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Rob Rhinehart on the science and the business of living without food

Last week I attended a book launch (picture of author J. P. Floru here), and after the formal proceedings had been concluded, I meandered into a conversation involving the ASI’s Sam Bowman, about something called “Soylent”. Until then, Soylent to me only meant that Charlton Heston movie about food made of people. Sam and his pals were talking about something rather different, but the subject changed to something else and that night I learned very little out what this twenty first century version of Soylent is, beyond the fact that Sam Bowman was excited about it. Later, however, Sam sent me an email about it that got me chasing the story a bit.

Soylent is food, sort of, but not made of people. Basically, what the Soylent guy, whose name is Rob Rhinehart, says he did was … well, let him explain it, in the piece he wrote a month into the experiment that he performed on himself:

I hypothesized that the body doesn’t need food itself, merely the chemicals and elements it contains. So, I resolved to embark on an experiment. What if I consumed only the raw ingredients the body uses for energy? Would I be healthier or do we need all the other stuff that’s in traditional food? If it does work, what would it feel like to have a perfectly balanced diet? I just want to be in good health and spend as little time and money on food as possible.

I haven’t eaten a bite of food in 30 days, and it’s changed my life.

So how did this make him feel?

I feel like the six million dollar man.

If Rob Rhinehart, or anybody else who thinks as Rob Rhinehart is now thinking, ever got a job in government that involved him or her telling other people what to consume, then I would join what I hope would be a loud chorus of hatred and derision. But given that Rhinehart is experimenting on (a) himself, and now also on (b) other consenting Californians, I am a tentatively enthusiastic admirer of what he says he is doing, only tentative because my enthusiasm is subject to all the obvious caveats and hesitations about it all later turning out to be fraudulent nonsense.

But assuming all this to be for real, a particular point that Rhinehart makes is that the human body is resilient, in the sense that it can survive without quite a few “essential nutrients”, which would thus seem to be not quite as essential as that word implies. Even if the Soylent that Rhinehart has so far arrived at misses out on some supposedly essential nutrients, it didn’t kill him, despite worries that others expressed:

Perhaps this does not constitute the ideal diet, but I am quite confident that it is healthier than any easy diet, and easier than any healthy diet. I’m touched so many people are concerned about my intake of possible unknown essential nutrients. No one seemed to worry about me when I lived on burritos and ramen and actually was deficient of many known essential nutrients. The body is pretty robust. If you can survive on what most Americans or Somalians eat, you can surely survive on Soylent. I’m no longer just surviving, though. I’m thriving.

It sounds like a really interesting operation, both from the scientific point of view and as a potential money spinner. Nutrition that is as cheap as truly nutritional nutrition is capable of being, and as unheavy and unvoluminous as nutrition can be, has obvious applications, both in reducing the money spent by poor people feeding themselves healthily, and reducing the payloads consumed in the process of feeding such people as astronauts or submariners. Obviously, to start with, it will only be rich Californians giving this stuff a go, but everything has to start somewhere.

This whole story, and in particular that word “Soylent”, still has me and I am sure many others thinking: internet hoax. When I started reading Rhinehart’s stuff, I did a quick check to see if we had yet reached April 1st. But if all this is a hoax, quite a few people seem to have fallen for it, at any rate as far as I have, by writing about it.

But, if it is not an internet hoax, this would appear to be a classic case of suck-it-and-see (in this case literally that) technology-stroke-science, of just the sort I was writing about in this earlier posting here about where science (and art) come from. It really is very striking how very much, in this enterprise, the advance of science and the potential making of a mega-mountain of money would appear – touch wood – to be advancing hand in hand. At the very least, Rob Rhinehart is going to learn about why food, as opposed merely to Soylent, is, after all, necessary for human flourishing. But, if it isn’t, and if Soylent 4.2 (or whatever) will actually suffice … Rhinehart could be on his way to making a hell of a lot more than six million dollars.

Another nice titbit of news about all this is that Rhinehart would appear, judging from his use of the word “regulation” in the second sentence of this, to be some kind of free marketeer, libertarian type, although maybe I am reading too much into one word there.

I think Rhinehart ought to change that name though. His “Soylent” is not made of people, only for them. Nor does it contain any Soya.

Details. Another way of saying all of the above is: if this really is only a hoax, it is an extraordinarily interesting and inventive one, and some other Californian should be persuaded to try this on himself for real.

I await developments.

28 comments to Rob Rhinehart on the science and the business of living without food

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Of course, you have to get people eating for nutrition and not taste, first. Lotsa luck.

  • Adam Gibb

    This is in essence very similar to enteral (naso-gastric, ‘tube’) feeding routinely given to post-operative/ITU patients in hospitals. Correctly formulated, there is little doubt that you could survive and indeed thrive on Soylent. The cost of ~$5/day sounds realistic. However, the question is who would want to? I suspect the market is pretty small. Think of all the yummy food and drink your missing out on….

  • Laird

    Very interesting. There’s a lot more detail on his website, if anyone cares to read it. (I like the name of his site, too.)

  • RAB

    This sounds like back to the Sixties Brian, when the Space Race started and programmes like Tomorrow’s World were forcasting that we’d all be eating Astronaut food, puree type stuff out of tubes and popping pills for the essential vitamins. Along with wearing disposable paper clothes. It didn’t seem very appetizing then either. One sniff of a bacon buttie and it’s diet over.

  • Bladedoc

    As Adam noted all this is is make-your-own tube feeds and then drinking it. You can purchase flavored versions for $1/can in bulk (Ensure, Boost) in the US. In the 70s hospitals made their own by blenderizing whole foods but it’s cheaper to buy it pre made today. I don’t know why people are acting like this is remotely new.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    You can build a very big business indeed on a tiny percentage base of willing consumers, especially if (like Rhinehart) you start with your own desires. What most people might, at first, think about “Soylent” is of no great consequence. I can remember when the whole idea of a smart phone was widely derided as pointless and useless. A few dissented, and that’s all it took.

    Second, Rhinehart tried, for experimental reasons, to live only on Soylent, but there is no problem, he says, about adding food and drink to a diet based on Soylent. Soylent gives you, or that is the idea, everything you must have. It doesn’t demand that you consume nothing else, even though that was Rhinehart’s first experiment.

    And third (for now), according to him, Soylent actually tastes quite nice.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    On the whole “this is not new” thing, I think that maybe what is very new in all this, now, is that we have the internet, to build trust.

    Twenty years ago, a tin claiming to give me every nutrient I need is something I simply did not believe to be telling me the truth. And twenty years ago, there was no easy way for me to have my questions answered and my doubts dealt with. Only if I became a specialist obsessive with time and money to burn on the subject could I get any plausible answers. The popular understanding of nutritional virtue was based on overhearing a shouting match between industrial dinosaurs mass producing things like Oxo cubes and hamburgers and cornflakes and fizzy drinks. In such a world, it makes sense (or it did to me) to stick with what I knew that, after a fashion, worked and with what tasted nice.

    Maybe what is different about Rhinehart is that he is just this bloke, concocting something that, okay, is not actually that new (although it could surely be an improvement), in his kitchen. It’s a more persuasive story, especially now that he is talking about testing it on others, and generally finding out more, rather than just about selling the stuff.

    So maybe what I am saying is that the product may not be new, but the marketing, potentially, has been transformed.

  • RRS

    And the technician at the Petri dish can substitute for sexual intercourse, eliminating distractions and an enormous use of time.

  • Brian Micklethwait (London)

    Further to the internet thing, you could say that what I said above about Soylent plus the internet being new applies to all other dietary enthusiasms.

    And if you did, you would be quite right.

    There are many reasons for the rise of strange new dietary enthusiasms. But the internet is unquestionably one of the bigger ones. People now investigate interesting new diets because they can.

  • Johnathan Pearce (London)

    Of course, we live in the “long tail” world where relatively cheap distribution and marketing via the internet has drastically reduced barriers to entry to new and interesting ideas.

    Ray Kurzweill – “Mr Singalarity” – has made similar points; he argues that with the ability to obtain nutrients in such a way, eating the old-fashioned way will increasingly take on a “recreational” aspect. To some extent, in rich countries, it already has. Chefs have become almost like rockstars rather than educators about diet.

    Needless to say, the Greens will not be happy bunnies about this.

  • Natalie Solent (Essex)

    I’m pretty sure the body needs a certain amount of bulk food to pass through it. It certainly evolved to have bulk passing through it; won’t the – er – passing through muscles atrophy or something if all they get to deal with is one little pill?

    Only it does give me pause when I think that the reason I know this Fact of Medical Science is that there was an episode of Star Trek in which some people from another galaxy who have temporarily taken human form take over the Enterprise and try to fly it home to their galaxy, but one of the ways their plan goes wrong is that they live only on nutrient pills which makes them go nuts or something, and Dr McCoy mentions it in passing.

    Hmm. Possibly my scientific research needs more funding. However, it is a fun episode. It’s the one where Scotty’s strategy to retake the ship involved drinking one of the aliens under the table.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I’m pretty sure the body needs a certain amount of bulk food to pass through it. It certainly evolved to have bulk passing through it; won’t the – er – passing through muscles atrophy or something if all they get to deal with is one little pill?

    Why God made cabbage.

  • Ben

    In Harry Harrison’s novel Make Room! Make Room! on which the film was based, soylent green was the leaves of soy and lentil plants, those being the staple crops, and the economy being so debased that it was necessary to eat what is normally thrown away.

    The plot had a reporter or cop (I forget which) who uncovered a black market meat trade – it was that which was people.

  • Steve D

    Humans need fixed carbon as a form of energy for respiration. That means carbohydrates, protein, nucleic acids or fat. There are no other choices. He says he didn’t eat food. Then he says he ate olive oil for fatty acids. What does he think olive oil is, if not food? Sorry his entire blog entry is meaningless if he doesn’t supply the LIST of what he ate.

  • I’ve read about people with certain medical conditions doing this, so it isn’t new. They just drink solutions containing the right amino acids etc. Sorry, no link.

  • Steven

    I seem to remember that during the Gemini and Apollo missions NASA experimented with feeding crews stuff like this that had no bulk to speak of simply so crews on multiday missions wouldn’t have a need for defecation. Everything was a liquid and absorbed before it reached the large intestine and became feces.

    Maybe I’m off my rocker, but I’m actually excited about a future where everything I consume comes in a cup and all my physical needs are done by machines. Give me a floaty-chair and I’ll happily live like the people in WALL-E.

  • Ed Snack

    Whenever I find a chef who is trying to be “an educator about diet”, I find another restaurant.

  • Nick (nice-guy) Gray

    I’ll bet he’s really a member of PETA! (a petan, maybe? Or a PETAL- People Ethically Treating Animal Lifeforms? They seem to think we should all eat leaves and flowers, anyway!) I bet he’s got an anti-farm agenda!

  • Julie near Chicago

    “…[T]he technician at the Petri dish can substitute for sexual intercourse, eliminating distractions and an enormous use [waste??] of time.”

    –RRS, at 2:01 p.m.

    Nominated for SQUOTD. :)

  • Runcie Balspune

    Maybe what is different about Rhinehart is that he is just this bloke

    The evidence presented by “just a bloke” is unfortunately mainly anecdotal, he has moved from a junk diet to a balanced one (albeit via “soylent”) and that makes you feel better anyway. Teeth get whiter if you don’t eat anything. Being able to boost your ability to run just shows how lazy you were before. Not feeling hungry is a benefit of liquidising food.

    whilst I am in general agreement with his philosophies and nutritional aims, I’d prefer a more controlled study before jumping to conclusions (like comparing “soylent” to a regular balanced diet by an already motivated individual).

    The problem with any regulated diet is not what you eat, but what you don’t eat (c.f. rabbit starvation), he already identified iron, but what else might cause issues, somewhat later?

    Saying all that he’s on the right track and if I were younger I’d probably sign up as a volunteer.

  • Jaded Voluntaryist

    Watch any late 1950’s Sci-Fi featuring “food pills” and you’ll see why this wont work. Gastronomic pleasure is essential to human well-being, and even if you can introduce nutrients in a more “efficient” manner, all you’ll do is make people long for inefficiency.

    As an aside, the real reason we don’t have “food pills” is another reason Soylent could never catch on (assuming it even works). Humans in reality need to consume a certain mass each day because it is not possible to compress our nutritional requirements below a certain point. That means eating a lot of Soylent – even best case scenario would likely be in the region of 3 large cereal bowls worth every day.

    And who wants to eat 3 bowls of wall-paper paste every day just so they don’t have to eat boring food like bacon, chocolate and the wrist-slashingly awful mashed-potato-smothered-in-butter-and-gravy?

  • John B

    Overlooked is Mankind has a rather extensive digestive tract with complex anatomy and physiology involving brain, liver, gall bladder, pancreas, lymph, musculature, nervous and vascular systems.

    Astronauts can move around in Space much easier than on the ground, can even fly, but as a consequence they suffer muscle wasting and decalcification of the skeleton.

    Short term Soylent may well be nutritionally sufficient, but over the longer term how is that complex, now redundant anatomy and physiology going to respond?

    Stand by for carcinomas, organ dysfunction and failure, internal haemorrhaging and things impossible to predict.

  • JohnB

    Well, my point was going to be what Natalie, and John B above, said more or less.
    Bulk is a serious factor.
    I had a horse that was killed by an unintentional lack of bulk. Okay, more serious for them than for me, but I am sure it would catch up with one.
    Perhaps just add all-bran?

    John B, it seems there are two of us.

  • RRS and Julie: but of (inter)course.

  • TDK

    Following Ben above.

    The film has multiple versions of Soylent – Soylent Green, Soylent Red… Supposedly the new Soylent Green is made from Plankton and is supposed to be superior to the other Soylents. The scandal is that it is actually made from dead people including Edward G Robinson. I don’t recall any suggestion that the other earlier Soylents were made from people too.

  • Runcie Balspune

    The average american spends $604/month on food, about half of which is groceries. As a percentage of income this is actually the lowest of any nation. Kenyans for example spend 45% of their income on food

    This is the other point that is missed, the problem is not that food is expensive in poorer nations, it is that food is relatively expensive. So, in the good libertarian tradition, it is worth pointing out that the real solution lies in increasing wealth rather than just making food cheap.

  • Julie near Chicago

    Alisa: So THAT’s how it’s done!!! I never knew! And me with actual offspring and all…(a virgin birth??)

    I never did see Demolition Man (had no idea Miss Bullock is in it–I’m a fan of hers), and that is hilarious. Thanks!

  • It’s a fun movie, Julie – Wesley Snipes is the villain.