Will Soylent solve our food problems?

Soylent mix provides all the nutrition a human needs and costs $10 a day.

Story highlights

  • Soylent is a powdered drink that purports to provide 100% of the nutrition that a human needs to survive
  • Jeff Yang: I spent a month living off this food alternative

Jeff Yang is a columnist for The Wall Street Journal Online and contributes frequently to radio shows, including PRI's "The Takeaway" and WNYC's "The Brian Lehrer Show." He is the co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" and editor of the graphic novel anthologies "Secret Identities" and "Shattered." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Statistically speaking, the end of January is where New Year's resolutions go to die. According to a study by the University of Scranton published last year in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, after one month has passed, over a third of those who've made firm commitments to change their ways at the stroke of midnight on December 31 have already surrendered to apathy and inertia four weeks later.

The No. 1 resolution people make? Lose weight. (This is America, after all, where 69% of us are overweight and 35% are clinically obese, making us the second-fattest country in the world after our next door neighbor, Mexico.) And while most people know that the best way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more, most people are also lazy as hell, which is why some of us are fat to begin with. That's why sales of diet books soar in January, and why Weight Watchers has its biggest sales in Q1 of each year: We want an easy way to reach goals that we don't have the willpower to attain on our own.
Case in point? Me. When I entered college, I was 120 pounds soaking wet. By the time I graduated, I'd added another 25 pounds, mostly muscle. But in the years since then, I've added another 25 -- mostly fat. And no fad diet or desultory attempts at exercise have helped me to cut that gut.
    Jeff Yang
    My problem hasn't been overeating; it's not the quantity so much as the quality of what I consume that's the problem. A life full of weird hours and frequent travel, with skipped meals replaced by fast snacks, is a recipe for lateral expansion, whether or not you're all about that bass.
    That's why it was intriguing to see many of my Silicon Valley friends talking breathlessly about the innovative new "food replacement" startup Soylent, especially after they recently raised $20 million in venture capital to vastly expand their production and distribution capabilities.
    Soylent is a powdered alternative to real meals that can be prepared in an instant and that purports to provide 100% of the nutrition that a human being needs to survive, and even thrive. Atlanta-based engineer Rob Rhinehart developed Soylent — which is, indeed, jokingly named after the futuristic food from the movie "Soylent Green," but is not made of people, nor out of soy, for that matter — primarily as a time-saver.
    "Most of the time [food is] just a hassle," he wrote in the blog post announcing his experiment of eating nothing but the basic powdered requirements for human nutrition for two whole months. "I used to spend about two hours per day on food. Now I spend about five minutes in the evening preparing for the next day, and every meal takes a few seconds."
    There's something appealing about the notion of living a more efficient lifestyle — not just where time is concerned, but also money (Soylent costs about $10 a day), effort (no cooking or cleaning) and waste: Soylent produces almost no garbage and other than its base ingredients, which come in a single premixed bag for each day's supply, uses nothing other than water for mixing, though you're encouraged to add a vial of canola oil to provide supplemental fat.
    And while Soylent isn't designed to help people diet (the goal is to not get skinnier while eating it), anything that helps you manage your calories can also help you control your waistline. As Rhinehart has pointed out, Soylent makes it "easy to lose and gain precise amounts of weight" just by varying one's quantity of intake.
    That seemed like just the ticket for someone who's always on the go and bolting down whatever's available just to stave off hunger. Why not tote a pitcher of this stuff around and drink a big swig three times a day, avoiding the high-sodium, fat-saturated and nutritionally bankrupt junk I've been using to stoke my belly?
    So I ordered a month's supply and for four weeks, religiously consumed Soylent and nothing else. Well, that and coffee. Naturally my colleagues at work were curious about the beige swill I was chugging instead of lunch; I let them try a little, and all of them agreed that while it was not entirely unpleasant (most of it is rice protein, so it tastes a bit like gritty, watered-down oatmeal), it would take an act of monumental will to get them to make it their only source of food.
    Or an act of God. Having spent a lot of recent time in Los Angeles, I've had a few friends suggest that they might keep a crate of it around just in case; if The Big One hits or zombie apocalypse erupts, bottled water plus Soylent might keep you alive long enough to be rescued.
    But what about in a world where you're surrounded not by the undead, but bacon and everything bagels? This is what I learned after four weeks on the stuff: It is actually very possible to give up eating. The three hours a day that goes into mealtime is readily recycled as time for other things. (Facebook, mostly.) What you lose is primarily social (we interact so much around meals that not eating is like disinviting yourself from life) — and spiritual: I feel oddly zestless, not missing food so much as the act of savoring, that soft run of juices before taking a bite of something appetizing.
    Being forced to consume exactly 2,000 calories every 24 hours — about 500 less than recommended for the average adult male — turns out to be a highly effective way of losing weight: I dropped 15 pounds in 30 days. And even though I'm now back to bacon-and-bagel reality, I'm much more aware of what and how I'm eating, maybe because I shudder at going back to the food jail of Soylent.
    Which is why I keep a week's supply of it in the closet, as a reminder of what I might be missing. And yes, in case of zombies.