In the Quest For Sustainable Eating, Should You Be Drinking Your Meals?

Courtney Campbell

In 2013, while researching ideas for his next project, Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart decided food was a time-consuming and costly burden. Making simple meals at home took a lot of effort, and the cost of the monthly grocery bill was putting strains on an already cash-strapped entrepreneur. Tired of heading to the ramen aisle as many young Silicon Valley hopefuls often do, Rhinehart headed to the internet instead to research the base nutrients that made up food staples such as milk, bread, and produce. When he thought he’d worked out a complete meal, he bought the powdered nutrients—not the food—mixed those in a blender, and added water.

After some testing, the powdered drink, Soylent, was born. Rhinehart put the ingredients on Soylent’s website and encouraged the online community to experiment with—and modify—his formula. Solyent became a cult-like hit among people trying to “biohack” their diet. Users on websites such as Reddit and CompleteFoods (formerly DIY Soylent) came up with all sorts of new recipes, while Rhinehart successfully marketed his product with a Soylent-only diet for 30 days (and blogged the results with some rather dubious claims), and Soylent received millions in investments.

Suddenly, meal replacement shakes—which had existed in some form for decades—were sexier (if you ignore the farting).

But do they work? And are they good for the planet?

A DIY Soylent movement

Globally, the meal replacement drink industry has exploded. Across the UK there’s Saturo, Huel, and Feed; in Japan, there’s Comp; in the Netherlands, Queal; in Australia, Oz Soylent (marketed as a “Soylent alternative”); in Korea, Labnosh; in Spain, Satislent.

In the United States, beyond a burgeoning DIY scene, Super Body Fuel (originally branded as Custom Body Fuel). Created by Alex Cho Snyder in 2013, Cho had no formal nutritional background but had experienced food sensitivities to the common ingredients in traditional processed health food such as soy, gluten, and nuts. He ultimately developed his own meal replacement, marketing it as a hypoallergenic, vegan, soy-free, and low-FODMAP alternative.

He says his concoction has mainly sustained him for several years now, although he has one non-Fuel meal a day. He calls these “sensory-focused meals,” a term similar to “recreational food,” which Rhinehart uses to describe non-Soylent foods, as mentioned in a New Yorker piece.

Soylent doesn’t promote a Soylent-only diet any longer (nor does it claim to cure all that ails you), and Super Body Fuel doesn’t either. Instead, both recommend its product as a replacement for those days when you don’t have time to cook or eat a full meal.

“We don’t want people to think of Soylent as an all-or-nothing proposition. Soylent fits into everyone’s lifestyle a little differently,” says Jamie Sullivan, Soylent’s director of sustainability and corporate affairs.

The end of food or modern day Slim Fast?

One bottle of Soylent contains 400 calories, 21 grams of fat, 36 grams of carbohydrates, 20 grams of protein, and 20 percent of 25 recommended essential micronutrients, according to the product website.

In comparison, a serving of Super Body Fuel mixed with 2 tablespoons of avocado oil, which is how Snyder explains optimal fat is added to the drink, contains 500 calories, 31 grams of fat, 31 grams of carbohydrates, 25 grams of protein, and at least 25 percent of the recommended essential nutrients. Huel has 400 calories, 19 grams of fat, 37 grams of carbohydrates, 20 grams of protein, and at least 20 percent of recommended nutrients.

Even if these drinks contain the recommended nutrients (or at least, the powdered-supplement versions), Karin Gibson, a plant-based nutrition coach in New York City, does not believe they compare to the benefits of chewing whole, plant-based foods. She says elements such as phytochemicals, which are present in fruits and vegetables, are often refined out of nutrient powder during processing. Research on phytochemicals is still ongoing, but according to the  American Institute for Cancer Research, some lab studies have shown potential for phytochemicals to benefit the immune system and help with DNA repair. (Huel claims to use non-refined carbs, which have phytochemicals.)

But because the ingredients in these meal replacement powders are plant-based, Gibson says she believes they are inherently better than consuming animal products, which have been linked to diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. However, according to Gibson, the health of these drinks really depends on what you’re comparing them to.

“If someone were to go to McDonald’s and have a burger and fries, then this might be better,” Gibson says. “I’m not against that they exist because there is so much other junk food out there—in a spectrum of all the processed food, this is on the healthy side.”

So, if someone’s diet consisted heavily on, say, fast food and Costco corndogs (a meal popular among Rhinehart and his roommates before Soylent), a meal replacement shake could actually improve their nutrition, according to Gibson.

But Gibson is still concerned about the satiation levels that come from the consuming easily digestible liquid calories and replacing a savory meal with one of the sweetened flavors of these drinks, which may increase sugar cravings.

But is it good for the planet?

Soylent and other meal replacement powders contain vegan ingredients, with the largest being oat flour and maltodextrin, a carbohydrate commonly derived from corn, alongside other vitamin and mineral powders. Without animal products, these shakes may have a smaller ecological footprint than the fast-food hamburger it could be replacing, similar to most other vegetarian options out there.

Harvesting meat is a drain on resources and the planet. Globally, 14.5 to 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gasses come from livestock, according to The New York Times. Reducing any meat consumption would have a positive impact on the environment.

“We have been using non-animal-based ingredients for a long time but now are committed to keeping this as a primary guardrail in our product development and innovation—in order to promote sustainability,” Sullivan says. “We want to make it easier for individuals to make food choices that have positive impact on their health and on the planet.”

As Snyder has been growing his business, he’s been trying to get closer to the source for the Super Body Fuel ingredients. For example, he switched its gluten-free oat flour from Bob’s Red Mills to the more direct Grain Millers. Through this, he’s cutting out the middleman and discovering where his ingredients are coming from.

On the other hand, Soylent uses genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its production for both sustainability and efficiency reasons. Although some may be concerned about the effect GMOs have on both human health and the environment, Sullivan, along with the FDA, say they are completely safe for food production.

“These improvements cut down on food waste, time spent growing food, and the resources needed to grow the food in the first place,” she says. “Here at Soylent we are pro-science. The scientific community supports the genetic modification of organisms for increased health, reduction in water, and reduction of chemical usage in food production.”

In some cases, GMOs may be a more sustainable option for the planet, too. On its blog, Soylent cites a study that says the creation of glyphosate resistant (GR)—or herbicide tolerant—soy and corn prevented 41 billion pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere between 1996 and 2013.

Sullivan says Soylent also uses this pro-GMO stance to help feed this growing planet. According to the United Nations, Earth’s population is estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, with an increase in food production by more than 70 percent to feed everyone.

Additionally, in addressing the ever-growing food deserts in the U.S., 15 million people experienced food insecurity as of 2017. Soylent has donated 1.6 million meals through a combination of meals and product to college and university food pantries across the country as well as groups such as service organization Midnight Mission, according to Sullivan.

The company has made its product available in stores like CVS—places that may exist in a food desert—to provide access to a more complete, nutrition-packed meal. The most popular option for all powdered meals is to order them online, though, where buying in bulk can fetch meals for $1 to $3 per complete serving.

But can you live off it?

Whether it’s possible to live entirely on a meal-replacement diet is still questionable—the research hasn’t yet been completed, and since Rhinehart (who stepped down as CEO of Soylent in 2017) told The New Yorker that a Soylent-only diet made him feel like “the six million dollar man,” the company has gotten even further away from encouraging others to do the same.

In 2019, when asked if customers should give up chewing altogether, Soylent’s new CEO, Bryan Crowley told The New York Times: “We don’t recommend it, no. Absolutely. 100 percent. We don’t recommend, not because we don’t think it’s healthy or we don’t think it’s there. It’s a very difficult thing to do and our research tells us that it happens for a very limited amount of time.”

Around the same time, Soylent introduced a new product consumers might recognize: a protein bar. Square in shape and definitely chewable, Soylent Squared may be seen as far cry from the original idea of liquid diets, but both products have an undeniable benefit: convenience. Similar to the technology that’s created plant-based “meats,” GMO-powered and powdered complete meals could be the future to more sustainable and easily accessible foods in areas where buying fresh produce is difficult—and that might be a win.