Words by Kevin Cui
Illustration by Lynley Eavis

It comes in space-age silver packets, adorned with a logo that would not look out of place on a UFO. But just as its futuristic appearance would have us believe, inventor Rob Rhinehart insists that Soylent will bring the way we eat into the digital age.

Soylent is a powdered drink mix designed to be a quick and easy substitute for a nutritious meal. Just add water, and BAM! You have a greyish, nutrient-rich sludge, that delivers all the vitamins and minerals required by a functioning body. It is at the forefront of a technological counterculture called “biohacking”, which overturns the popular opinion that natural is always better when it comes to our bodies. Rhinehart scoffs at the idea of pouring huge amounts of time and resources into growing food the old fashioned way, given that we live in an age where technology has revolutionised and optimised so many of our daily activities.

With a list of ingredients that are primarily synthesised in a laboratory or heavily processed, Soylent is a fully synthetic, mass-produced commodity for modern mankind. And if you need any further proof of Soylent’s high-tech credentials, look no further than its inventor—not a food scientist or a nutritionist, but a software engineer by trade. Rhinehart is a sign of changing times in which technology is set to play an even greater role in our lives.

At this point, Soylent may sound like cattle feed for unfortunate souls who have never discovered the joy of eating, or a generation raised on an unhealthy diet of Star Wars and The Matrix. But bear in mind that Soylent could be a godsend for fast-paced urbanites, for whom cooking is merely an expensive, time consuming challenge. Let’s not forget we have an entire generation of students living off Centrelink, fuelled by frozen pizza and 7-Eleven sushi. But with Soylent, there are “no groceries, dishes, deciding what to eat, no endless conversations weighing the relative merits of gluten-free, keto, paleo or vegan. Power and water bills are lower. I save hours a day and hundreds of dollars a month,” Rhinehart exclaims. “This could do a lot more for health than some new recipe based on lettuce.”

So are we the first generation where a mug of grey goop first thing in the morning is soon to be one of life’s daily rituals? The reality is, it’s not that simple—after all, food is not just fuel. While in this day and age many people may not be able to enjoy a quality meal every day, who doesn’t indulge in a tub of ice-cream or a glass of wine at the end of a long day? Not to mention that food is one of humanity’s most important social and cultural institutions. The dinner table is a place to catch up with friends, conduct business, and even fall in love. There’s nothing quite like a big plate of bacon and eggs on a lazy Sunday morning, and that’s something that Rhinehart acknowledges. “It’s really nice to secure in something as important as health and diet, and then we can enjoy [food] because we want to, not because we have to,” he responds.

While short terms trials of Soylent’s safety as a food substitute have been positive, numerous health professionals question whether it can truly replicate the nutritional benefits of whole foods. As University of Melbourne’s very own Dr. Ken Ng argues, “formulating a ‘complete’ nutrient mix does not make sense nor fill our total nutritional needs for a number of reasons.” Which is true: Soylent just can’t compete with the nutritional benefits of a diverse, balanced diet. Not to mention, nutrients in their raw chemical form don’t have the same biological effects as their organically grown counterparts. Most importantly, he points out, “words like joy, fulfilment, satisfaction and happiness have meaning to humans because they are linked to the experience of eating.”

So what’s the take home message? There’s more to good food than simply a mixture of chemicals on a plate—and there’s just no substitute for the place it holds in our hearts. Nevertheless, if Soylent spells the end for microwave “meals” and mystery meat, then I think that’s something we could all drink to.