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Crowd-funding campaign seeks to eradicate food

A software engineer has developed a cocktail of nutrients that he believes can replace food, and has launched a crowd-funding campaign to get it to market.

(Fresh cut fruits and vegetables image by Peggy Greb, US Department of Agriculture, public domain)

A software engineer has developed a cocktail of nutrients that he believes can replace food, and has launched a crowd-funding campaign to get it to market.

Food, believes 24-year-old software engineer Rob Rhinehart, is inefficient. It costs money to obtain, takes time to prepare, time to consume, and so much goes to waste. So, in true engineer style, once he identified a problem he set about trying to solve it.

His solution was Soylent: a powdered mix of nutrients, antioxidants, kilojoules, fats and probiotics calculated to provide everything the body needs to stay healthy. (The full ingredient list can be found here.) It sounds nuts and, in the last few months, Rhinehart has received plenty of criticism for his experiment — but Rhinehart says that, after three months of living almost exclusively on Soylent, he feels healthier than he's ever been.

Dietary supplements are not a new invention. In fact, parenteral nutrition formulas have been around for a while to provide nutrition intravenously to patients with gastrointestinal disorders. When used long-term, it can cause complications. The most common of these are further complications with the gastrointestinal and renal systems, as they are not being used, a problem Soylent probably won't encounter; but also the wrong balance of trace elements can wreak a fair bit of havoc if taken long-term (PDF).

Rhinehart has been monitoring his condition very closely, and making tweaks to the formula (which looks like any other powdered dietary supplement). A month ago, for example, he discovered his body was becoming sulfur deficient, and made an adjustment to his formula accordingly. And he has a contingent of followers who are trying his idea out for themselves, adjusting it to their own metabolisms. However, it's early days yet — too early to tell if Soylent has a long-term detrimental impact.

Packaged Soylent.(Credit: Soylent)

Nevertheless, Rhinehart's heart seems to be in the right place. "Fifty per cent of the food produced globally is wasted, and food makes for the largest component of municipal garbage," the Soylent crowd-funding page says. "If not for this waste there would be plenty of food to adequately nourish everyone alive. Two million people are killed annually by smoke inhalation from indoor cooking stoves alone. Seventy per cent of Americans are overweight or obese. One in seven people globally are malnourished, and one in three in the developing world suffer from deficiency. Countless others are living hand-to-mouth, subsistence farming, hindering economic development. Even in the developed world, agriculture is the most dangerous industry to work in by occupational injuries and illnesses, and obesity is on the rise."

Rhinehart is also careful to point out that he is not, in fact, trying to completely get rid of food. Instead, he says, he wants to de-emphasise it, making it a luxury or leisure activity, like going to the movies. "I think people would enjoy food more by needing it less, like having central heating in addition to a fireplace," he said on his blog in a post debunking common criticisms. "If you never got hungry how often do you think you would eat? I find the pleasures of discovery, creation, laughter, learning, or pursuing a passion far more satisfying than a stomach full of ancestral food. Man was meant to do more than subsist."

While we find Rhinehart's ideas intriguing, though, we're not entirely sold. US$65 — the asking price for a week's supply of Soylent on the campaign — doesn't seem significantly cheaper than a week's worth of food, and the ability to carefully monitor the body's responses and discover what nutrients need to be adjusted sounds like it requires more than a passing knowledge of lipids and vitamins. On top of which, if there are problems with the nutrition replacements developed by scientists, how could a 24-year-old software engineer do any better?

At least it's not made of people.

If you're interested in what Rhinehart is doing, head over to his blog for some more in-depth reading, and visit the Soylent crowd-funding page to pledge support.