Soylent May Not Be So Bad: The Whole Food Fallacy

Photo: BenKovitz (CC)

Photo: BenKovitz (CC)

There has been a tremendous amount of skepticism since Rob Rhinehart invented his Soylent drink and claimed he’d been living on it 90% of the time for seven months. He defends himself and his invention against criticsm from Four Hour Work Week author Tim Ferriss at his blog:

This is a response to:, as well as some of the comments

In 1828, a young organic chemist named Friedrich Wöhler committed heresy. Wöhler accidentally synthesized Urea, a component of many lifeforms, from inorganic components. At the time everyone knew there was a special “life force” that separated organisms from other matter. It was a long uphill battle to convince the scientific community, but eventually the evidence won out. Regardless, even today many laymen tacitly assume that the holistic makeup of lifeforms such as food rise magically above their constituent chemicals.

Everything is made of parts. The idea of holistic food represents the death throes of Vitalism, the fallacious assumption that there is something materially special about forms of life separate from other forms of matter. This is an easy mistake to make. Humans and animals move, breathe, and mate, unlike rocks or soil, but we’re all made of the same interchangeable forms of matter and energy. A stone dropped in to a pond will take the shortest path to the bottom. A human will take the shortest route to work, and cling to old ideas. Life is complex, but there is nothing about it that disobeys well understood laws of chemistry and physics. I am not sure if consciousness is reducible, but carrots certainly are.

Creating a lifeform from scratch is an elusive task, and though great strides have been made recently we still have limits in our understanding. However, you do not need to fully understand an organism to feed it. Bacteria grown in labs are always grown on a synthetic medium of nutrients called “LB”. Pets live on synthetic diets and are much healthier and long-lived than their wild counterparts. We don’t know how proteins fold but we do know all the metabolic pathways of a human, and our complete elemental makeup, thanks to elemental analysis. Even the grand diversity of the human microbiome contains conserved metabolic pathways. We do not yet know what the ideal diet for a human is, but our present understanding permits us to easily design a diet that is far superior to what most people are eating.

Humans have lived on animal flesh and the reproductive organs of plants for a long time, but food has been changing all along. And it still is. The development of agriculture, then preservation, then nutrition, then processing, and now even biotechnology have all vastly improved our food products and lifestyle over their natural forms and immensely increased the carrying capacity of the earth. In fact, the foods we thrive on today are far from natural. How do you think bananas reproduce without seeds? The United States began adding Niacin to bread in 1938, which largely eliminated the deadly disease Pellagra, and iodized salt likely has a lot to do with the steady rise in IQ seen in the last century.

This is not to say that all new foods are healthy. Many food companies design purely for the sensory experience of food, leading to products that are over-stimulating, unbalanced, or even addictive. I am amazed that we have cheap chocolate bars, which would have been a kingly delicacy not long ago, but I think we deserve new healthy options as well…

[continues at Rob’s blog]


Majestic is gadfly emeritus.

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33 Comments on "Soylent May Not Be So Bad: The Whole Food Fallacy"

  1. Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 9:39 am |

    Majestic, am I discerning correctly that you are a fan of Soylent and Golden rice? Or are you simply interested in these topics? I find them interesting too but I think they are part of a negative trend.

    Here is why these two things bother me:

    I associated them with “domestication syndrome” I really feel that like animals such as chickens, cows and pigs, human beings are undergoing a similar process of domestication. Its been called “self domestication” which implies that since we seem to be doing it to ourselves it must be by free choice and thus a good thing. I don’t see it that way, since there are unequal power relations between humans.

    Anyway, one aspect of the domestication process is isolating animals from their natural environment and causing them to subsist on a very reduced diet. For example, feeding cows pigs and chickens mostly corn instead of allowing them to graze and forage on pasture and have a varied diet.

    The domestication process is something that seems to intensify over time. Originally most cows, pigs and chickens were free range, but more and more they are kept in confinement. The more artificial their environment becomes they less free they are to display natural behavior. They are bred and genetically engineered to adapt to this artificial environment until eventually most of their natural instincts are lost. The domestication process seems to be an evolutionary dead end that can only result in extinction.

    I see humanity following this disturbing trend. This human “self domestication” seems to be of a piece with the domestication process of plants an animals as a whole.

    The highest value of this domestication process is efficiency.

    • Ted, I’m interested in the topic of food and nutrition, but I am currently not a fan of Soylent and you won’t find any GMOs in my diet (that I’m aware of – another topic of interest to me). However, I think it’s really important to hear what the proponents are saying and to have a rational debate. I hope we’ll see some diversity of opinion in the next comments…

      • Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 9:55 am |

        Well its definitely an interesting topic. I think this guy argues his case well. Though I am not sure the reason I eat organic food that I grow myself is through a belief in vitalism.

        Its more of a case of seeing my role as a human as being part of many natural relationships living together in a community. I feel like by reducing everything to its constituent chemiucal elements, the danger is not a loss of “phlogistin” or whatever but rather that we will lose our connection to the Earth and other living things.

    • Josh Webb | Sep 6, 2013 at 9:48 am |

      Wow, I had never thought about it that way. I had been interested in the Soylent drink since I first read about it, but after reading your comment I’m re-thinking my original feelings about it. In the end its just “slop” for the masses. Cage us all into cities and feed us all the same slop.

    • Anarchy Pony | Sep 6, 2013 at 1:24 pm |

      Whoa Ted, your comment actually triggered a revelation. I haven’t pulled that off in years. You, sir, have won the internet for today.

      • Ted Heistman | Sep 9, 2013 at 10:16 am |

        Thanks! I just saw this now. I was pit crew for a 90 mile canoe race this past weekend.

        • Anarchy Pony | Sep 9, 2013 at 10:26 am |

          Whoa! Sounds fun.

          • Ted Heistman | Sep 9, 2013 at 10:38 am |

            Yeah, it was pretty cool. Right through the middle of the Adirondack mountains, over three days. I want to do it next year.

          • Anarchy Pony | Sep 9, 2013 at 11:13 am |

            I went on a 3 day whitewater trip on the Rogue River when I was about 13, that was a blast.

  2. Anarchy Pony | Sep 6, 2013 at 10:15 am |

    Again; Prole food. It’ll be food for the slave classes/working poor, while the opulent elite will be able to afford actual food.

  3. Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 10:25 am |

    Its not that I think
    that’s what these guys are trying to do, but I can see this product
    being used in that way. I also think I should mention Weston A Price. He
    was a dentist who studied the teeth of people who ate indigenous diets.
    He marveled that indigenous people all had beautiful well formed teeth,
    but like Westerners, when they adopted a Western diet they got cavities
    and needed braces (which they couldn’t afford and which weren’t
    available to them) the funny thing was that while these traditional
    diets were all healthy and nutritious, they were totally different, like
    for example, people eating traditional diets in the tropics had great
    teeth like eskimos who ate traditional diets but the diets themselves
    were totally different.

    Indigenous diets are far healthier than
    the Western one and these nutritional and health gains from vitamins and
    sanitation and so forth are very recent. The diet itself is still poor.
    Its the diet associated with industrial farming.

  4. emperorreagan | Sep 6, 2013 at 10:39 am |

    I don’t really trust a software engineer to formulate a total food replacement. His blog post is mostly unfounded assertions – he doesn’t dig into scientific literature to try to make his arguments. Don’t know if people he’s arguing against do either.

    I think the nutrition/diet field is full of charlatans. From big agriculture claiming new products are harmless without testing them to whatever the fad of the moment is (paleo? vegan?), there’s not a ton of reason to believe any of it.

    Why would anyone put all of their eggs in the soylent basket if there’s not a wealth of scientific evidence to back it up? He, like the rest of the businesses working in the same area, seems to work from the standpoint that people have to prove them wrong/prove something is harmful, rather than needing to demonstrate anything themselves. Innocent until proven guilty is a legal concept for people accused of a crime, not a scientific principle.

    I think his product is targeted towards the subset of people who joke about not having flying cars yet and any nutritional merit is entirely secondary.

  5. Ted Heistman | Sep 6, 2013 at 10:45 am |

    A claim from his blog: “Pets live on synthetic diets and are much healthier and long-lived than their wild counterparts”

    This is actually not true. Life is harder in the wild for a wolf than for a pampered house dog but wolves are actually longer lived than dogs of a similar size and weight in captivity. If nothing kills them first wolves can live over 20 years.

    Wild animals are all more vigorous, more intelligent, and healthier than their domestic counterparts in captivity and they eat far more varied diets.

    Hopefully the author can respond to some of my points.

    • Anarchy Pony | Sep 6, 2013 at 1:39 pm |

      I would say it’s a fair guess that domestic pets probably have a much higher incidence of cancer as well.

      I can’t believe it took me that long to catch that.

  6. BuzzCoastin | Sep 6, 2013 at 12:54 pm |

    Der Homeland switched to synthetic foods in the late 60’s
    GMO corn & soy and their byproducts in the 70’s
    anyone born after 1990 has been raised on a “pure” synthetic diet
    the McNugget is more corn than chicken
    more synthetic than real

    • Hadrian999 | Sep 6, 2013 at 2:50 pm |

      it’s funny how people react when they taste their first non mass produced chicken

      • emperorreagan | Sep 6, 2013 at 3:45 pm |

        I recently had the experience with tomatoes. Finally gave an heirloom variety from the local coop a try after refusing most things with tomatoes since I was a child. First time I think I have ever eaten a slice of raw tomato instead of spitting it out.

        • Jin The Ninja | Sep 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm |

          i am the same way w/ tomatoes. partly because i was always cautioned against them (mum was strictly macrobiotic growing up- wherein anything ‘solanum’ is considered to be a food to be eaten rarely- but also b/c i could never get over the texture of supermarket beefsteaks. now i can eat fresh ones (very moderately) if local, heirloom. still not my favourite thing, but i have no active distaste for them.

        • Anarchy Pony | Sep 6, 2013 at 4:04 pm |

          I tasted some hamburger that came from a grass fed cow on a farm a few miles away a couple years ago. It was put down after breaking a leg, and butchered on the premises. It was by far, the best beef I’ve ever had in my life. Beats any fast food, any special order, any grocery store, even any classy restaurant beef I’ve ever had. And homegrown tomatoes are definitely above and beyond anything you can get at a grocery store.

  7. Steve Stark | Sep 6, 2013 at 2:18 pm |

    So you’re telling us that bananas are manufactured by scientists in labs rather than grow naturally? I think not!

    • Anarchy Pony | Sep 6, 2013 at 3:53 pm |

      Actually, bananas are sterile hybrids. They’re the fruit equivalent of mules.

    • atlanticus | Sep 7, 2013 at 9:27 am |

      It wouldn’t take much effort to look it up, you know…wild bananas look NOTHING like the bananas in the supermarket. They’re shorter and full of seed pods.

      • Steve Stark | Sep 7, 2013 at 10:47 am |

        It would have taken more effort for me to look it up that it would have taken you to read my initial comment. And had you expended that effort, you would not have written the guff you did – the guff I have now had to expend the effort to read and respond to. Bottom line: neither bananas nor mules are built by scientists out of their base physical constituents. And, since a banana has exactly the same base physical constituents as a turd (quarks are quarks, eg), and you believe, like the author of the article above, that the base physical constituents are all there is to it, then you can have the turd and I’ll content myself with the banana. Bon appetit!

        • I believe you have misunderstood the context of the paragraph speaking about the bananas. Quite naturally, since I read the paragraph as was intended and am not a psychic, I had no way to guess that you had read the paragraph incorrectly.

          “So you’re telling us that bananas are manufactured by scientists in labs rather than grow naturally?”

          He was not making any such statement.

          I’ll have an orange.

          • Steve Stark | Sep 7, 2013 at 5:21 pm |

            He’s claiming bananas “are far from natural” (nonsense) and he made this claim immediately after, and seemingly in response to, his point about biotechnology. The main point though, is that his article is garbage. Foods cannot be broken down to their base physical constituents – constituents which we can then eat in place of foods. What he’s made, what his soylent effectively is, is part smoothie and part protein shake. Big deal, people have been drinking such stuff for years. And none of it supports the reductionist nonsense in the article as the banana/turd argument so straightforwardly shows. Just another clown spouting pseudoscientific nonsense in support of some bizarre metaphysical ideology he, and no doubt you, believe in with all your heart. It’s false, get it over it.

          • Do you need a hug?

          • Steve Stark | Sep 8, 2013 at 9:44 am |

            No, I believe you misunderstood the points that are being made in the article, and you misunderstood the points made in my initial post, where were in response to.the point in the article you misunderstood. Thus your posts are completely irrelevant. Thus the picture of the wild-type banana which has nothing to do with anything other than your own lack of understanding.

          • I read your other comment wherein you accused me of supporting the author’s opinion.

            I can’t help but notice that you have not been as shitty to AnarchyPony, but I guess it’s because you’re an inconsistent douche bag, rather than just a regular one.

          • Steve Stark | Sep 8, 2013 at 12:35 pm |

            If you have some relevant comment to make (see above) why not make it and save us all the trouble of wading through more irrelevancies,

  8. Steve Stark | Sep 6, 2013 at 2:22 pm |

    This article is utter nonsense! There’s hardly a sentence in it, and certainly no paragraph, that isn’t wildly wrong.

  9. Joel Tattooing | Sep 7, 2013 at 3:37 am |

    “I like Soylent. I use it all the time. My life is simpler, cleaner. My
    thoughts are clearer, my body leaner. I still enjoy my favorite foods,
    though my tastes have changed somewhat towards nicer, more flavorful
    kinds. I find eating is a lot more fun when it’s optional, similar to
    taking a road trip versus driving to work.”

    Ok so he still eats his favourite foods but now chooses food with deeper flavours, I would guess that is a lean towards eating good foods that his body naturally likes after having gotten over addiction to sugar, lots of salt and so on. I wonder how much good food a person needs to eat while using a supplement like soylent to be healthy and have the kind of health benefits he describes, 10% maybe? To me this sounds much like the claims by breatharians. When he has been on this diet 100% percent for a year under strict observation by impartial researchers with no deterioration of health I will listen to his claims with an open mind. Right now alarmbells are ringing. This is just the equivalent to breatharianism but for people who are extreme towards the opposite side of the brain from new agers. Scientism.

  10. atlanticus | Sep 7, 2013 at 9:46 am |

    One of the reasons that whole foods are important actually comes down to the balance of free radicals vs. anti-oxidants. In whole foods these are perfectly balanced so that they neutralize each other before becoming reactive or otherwise problematic in the body.

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