Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Some time ago, a friend asked me to comment on a product called Soylent that claims to be a cheap and convenient source of nutrition. Basically, it is a powder based on soy oat protein and fortified with vitamins and minerals. It is meant to be turned into a milkshake-like thing where each serving has an equal fraction of all recommended nutrients.

These kinds of things are currently available as medical foods for patients with certain nutritional needs, but like anything medical, these foods are much more expensive than their ingredients, and Soylent costs about half or a third as much as similar medical foods.

Soylent could be a useful product for a lot of people. It would probably be an excellent emergency meal, and is clearly better than most types of fast food or protein shakes. For many people, replacing one meal a day with Soylent would likely improve their health. If this was how the food was marketed, there would be no problem. But that makers claim that Soylent is a complete source of nutrition, so that you could live on it and nothing else. This claim is problematic.

For context, I should mention how science discovered and defined the essential vitamins and minerals. These are things that were found to cure obvious and damaging diseases, like scurvy or pellagra, that resulted from really bad diets. If enough people had a nasty disease, and a vitamin or mineral supplement cured that disease, then it was classified as essential.

Basically, nutritional science knows that certain amounts of various nutrients are necessary for health. But that is not the same as saying that these amounts and nutrients have been shown to be sufficient for health. Soylent is made by people with no medical training who do not seem to understand this distinction.

I suspect that there are many other semi-essential things whose absence could cause small problems, or large problems over the long term. Soylent starts with simple stuff and adds the known essentials. If you tried to live on it for years, you would probably develop a new and interesting nutrient deficiency disease.

However, if you lived mainly on Soylent and also ate a salad a day along with it, you would probably be fine, especially if you added in fresh fruits and occasional seafood.

I would also recommend eating some kind of real food at the same time that you drink the soylent, because many nutrients that are good in food are much less useful in supplement form. It seems that the body has trouble digesting some things properly when they are not in a form that resembles a natural food.

I should also point out that Soylent's price of about $3 a meal is more expensive than cooking your own basic healthy food. It does not take any skill or much time to cook up two cups of brown rice, a one-pound bag of frozen mixed vegetables, and a couple of eggs.

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