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Soy vey! Soylent is marketed as a shelf-stable meal replacement containing all the nutrition you could ever need. You should be afraid

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On Saturday I decided I was going to bake bread. Lately I have been buried under my workload, and my time in the kitchen has suffered. As someone who tries her hardest to eat wholesome food, being faced with the prospect of pizza and takeout during my essay writing extravaganza is a personal tragedy. The solution? I was going to do some therapeutic baking.

Well — spoilers — my bread was crap. I lacked patience and time. “So much for home cooked food this week,” I said sadly, staring at a pita bread that could be utilized as a hockey puck. All I wanted were ready-made cheap and nutritional meals. According to a Facebook ad, the apparent solution to my problem was Soylent.

Soylent is marketed as a complete meal in a bottle. Nutritionally balanced, and tasting relatively inoffensive, it only costs $2.42 a portion. The website describes it as the “ultimate” food, with tips on how to incorporate Soylent into your lifestyle (“Soylentini” anyone?). The creator has apparently survived months on exclusively his product. If you hate cooking but also hate junk food, this looks like the best option for you.

The name should have been my first clue that not all is as it seems. For those who don’t know, it comes from a 1973 film where — actual spoilers here — “Soylent Green” is the only food available to the masses, and it is made out of people. Concerned, I looked up Soylent’s ingredients, which are thankfully human-free. While I am now less worried about accidental cannibalism, I am concerned about Soylent’s “stable shelf life.” A bottle of the stuff remains unchanged for an entire year. This product is supposed to offer me complete nutrition, how does it do that without having a single fresh ingredient?

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Following some research, I have come to a melodramatic conclusion: Soylent represents everything that is wrong with 21st century food. It entirely strips what little communal food culture we have left by making mealtime a solitary activity (despite the pictures on the website of people laughing while enjoying their Soylent sitting side by side. Fun.) It is part of a disturbing trend towards a loss of cooking expertise, which has been the most important skill we have obtained throughout human history. Soylent is produced out of cheap ingredients — hello soy! — which, along with all other processed foods, has increased our dependence on monocultures such as corn and wheat. Growing a whole bunch of one crop has proven to be devastating to our ecosystems and our health, but hey, may I remind you that one bottle of Soylent is only a little over two bucks?

Speaking of ingredients, out of Soylent’s 40 or so, none of them are actually that good for you, certainly not regularly. My food hero, Michael Pollan, argues that you should not buy any meal that has more than five ingredients, and they should all be things your grandmother could recognize. My grandma is a very smart lady, but she does not know what isomaltooligosaccharide is. I asked.

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That Soylent can contain only one ingredient I can consume with confidence (water) and still be labeled as a health product is part of our larger misunderstanding about nutrition. Unfortunately, nutritional science is nowhere near as comprehensive as we would like to believe. Pollan has compared modern day nutritionism to Medieval surgery. Sure, it is on the right track, new discoveries are constantly being made and one day it will do great things, but would I let ye olde doctor perform a lobotomy on me? Absolutely not. For example, let’s think about babies. We have developed formula that has doubtlessly saved countless infant lives and helped those unable to breast feed, however, despite the money and engineering that has gone into development, we have been unable to produce something that can nourish a child the same way that breast milk does. We have hardly come close.

My grandma is a very smart lady, but she does not know what isomaltool-igosaccharide is. I asked.

Soylent is what would happen if nutritional science and engineering had a baby: the current formula is named “Soylent 2.0,” and is described as a “diet inspired by an open-source operating system.” I don’t want my dinner to upgrade like my iPhone and I don’t want Linux to be the inspiration for my next meal. Reverse engineering food has so far been a nutritional failure, but for some reason we are still comfortable outsourcing our cooking. We need slow food, not fast food, and when it comes to eating and health we should be listening to our grandparents, not our engineers. I will take my burnt and disappointing baking failures over a bottle of suspiciously flavourless liquid any day, because when I make something myself, at least I know what’s in it.

Photo Credit: Lee Hutchinson

 

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