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Could Soylent solve world hunger?

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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Soylent has raised millions in seed funding and preorders
  • The meal substitute caters to the young, healthy and broke
  • Experts say people shouldn't solely rely on it for nutrition

By Lauren Russell

It's a thick, light beige goop. Depending on who you ask, its taste is described as "bland" or even similar to Play-Doh unless other flavorings are added.

Rob Rhinehart, who invented Soylent and now serves as the company's CEO, is working on the taste, but taste isn't why he created it. This product is for those who are only looking for sustenance and nutrition in a meal.

"We're trying to be pragmatic here. People aren't going to eat well all the time," he said. "You need a lot of knowledge -- all these details that go into eating healthily -- and we're trying to automate it."

Rhinehart created Soylent last year while working as a software engineer in Silicon Valley.

Tight on time and funds, he researched biochemistry within the human body and combined vitamins and nutrients to create what he now calls Soylent, named after the food made of people in the sci-fi film "Soylent Green."

Rhinehart ate only this powder mixture for 30 days and blogged about it. He now eats a mixed diet of Soylent and solid foods.

The product has gotten the attention of big investors who see a future for the product and customers who are tired of cooking and chewing.

The company announced late October that it raised $1.5 million in seed funding and $1.5 million in preorders since posting on a crowd funding site earlier this year. At around $3 per meal, the product could be a real money saver for some people.

With the attention, however, come questions: Is Soylent really nutritious enough to replace every meal? Who would want to give up eating? And could this be a solution to end world hunger?

What about nutrition?

Elizabeth Mayer-Davis, department chair at the School of Public Health at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she is skeptical about Soylent as a sole substance of consumption and doesn't understand why anyone wouldn't want to eat food.

"There are parts of this product that are healthy, but claims of why to use this are overstated," Mayer-Davis said. "At the end of the day, relying on a single formula isn't good for your nutrition."

However, it would probably be fine as a meal every now and then, she said.

People's nutritional needs vary depending on their personal growth and development, genetic makeup, and other factors, she said.

The core fat, carbs and protein of Soylent come from agriculturally grown ingredients, such as maltodextrin, which stems from from corn, rice protein and oat powder, but the majority of the vitamins and minerals come from mining or industrial synthesis, Rhinehart said.

He wants the product to be even more synthetic in the future so as to reduce its environmental impact and not be affected by fluctuating crop seasons, he said.

Mario Ferruzzi, a nutritionist and food scientist at Purdue University, doesn't see how a more factory-made product is possible.

"I don't know how you can eat without agriculture," Ferruzzi said.

Ferruzzi has worked with Nestle and other companies to develop dietary supplements, and researches how phytochemicals and plant-derived compounds play a role in disease prevention, such as how red pigment in tomatoes can prevent prostate cancer.

He said Soylent is cheaper than supplements put out by national companies, but still looks like a nutritional shake.

"When you simplify something and make it a sole source of nutrition, my concern is that people might be able to sustain (themselves), but will they be optimally healthy?"

Who doesn't like food?

Rhinehart said the initial interest is coming from people in the same situation he was when experimenting with Soylent -- young, busy and broke.

People around the world have been trying their own Soylent recipes inspired by Rhinehart's and posting them on a DIY Soylent forum.

Ben Samuel, who works in Ireland, read about Soylent about a year-and-a-half ago and created his own Soylent based on Rhinehart's recipe shared on the forum. He used olive oil and chocolate-flavored whey concentrate as his base ingredients.

"It tastes mildly of chocolate pudding, and also a tiny bit like wood," Samuel said.

But, he added, it's easy to get used to, and he and other Soylent samplers aren't eating it for the taste.

Samuel is a security analyst for an online gaming company on the overnight shift, so when he's hungry on the clock, he can't buy food at the company cafeteria.

He never tried other meal substitutes because they were either incomplete or expensive, he told CNN in an e-mail, but he ordered his own ingredients and blogged about his experience consuming only this for a month.

During the first few days of eating his Soylent, he realized the formula wasn't perfect -- excess sulfur made him gassy and the taste needed tweaking -- but after adjustments, he said he had more energy, better sleep and found running easier.

"The rest of the month was the best I ever had," he wrote.

Still, he's since reverted back to food.

"I use Soylent maybe half the time, and the other half I eat as previously," he wrote.

Meal replacements are typically used for one of two situations: when dieting to break habits, or when physical conditions require certain nutrients and it's easier for a person to supplement a meal, Mayer-Davis said.

Soylent, on the other hand, appears to be marketed to healthy people looking for food alternatives, she said. It also appears to be targeting the temporary poor, she said, meaning graduate students who could qualify as living in poverty, but only for a few years.

But Mayer-Davis said she wouldn't recommend living on any kind of meal substitute for the true poor -- those working long hours in low-paying jobs to support their families. In such cases, a diverse diet is needed, she said.

Ending world hunger?

Rhinehart said using his product to end world hunger is several years out, but it's been on his mind from the start.

"Being able to produce calories very cheaply at scale, in a form that is very shelf-stable and comparatively easy to store and transport, alleviates many issues around food aid and security," Rhinehart said.

"I think we can focus on food security -- that's something that's been on my mind from the very beginning -- but we have to be profitable first."

Cost is a main driver in determining the products used for food aid, said Ferruzzi, who has worked with USAID to develop dietary supplements for food insecure countries.

Soylent is cheap. But feeding people, even starving people, is not as simple as handing them a powder, Ferruzzi said.

"Just because people are poor doesn't mean they aren't picky eaters," Ferruzzi said. "You have to think about the context of how people live and how they eat."

For example, when working on a cereal blend for USAID, he had to be sure that it could be made into both a thick and thin mixture, depending on the viscosity of the porridge the community typically ate.

In the end, whether a product is an alternative to Cheetos in your pantry or one of only a few caloric options in a war-torn region, it has to taste good enough for people to eat it.

As Ferruzzi puts it: "It isn't nutritious unless people eat it."
   
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