Soylent caught my eye, not for any dietary or weight loss promises but for the fact that the product has become a Silicon Valley darling, becoming the largest crowdfunded food project upon its launch in 2013, raising $755K. Since then the company has raised $72.4 million in funding. I’m still getting to grips with everything there is to know about the Silicon Valley world but from the impression and knowledge I’ve gathered so far, a healthy, meal replacement company wasn’t what I’d expected of the Silicon Valley crew. Previous assumptions told me that they’re all super smart, tech geniuses, caught up in a world of software and product development, committed to making digital tech-based solutions to problems most of us didn’t even realise we had (yet suddenly can’t ignore). To a degree, this is what the Soylent team have built their business around. Soylent is designed not necessarily for the health conscious (in fact arguably the opposite in terms of mental health and burnout risks) but for the busy CEO, developer, entrepreneur, tech-bro guys behind the latest unicorn in Start-Up Land. Their ideal customers are those that are too busy to eat.
Their website describes the product as the on-the-go meal you’ve been waiting for’, painting their solution as ‘food reformatted’ and the nutritional benefits appear to be there. Each soylent drink contains 20 grams of plant-based protein and 26 added vitamins and minerals. Plus, they’re good for the environment. By using plant-based protein, this means the product requires less water and produces less CO2 than livestock. Soylent claims to reduce food waste through their year-long shelf life with no need to refrigerate until a bottle has been opened. Admittedly I do enjoy their tagline – ‘Let us take a few things off your plate’ – for it’s clever and it’s witty nature but honestly, I’d prefer they put the food back on my plate.
But alas, curiosity got the better of me. I took the risk that Soylent might work but also might leave me with embarrassing tummy rumblings in the middle of an open plan office. I ordered a box and set out to put them to the test over the course of the last ten days and replaced one meal a day with a Soylent drink over the course of the experiment.
Other than the tagline and simplistic branding, the on the go element did appeal to me to a certain extent. I can be lazy and sometimes a little cheap which makes for contradicting feelings on making and bringing a packed lunch to work. Those extra ten minutes of prep in the evenings when I could be passing time scrolling aimlessly through my phone or you know, getting some extra sleep, are precious and I procrastinate by complaining about having to do it. Grabbing a Soylent drink in the morning saved this time, took up very little space in my bag and saved me from the painstaking decision of what to have for lunch. My life is hard, I know.
The biggest issue for me with Soylent is possibly less to do with the product and more to do with my own insecurities and societal stigma. I was embarrassed and self-conscious about being seen drinking something that was branded a meal replacement. Upon ordering the drinks to my home, I felt the need to text my mother to warn her that this was for a work-related experiment, that consuming these meal replacements was a sorry excuse for being ‘creative’ and that no, I was not going on some sort of intense juicing diet. I hid the box in the utility room for fear of judgement from the rest of my family and squirmed when anyone asked me what the drinks were. Having spent the weekend at my boyfriend’s house, I felt reluctant to drink them in front of him or any of his family (particularly as his sister is a Personal Trainer and wouldn’t appreciate my consumption of a meal replacement product to then publicise online). Day one of the real experiment began at the start of the working week. I was still feeling self-conscious and continued to do so throughout the week. I hid the drink behind my laptop or consumed it at my desk when I knew most of my peers were out of the office for lunch. Most of them remained unaware of this ‘experiment’ up until publication of this article.
I’ve never found myself in a position of feeling pressured to embrace extreme diets but like other tea detoxes and juice cleanse claims that have come before us, I mostly felt confused about how psychologically, these juices, teas or in this case, soylent protein drink, would replace the habit of physically consuming food, of actually chewing, tasting and enjoying a meal. This was something I really missed during my week of experimentation. For the most part, I chose to make Soylent my solution to lunch each day. It took away the feeling of having a lunch break and led to many more cases of working through lunch at my desk which I guess, is what the team behind Soylent were going for with their busy CEO and entrepreneur types in mind. It took away the meaning of a lunch break and long term, with burnout cases on the rise, the Soylent lifestyle isn’t one I imagine to be sustainable.
I definitely missed the physicality of eating something for lunch and that played on my mind. For the most part, the drink itself also wasn’t enough. Perhaps it takes some getting used to and I should have allowed more time to let my body adjust to the new routine but over the course of the week, I ended up eating more food than I would have had I been committing to a normal meal for my lunch every day. I reached for snacks more and stocked up on apples to keep in case of a hunger emergency on my desk. The very first day I brought the drink in for lunch at work, I brought myself a back up small lunch of leftovers from the night before, unconvinced the soylent drink would be enough to fill me up Turns out those instincts were right and while the drink kept hunger at bay for a short while, the back up lunch was called into action by late afternoon.
Hunger levels aside, let’s talk about the taste. I went with the cafe mocha flavour described as the chocolatey, robust, coffee drink of your dreams, hoping the additional coffee might help to fuel me energy-wise now that I felt like I was skipping meals. Admittedly, the taste wasn’t all that bad, a little heavier on the coffee than expected but mostly tasted like a chocolate milkshake, as promised in their advertising. As with most protein related shakes and drinks, it did leave an odd, dry and slightly chalky feeling upon drinking it but all in all, the taste was bearable. The sweetness did make for a slightly sickening taste by the fourth or fifth day.
I guess from the outset I’d turned my nose up at the product, assumed I wouldn’t like them because I didn’t agree with their values and purpose of taking away the hassle of eating food and replacing it with a drink. Eating isn’t a hassle if anything it’s a privilege with stats showing that 821 million people in the world (or 1 in every 9) are going hungry. Yes, the preparation process may be annoying but describing eating as a hassle isn’t something that sits well with me. Within the culture of influencer marketing, we see celebrities and top name influencers getting in on the meal replacements or supplement based diets and dangerously promoting them to young, impressionable men and women who follow them, increasing the pressure they’re under to look and behave a certain way. While this product may be viewed as convenient for a small number of people and I’ll admit it was handy to ‘grab-and-go’ on few occasions, it wasn’t for me and I’d still much rather be eating my meals in food form.