Soylent Is A Dismal Art

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Image via Meghan Telpner.

A few years ago, a new foodstuff called Soylent hit the market. It purports to be a meal replacer for people who, like me, hate the inconvenience of cooking (I do it every day anyway, the import of which will be apparent by essay’s end), or even eating, but wish to get what the human body needs without the typical sugar overload and poor, refined oils such things usually entail. To be sure, Rob Rhinehart, Soylent’s creator, is a tricky one. He initially tried to live on Soylent alone for a while, and survived the few months without issue, even submitting blood-work to show that was, indeed, possible. Predictably, Rhinehart eased off of Soylent, mixing regular food into his diet, as well, all the while insisting that others can remain on a Soylent-only diet. Yet the signals are quite mixed, from Rhinehart’s poorly-timed self-study that ensured no chronic issues could begin to surface, to encouraging others to blend Soylent with real food, thus turning the thing into a de facto supplement, to the fact that, for all of its supposed completeness, not even the creator, himself, is willing to live on it for the long term. And, in fact, I’d argue that no one should, since the relationship between food and disease is — save for some basics — a virtually unknown quanta, and even that little bit of knowledge is colored by ideology, falsehood, and outright manipulation.

Now, as a former fat guy, I’ve had to learn quite a bit about cooking and nutrition, but as an all-around curious type, with little inclination towards ideology, I’ve also learned how much bullshit — how much ignorance — goes into nutritional ‘science’. Indeed, it seems to me that the average nutritionist knows as much about food as the average literary critic knows about craft, thus confusing otherwise intelligent people, like Rob Rhinehart, into accepting things that can never be. And this is not simply because they have too many wrong answers. It is also that, for every question they purport to answer, there is a deeper, more important one that was NOT asked due to the original bias. Perhaps more importantly, it wasn’t even thought to be asked, and — worse! — cannot logically be asked under the conditions. Remember that, in art, the question is: how does it all cohere? And in science, the question is: how does it all cohere? You can read this statement left, right, up, or down, for the inflection will be the same; the meaning will not change; the spirit will not molt.

Art begins (or should begin) with a subtle understanding. If art’s a ‘thing,’ then it is, logically, a thing distinct from other things: from philosophy, say, or historiography, or politics. Perhaps it might have elements of each. And perhaps it might draw on multiple disciplines in order to sum up to its own thing. But if two things can be conflated with nothing lost whatsoever, then what the hell are they, exactly? Suffice to say that while philosophy, or history, or politics are ends in and of themselves, art uses these ends to make them real: to make them relevant for the long-term, to put them into motion, a kinetic chain, to give them deeper reality. Yet so many critics have conflated the discrete parts with the thing’s tally, that there’s simply no real place left to GO. It is impossible to start for there is nothing to start, nowhere to end, and little to agree upon. The terms, in short, have never been defined.

And food is the same way, for it is decidedly NOT a collation of nutrients that can simply be ticked off, one by one. Oh, sure, it will be, in time, when we can truly look at it, take it apart, and put it back together again with no loss for the consumer, but not now, not when there’s no rational consensus about what goes where, what does what, and why. Rhinehart complains this  criticism is merely a sophisticated form of vitalism, but that is his own bias. After all, a ‘thing’ is its constituent parts as they exist with a specific context. For now, food is still the macro, the micro, and the tangential: nutrients that, no matter how far on the outskirts, are nonetheless real, thus playing roles in the health of both consumer and consumed. These are a broad category of phytochemicals that include things like carotenoids, phytoestrogens, glucosinolates, growth factors, tocopherols, catechins, cholesterol, a food’s bacterial community, and likely thousands of compounds that can’t even be named, much less put on a nutrition label today. (Note the important qualifier.) I mean, recall when animal fat was still the enemy? In time, nutritionists had to make an exception for duck. It was, they argued, closer to the fatty acid profile of olive oil, and today, animal fat is being given a free pass in its entirety in some more astute circles, while trans fats and low-quality refined oils are the new culprits in a decades-long game of finger-pointing. Recall when, in the “herbal health” explosion of the 1980s-90s, ginseng was said to have health-giving properties, so that scientists quickly isolated ginsenosides as the active ingredient, only to realize that they were ultimately missing even more important compounds from the whole root? And cholesterol? Now that the official recommendation has changed, with an official change coming to saturated fat in the next decade or two, as well, there is yet more to question, more to vilify, and more to pardon when the original targets become no good. Indeed, it is all suspiciously like art movements that dismiss realism — another ‘active ingredient’ — or entire genres because, well, it’s not what THEY are looking for as part of some new micro-fad. Yes, the search itself may be flawed, and the intended object without merit, but it’s rarely about merit. The object is and always has been personality. Rhinehart likes to say Soylent ain’t pretty, but it’s functional: that it really gets the job done. But what is this if not personality of the most fanatical kind, wherein others’ values are the superficial ones, and the ugly kid — like the high school goth — is never seen for what he truly is? Or rather, what he claims to be, what he thinks himself to be, despite following the same exact cues but always in reverse, despite beating the same path that beats him back in turn? Well?

And so it is with Soylent, whose stated desire to replace food is both noble and ignorant, impossible, now, but inevitable later. Most articles on this ‘food’ are little more than de facto ads, however, written by people who’ve not thought much about it. In short, Soylent’s powdered form is simply the following: brown rice protein, oat flour, sunflower oil, and vitamins and minerals. Its latest iteration, however, changes the protein source to soy, and the fat to algal oil — frightening to those that drink it, really, given that its stated goal of slowly reaching dietary “perfection” implies that every iteration will have something ‘new,’ something overlooked that its customers were not receiving in Soylent that they otherwise would have through real food, without the need to tinker, stress, or reverse-engineer. For instance, flaxseed oil was removed from an earlier iteration, possibly because the creators realized (too late, really, for the original consumers) that it is unstable in such an environment, a potentially toxic fat under the guise of an omega-3 precursor. The protein source was switched to soy protein partly due to the better amino acid profile, implying, therefore, that the rice protein was suboptimal — something that would be impossible if one merely eats a variety of whole foods in a reasonable fashion. Additionally, Soylent’s micronutrients are little more than cheap vitamins and minerals, synthetic and poorly understood forms of Vitamin E (with no added tocopherols), as well as cyanocobalamin, a form of B12 that might not be enough to stave off deficiency in many.

As for the rest — all those ‘unknowns’ mentioned previously? Well, there is precious little of that, for whatever is not recognized, by consensus, scientifically, right now and only now, won’t make its way into Soylent. No herbs (as far as I can tell from the website), carotenoids, antioxidant complexes, nothing, for such things are not on a nutritional label, and, therefore, effectively don’t exist. Yet nothing can be added, anyway, without possibly detracting from something else, too, since so many nutrients in unnatural isolation from one another function in unpredictable ways. Recall the confusion when smokers who consumed beta carotene (an antioxidant) were in fact found to be more likely to develop cancer than those who did not? Nutritionists scratched their heads since they thought that they had it all figured out. They ‘forgot,’ however, that some compounds can be damaged in the presence of stressors (such as cigarette smoke) and in the absence of other nutrients that exist as complexes and would therefore protect them (such as the carotenes that exist alongside beta carotene in many foods). Fortunately, for us, a proper diet doesn’t lend itself to much forgetting; you get most of what you need, and whatever’s missing can be lightly — very lightly, mind — supplemented as needed. The reverse is simply untrue, however, for turning supplementation into food places too much faith in things that, historically, people have shown to fuck up over and over again. Yes, Rhinehart (rightly) complains that so many of these nutrients have never been studied much, but that is merely the natural limit of induction, of trying to build a complex system from a few parts as opposed to understanding the trends in the system itself. To Rhinehart, the former is the way of the future, and the latter too backwards, too religious. But God has been expunged by deduction alone. Induction would merely mount the evidence up, up, up, while the space for God would expand proportionally, would fill whatever niche that a mere accumulation cannot. This is how science works. Better yet, this is how reason works, and why so many educated people can believe so many falsehoods about their respective fields that laymen (and only laymen) must ultimately correct.

But while the future of food is not the myopic feat of engineering that Soylent tries so hard to achieve (for if we knew enough, it’d not be hard, but easy), it is, likewise, not the unsustainable whole food practices — no matter how healthy for the individual — gaining popularity today. Both have their drawbacks: the first for the health of the consumer, and the second for the health of the consumed. So how will things really look? Like whatever state of knowledge that’ll get us there. No, that is not a satisfying answer, but it is far better than what we’ve been given so far. In other words, we don’t know. This is not a helpless statement. It is merely tentative, and one that, unlike with the dumb, religious, or the literary-minded, refuses to dream up whatever is at hand merely because ignorance is so uncomfortable. Yet ignorance is in fact the natural state of things. The human project is to become less natural, but in spurts, in ways that are sensible, in ways that can justify.

[This article originally appeared on Cosmoetica on 10/27/2015.]

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