Soylent – the drink that promises you will never eat again. There are some legitimate questions about this drink but it is really, nothing more than a rather expensive gimmick.
Should you get all your nutrition from a drink?
If you have to – yes. If you don’t have to then you risk your health for a fad.
For years I’ve prescribed nutrients, like protein shakes, smoothies, and other drinks for people who have had weight loss surgery (to allow the stomach to heal without the stress of food in it) and for patients who need to sustain themselves by being fed directly to the gut. The hardest thing for patients – they want taste, flavor, and to chew. A protein drink, shake, or replacement provides none of that. Those people who choose to survive by this for months clearly are “different.” But there are legitimate people who need to get their nutrition from a drink. These people are in a hospital, monitored closely until such time as they can be released with a formula proven best for them. They continue to be monitored by physicians with blood tests and other measurements.
Soylent is a product, like many, that promises to be a meal replacement. It isn’t – it is a gimmick.
Are there dangers of this?
Yes, what we know about nutrition is still limited. But we know that supplements do not work as well as food. In fact, in multiple studies – people who take supplements do not do as well as people who have the various ingredients supplied by food. This has been tested with various vitamins, minerals, and anti-oxidants.
We know the guts do a marvelous job of extracting the nutrients it needs from the food you eat. There is something in the way the nutrients are complexed to the food that we do not yet understand. Your small bowel is not use to seeing the pure form of many of the micronutrients. It is difficult to imagine that Soylent presented to the body would be any different than a protein drink with some multivitamins mixed in it.
Soylent is supposed to be complete – is it?
No, it is not. If you think of something complete you have to think of it over time. In humans, we have the ability to have a wide variety of foods. But what we have not been able to ever accomplish is trade a bad diet for supplements. People can eat fish one day, beef another, some can eat lots of vegetables, and throughout time and a variety they obtain the necessary micronutrients and macronutrients to survive, and some thrive. We see very little malnutrition these days, other than in one note diets- such as Southeast Asia where the staple of rice has led to an epidemic of vitamin A deficiency with blindness and increased infant mortality.
The claim is that he worked with nutritionists and physicians to come up with a formula to replace everything in the day. The problem is, we don’t have evidence that replacement of the micronutrients apart from the food they have is better for you, and plenty of evidence that the micronutrients when purified are not. Perhaps it is because there is little regulation in this industry.
Another example is Calcium Supplements and Heart disease. Clearly those who have a diet that is rich in calcium have a reduced incidence of heart attacks, but those who take supplements of calcium have an increased risk of heart disease.
Omega-3 Fatty Acids – fish is better than pills
Take fish oil capsules, which is suppose to provide people with adequate omega-3 fatty acids. The purpose of these supplements is that we don’t make our own omega-3 fatty acids, and if you consume fish, which are rich in the omega-3 fatty acids, those people have less heart disease. The fish oil was extracted, but funny thing – people who take these capsules do not have a reduced rate of heart disease. On the other hand, people who eat fatty fish twice a week (salmon, trout, tuna, mackerel, and sardines) have one-tenth the risk of heart failure. The American Heart Association recommends eating fish, not taking capsules there are great Health Benefits of Seafood .
What About Your Microbiome?
In our guts live over one trillion bacteria. Some of those bacteria supply us with nutrients. We feed them (our unused food) and they supply us with some B vitamins, including B12, they supply us with some better absorption of fats (we do need these). In addition, the friendly bacteria keep unfriendly ones out. So what do these bacteria eat- they eat the things we feed them. I cannot imagine what the microbiome would be of someone who consumed Soylent for a while. It would change rapidly, and that effect on the person is not known.
But isn’t it better than junk food?
No. The next bit of marketing- “it is better than eating at McDonald’s or name a fast food place. ” “It is better than the Standard American Diet.” They have no evidence of this, and if someone were to ask the evidence is in reverse. Today people can choose a wide variety of foods to live off of, and many of them are fortified with vitamins and minerals, and we have great evidence that this fortification of food has worked. Sorry, but if someone were to ask – would you choose this or the Standard American Diet – I would choose the Standard American Diet. Why, because you can regulate the calories just as well as you can with Soylent, you have a wider variety of food, you have flavor, you have the ability to chew, you have joy. Plus – I can cook.
It is Marketing and Hype
This is all marketing. Here is a prediction of how they will market this product so it appeals to a wide base. Again, I think this is just a silly fad, but sadly some people will consume it. So here are the ways they will market it to appeal to a wide variety of people:
- New formulation for vegans
- GMO free
- Gluten free
- Better for the planet – no big agriculture
- FDA Approved
- Cheaper than eating whole food
- Can send this to a disaster area (Katrina type disaster) and feed people
- Can be used in outer space
If you cannot see through those clear marketing ploys – you are a target for this sort of product.
It is Adult Baby Formula – Time to Grow Up and Learn to Cook
Besides – this is, in my opinion, nothing more than “adult formula.” I recall with joy the day we no longer had to feed our son formula and could instead have him sit at the table with us and eat. His first solid food was salmon and halibut (good Alaska Native child that he is).
There are very sick people who need to be fed their entire nutrition through liquid diets – some through tubes we surgeons place in their guts. They can survive on this type of nutrition, but not thrive on it.
For the rest of you that want to drink this because you don’t want to be bothered by food – grow up and learn to cook.
Dr. Terry Simpson
Dr. Terry Simpson received his undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Chicago where he spent several years in the Kovler Viral Oncology laboratories doing genetic engineering. He found he liked people more than petri dishes, and received his MD. Dr. Simpson, then became a renowned weight loss surgeon, and a leading advocate of culinary medicine. The first surgeon to become certified in Culinary Medicine, he advocates teaching people to improve their health through their food. On the other side of the world, he has been a leading advocate of changing health care to make it more "relationship based," and his efforts awarded his team the Malcom Baldrige award for healthcare in 2011 for the NUKA system of care in Alaska. A frequent contributor to media outlets discussing health related topics and advances in medicine, he is also a proud dad, husband, author, cook, and surgeon “in that order.” For media inquiries, please visit www.terrysimpson.com.