body is not the same thing as maintaining a healthy diet. Could a person live off of Soylent for a while? Certainly, she says, for quite a while; but that doesn't mean that they are taking in the nutrients necessary to prevent disease, manage disease, or live a long life.

Fox seems to imply that being "chief executive officer of a corporation with $21.5 million in venture capital funding" undercuts the impression of flakiness, but wouldn't it make more sense to flip that around and ask what the flakiness says about the state of venture capital.

There is no reason to believe that Rob Rhinehart is anything more than a snake oil salesman with a propensity for idiotic babbling or that Soylent is anything more than a crappy protein shake dressed up with bad science and a standard miracle-food spiel. The fact that someone gave this guy a twenty million does not reflect well on the judgement of VC firms, but in their defense, the company that issued that check was Andreessen Horowitz, and no company co-foundedd by  Marc Andreessen  can be considered representative when it comes to flakiness.


  1. I'm not sure where to start regarding your rant. You seem to be implying that getting more nutrition with fewer calories is's not.

    You need the calories to drive the engine that is your body, hence the term balanced diet which measures intakes of various nutrients based on the number of calories you need to support your particular lifestyle. People walking the Pacific Crest Trail will typically burn through 2-3 times the calories per day as the rest of us computer jockeys.

    If you really think that nutrients sans calories is optimal I would suggest you simply switch to multi-vitamins, you would need to add some other items to round out what your body needs to live, and probably have to add some fat content from somewhere.......... hey if you do all of that and then consider calories (which you actually need) then you've arrived at a location that's pretty close to Soylent.

    Let me know if you come up with something better. It's an open source recipe that you can improve on instead of just bitching about.

  2. Not as stridently as the above commenter, but similarly: More nutrients per calorie is not better. I mean, the target is a 2000 calorie diet.

    If you really just ate 18 servings of beans for 2000 calories, you'd end up with : 270% sodium (excessive), 180% potassium, 270% iron (excessive), but only 36% of your recommended fat intake.

    I don't think much of soylent as a product, but the argument here is really shallow.