Soylent, a total nutrition product created by a startup-style team in San Francisco, is getting a lot of attention with its claim that you could live on the product alone, the geek-centric shake mix hyped as more of a “food replacement” than a meal replacement. The company has amazing funding and overwhelming orders but many in the nutrition industry are skeptical. In reporting a story on the quirky product, the NBJ asked Kantha Shelke, an authority on food science and the nutrition industry, to share her thoughts by email?
NBJ: What did you think when you first heard about Soylent?
Shelke: Pleasure and nutrition should never be separated. How sad it would be if I had to resort to Soylent for even one meal, but how wonderful, if Soylent could help nourish those who need it and don’t mind missing out on the orchestra of tastes, textures, aromas, noises, shapes, and temperatures of eating food. I do not live to eat, but I am mindful of what I eat and I enjoy good tasting food. Eating is a pleasure revisited several times in my day.
NBJ: What is Soylent overlooking?
Shelke: Nutrition science is still in its infancy. What if foods in nature provide us with nutrients that we are yet not aware of? Soylent would surely miss on that front. There is a reason why humans were provided with teeth. Chewing is related to a number of metabolic pathways in our bodies and a diet solely dependent on Soylent has a potential to disrupt our metabolic balance and therefore, our health and well-being.
NBJ: What do you see as its appeal?
Shelke Its name is rather unusual for a meal replacement beverage, but it appears to have hit the sweet spot with its nutritional prowess and convenience for those who seek nourishment conveniently and without much fuss. As one who often thinks about world hunger and especially hungry children, one of my first thoughts was if Soylent could also gain popularity as a relief food for hungry children who often come to school with empty bellies. But, it would be so much nicer if we could give real food to delight and nourish the hungry rather than what seems to be a tasteless boring punishment.
NBJ: Why do you think a product like Soylent is getting so much attention now?
Shelke: Part of the reason for the attention may be because of the “open-source” approach taken by the founder, and the other is the healthy revenues the company is generating currently. Its popularity is not among those educated about health and nutrition, but among those who think they know about nutrition, much like the founder. Not bad for a tasteless food product, especially considering that taste is what drives the overwhelming majority of people to their food.
NBJ: Can you think of any other products that have been presented as a complete nutrition solution? Is this something that comes up every so often?
Shelke: There are several complete nutrition solutions in the marketplace and they are targeted towards demographics that for one reason or another cannot or should not consume regular foods. E.g.: weight loss products, performance management products, sports nutrition products, products for the elderly, medical foods, and post-surgery/trauma foods.
NBJ: Does Soylent have a chance at broadening the market beyond its tech core?
Shelke: Products like Soylent will probably survive and may even thrive in a niche. History has shown that most humans yearn for taste and texture and that they cannot live long on monotonous products like Soylent. Soylent may broaden into weight loss, post-surgery, and sports nutrition products, but such products already exist in these arenas. From a business perspective, I wonder how sustainable a product such as Soylent can be without undergoing some kind of modification to suit the diversity that naturally exists among humans. Once the varieties step in, then there is the natural tendency to introduce elements such as taste and texture, and then all we have is another nutritional shake. Soylent appears to be reliant on subscriptions and re-signing is often the biggest challenge for many such businesses because of food fatigue or inability to deliver results. Humans have a remarkable ability to adapt and with adaptation, the efficacy of Soylent may taper off, and with it the desire to re-up the subscription.