When 24-year-old software engineer Rob Rhinehart asked users on crowdhoster.com to help bankroll his newest invention, Soylent, he had no idea he would reach his $100,000 goal in just a few hours. He’s now raised nearly $800,000 to bring the powdered food substitute to market. He’ll begin shipping Soylent to his donors and selling it online in the U.S. and abroad in August—a move he hopes will spark a dietary revolution.
“I think we have really shown that there is a need for innovation in food and people want easier healthy foods, even if they are not traditional,” Rhinehart said in an interview with Healthline. “I think the idea that one can be healthy without natural food is very important and will grow steadily.”
Soylent—sort of named for the macabre substance in the 1973 film Soylent Green—is a powdered mix of carbohydrates, proteins, fats, vitamins, and minerals that Rhinehart claims can sustain an adult indefinitely. He envisions Soylent as not only an alternative to costly and time-intensive cooking, but also as a way to nourish the hungry in developing countries.
“While no silver bullet, I think it has huge potential to be part of alleviating food insecurity,” Rhinehart said. “Once we see food and nutrition on a molecular basis it frees us from many of the traditional constraints of agriculture and the logistics problems around food. This makes it much easier to scale and optimize, and eventually I think everyone will have easier access to a healthy diet.”
Rhinehart is careful not to make explicit medical claims about Soylent, but he does say online that if you struggle with weight loss, food allergies, indigestion, or high cholesterol, “Soylent is for you.”
Healthline’s resident medical expert Dr. George Krucik, MD, said that a liquid diet like this could potentially help patients suffering from these conditions, but only as a transition to overall healthy dietary habits.
The Big Question: Is Soylent Safe?
Rhinehart says he’s subsisted on the product for three months at a time, and several journalists have also tried Soylent for up to one week. They reported few drawbacks, aside from a bland taste and a gooey consistency when the drink reaches room temperature. After three months, Rhinehart’s body fat levels were also somewhat low, so he supplemented Soylent with bacon.
Beyond that, no safety studies have been conducted to find out what would happen if one really did give up food for Soylent altogether.
“Assuming they are taking the daily recommended vitamin doses [a person] certainly could survive on the solution for months at least. With that said, there are many other factors involved in choosing to live on Soylent as one's only food,” Krucik said. “There is the necessity for trace elements in one's diet that might not be met over the long haul. There is the issue of roughage in the diet for normal bowel function and well being. One might have to adjust their liquid intake to ensure a healthy electrolyte balance.”
Krucik added, “Many studies have indicated that a healthy diet and one leaving open the opportunity of longevity includes a healthy dose of multi-colored foods that are diverse in origin, from veggies to fish.”
According to Rhinehart, though he originally developed Soylent in his own kitchen, he relied on nutritional guidelines from the Institute of Medicine and fine-tuned the open-source formula with help from doctors and dieticians.
He says that because the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed the individual ingredients in Soylent safe, the combined product shouldn’t harm consumers.
“We are currently working on designing a study to catalog the benefits of Soylent with a reputable university,” Rhinehart said. “Since all the ingredients are verified safe in the quantities used, safety should not be a concern, though that will be part of the test as well.”
How Will Soylent Be Regulated in the U.S.?
According to Arthur Whitmore, a press officer with the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Soylent would fall into the category of what the FDA considers food. Unlike a medication, Soylent will not require FDA approval, unless it contains some new type of food additive, which Rhinehart would need to disclose.
It’s important to Rhinehart that Soylent be considered a food, as opposed to a medicine or supplement, so that food-stamp recipients can buy it using EBT cards.
As for whether an adult could safely live on Soylent alone, Whitmore told Healthline, “That’s not really the FDA’s job to determine.” He added, “People should eat a balanced diet as recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.”
The facility where Soylent is made must be registered with the FDA, and the product will need to be packaged with allergy and ingredient labels, like all other foods. Rhinehart says he’s teaming up with a registered supplement co-packer.
It's ultimately Rhinehart's responsibility to make sure Soylent is safe, contaminant free, and nutritionally sound. If he has his way, Soylent will feed the masses and may even change our definition of food as one of life’s necessities.