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It started with a young software engineer looking to feed himself as easily and cheaply as possible, leading to a blog entry about his experience, “How I Stopped Eating Food.” It continued with a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $750,000, and Soylent is now a company with $20 million of new investment. The cash infusion will help with product refinement and shoring up the supply chain — Soylent can’t keep up with orders (and alternatives such as Ambronite are appearing).

What Is It?

Named after the iconic (and ultimately sinister) foodstuff of the 1973 film Soylent Green (though inspired, according to inventor Rob Rhinehart, by the somewhat different novel it was based on), Soylent is a powdered meal replacement. Made from components including oat flour, rice protein, and vitamins, it seeks to provide a complete daily complement of nutrition in a “neutral tasting” drink. The inventor encourages people to modify it, and a lively community has sprung up at DIY Soylent, a section of the Soylent website. (Look there if you want instructions for making up a batch yourself. Some of the DIY Soylent participants sell their formulas, too.)

Is This New? Is It Regulated?

There are several medical and diet-oriented meal-replacement products on the market. Soylent has an interesting story and is distinguished particularly by its open-source approach — Rhinehart encourages people to make their own. Few product marketers are this open, and few products are this easy to modify. One distinction of Soylent is its low price. A month of Soylent costs about one third the price of the same calories through other commercially available meal-replacement products, and is dramatically less expensive than the same calories — and nutritional value — from conventional food.

Soylent is not regulated as a drug would be, but it is (after a shaky start in a “beta” phase in an Oakland warehouse) now produced by a partner dedicated to food and supplement manufacturing.

Should I Use This Instead of Food?

Maybe. If the idea of meal-replacement drinks appeals to you, this is a reasonable thing to try. I’d try one of the DIY recipes myself, but if you have some cash burning a hole in your pocket and don’t want to wait for Soylent’s supply lines, you could order some Schmoylent or Ambronite. The original formula is vegan, and DIY options include other qualities, such as gluten-free. This could also be something you keep a few servings’ worth of at work or use for a quick breakfast. Switching to Soylent abruptly, like any major dietary change, can cause GI distress at first.

This Sounds Ridiculous. I Love Food.

I admit, I’m not their target market, either. (In fact, some have called it more of a “gadget” than a food.) Rhinehart talks about Soylent as a basic diet for home, with people eating regular food socially a couple of times a week. He also envisions it as potential solution for emergency or low-food-security conditions, a possibility that may require this commercial proof of concept. (Andreessen Horowitz, explaining their $20 million investment, said that it is a mistake to think of Soylent as “just a food company.”) In the sense that Soylent is “a community of people who are enthusiastic about using science to improve food and nutrition,” it is an interesting project to watch, whether you try it or not.

And even people who love food might like the convenience of a meal in a glass. Protein sources abound (from peanut butter and eggs to powders made from milk whey, eggs, soy, rice, or hemp) and can easily be blended with water, milk (dairy or other), juice, fruits, and vegetables to get some of that Soylent ease of use.

Image from Ars Technica’s article, “Soylent hits its 1.0 formula, nears release.” Soylent has attracted a lot of criticism for applying the software “beta testing” model to human nutrition. This photo shows the beta product, since simplified.

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