Hey, everybody! Here’s a fun little medical quiz for today. Can anyone tell me what the sharp whitish pointy things in your mouth are called?
Did you say “teeth”? Excellent. Pat yourself on the back. Does anyone know why we have them?
Did you say “to eat things”? Strong work. Have a biscuit.
Why am I asking these questions, which my preschooler would find bleedingly obvious were I to put them to him? Because apparently there is a man out there who wants to render them superfluous.
Food is the fossil fuel of human energy. It is an enormous market full of waste, regulation, and biased allocation with serious geo-political implications. And we’re deeply dependent on it. In some countries people are dying of obesity, others starvation. In my own life I resented the time, money, and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption, and clean-up of food was consuming. I am pretty young, generally in good health, and remain physically and mentally active. I don’t want to lose weight. I want to maintain it and spend less energy getting energy.
Food? How very passé. The future is now, friends. It’s time to push aside those plates of varied, flavorful meals and transition to a diet of revolting-looking sludge.
There are no meats, fruits, vegetables, or breads here. Besides olive oil for fatty acids and table salt for sodium and chloride nothing is recognizable as food. I researched every substance the body needs to survive, plus a few extras shown to be beneficial, and purchased all of them in nearly raw chemical form from a variety of sources. The section on the ingredients ended up being quite long so I’ll save that for a future post. The first morning my kitchen looked more like a chemistry lab than a cookery, but I eventually ended up with an thick, odorless, beige liquid. I call it ‘Soylent’. At the time I didn’t know if it was going to kill me or give me superpowers. I held my nose and tepidly lifted it to my mouth, expecting an awful taste.
It was delicious! I felt like I’d just had the best breakfast of my life. It tasted like a sweet, succulent, hearty meal in a glass, which is what it is, I suppose. I immediately felt full, yet energized, and started my day. Several hours later I got hungry again. I quickly downed another glass and immediately felt relief. The next day I made another batch and felt even better. My energy level had skyrocketed at this point, I felt like a kid again. But on day 3 I noticed my heart was racing and my energy level was suddenly dropping. Hemoglobin! I think, my heart is having trouble getting enough oxygen to all my organs. I check my formula and realize iron is completely absent. I quickly purchase an iron supplement and add it to the mixture the next day. I have to be more careful not to leave anything out. [emphasis added]
First of all, I’m not sure I’d trust someone who’d choose the horrifying name “Soylent” for his product when it comes to matters of taste. I haven’t sampled his concoction, but I’m still willing to place a benjamin on bacon and eggs in a flavor match-up.
But the above bolded segment tells you all you really need to know about how seriously to take this man’s claims about the health benefits of his nutrient slurry. (Hint: not very.) Whatever the reason for his heart rate and lack of vigor, it had nothing to do with his hemoglobin level. Adding iron (which was probably a good call in the long run) and any resultant spring in the step were 100% placebo effect. The average lifespan of a red blood cell is 120 days. Unless our subject had suffered a massive bleed or developed a sudden hemolytic condition (which would have caused blood loss or destruction, respectively), no matter what the nutritional deprivation he had induced from an all-Soylent (*yeeeeach*) diet, his hemoglobin count would have been essentially unchanged in a span of three days.
His post goes on to talk about how great he feels, how wonderful it is to be unchained from the constraints of food prep, and how marvelous his blood tests turned out. (More on that later.) We should all chuck our fridges out, convert our pantries into pottery studios and embrace our new Soylent-enabled (*bleeeeeeargh*) life.
Now, the world is too full of crackpot nonsense to go after each and every cockamamie notion on the Internet. But this particular brand of nuttery caught the eye of someone at Wonkblog, and that caught the eye of our own Jason Kuznicki, who decided to disrupt my otherwise serene state of mind and tell me about it. (The man who came up with this is named Rob Rhinehart, by the bye.)
Rhinehart is currently looking for volunteers to try Soylent and then conduct blood tests — and, full disclosure, I’ve offered to try it — but if you’re serious about never eating regular food again, real medical food from Abbott or Nestlé is the way to go.
Friends, please do not volunteer for this study. As the (actually quite sane) preceding post makes clear, liquid diets have been manufactured for many, many years. We use them for patients who are incapable of eating, and I’ve got a great many patients in my own practice who subsist wholly or in part on one of the many nutritionist-approved liquid diets out there. If you’re determined to do without the smell and flavor of food, then I hope you find the yummy, yummy taste of Jevity more to your liking.
But beyond the fact that liquid diets with a proven track record of safety are already available, this man’s plans to test his own formula’s safety are nonsense and a waste of money. Furthermore, his entire venture is built on a faulty premise.
In a follow-up post in which Rinehart tells you what’s in his scrumptious blend, he asks for volunteers to drink it for a week and obtain a set of blood tests before and after.
I think it makes more sense to test this more thoroughly, and then produce it at scale.
So…I’ll just ship you some of my batch. If you are willing to consume exclusively soylent, and get a CBC, chem panel, and lipid blood test before and after the week and share your results with me it’s on the house. Bonus points for getting a psych evaluation before and after. The brain is an organ. I can ship it worldwide but it would be nice if you were in San Francisco so we can meet in person.
What a worthless waste of time and money those tests will be. I’ve already explained why the CBC (which would be to check for anemia) would be worthless in that span of time. So, too, will the chem panel and lipid tests. Assuming a person has functional kidneys and isn’t consuming a truly (and frankly unpalatably) large quantity of sodium or potassium, a chem panel is going to reflect the body’s ability to cope with relatively large fluctuations in electrolyte consumption. It is controversial to what extent diet even affects our bodies’ lipid levels, but even for those patients whose diets have been modified by medical order we don’t bother rechecking lipid panels for at least three months after making the change. One week’s worth of difference? Random noise. And I pity the poor psychologist who is meant to figure out what kinds of neurocognitive tests are going to assess what affect this regimen has on brain function.
But beyond the silliness of ordering worthless tests, let’s just look at the silliness that underlies this whole nonsense. Rhinehart’s whole schtick is that food is a foolish waste of time to produce and prepare. His whole Soylent (*uuuuuuuuuuuuuuugh*) project is based on the idea that chugging it down as a sole source of nourishment is so very much more efficient and cost-effective. Except:
I am reticent to provide exact brand names and instructions because I am not fully convinced of the diet’s safety for a physiology different than mine. What if I missed something that’s essential for someone of a different race or age group? Also, the cost is low but some of the ingredients are hard to find and/or must be purchased in bulk which can be an investment, and some of my suppliers are quite small and would have their stock depleted if many people rushed to purchase the exact same item I did.
You know what’s not hard to find, doesn’t have to be purchased in bulk unless desired, and is (at least in this country) in ample supply? Food, available at a grocery store near you. It has the added bonus of being delicious, to boot! I have neither the expertise nor the desire to try to calculate the cost of producing the various mineral supplements Rhinehart blends to make his brew as compared to real food, nor to try and figure out the cost of hunting down suppliers for all of them and the time it takes to measure and mix them. Maybe it really is cheaper on a macro level, I dunno. Color me skeptical.
Can you live on it safely? Possibly, though if you’re really in the mood to jettison food I’d suggest a replacement with a proven track record. I happen to think there are probably lots of things in the foods we eat that are good for us but that we either don’t know about or with benefits we can’t properly measure, and that exclusively consuming a man-made alternative means you’re likely missing something. But if you’re really wanting to test how good something is for you and its effects on your body, you’ll need a much longer trial than one week.
Me? I’ll be over here eating food. It tastes good, and it’s fun to make and share.