We're accustomed to offbeat food ideas here at NPR. But even we had to pause over recent headlines about a guy who bragged about finding a way around eating.
Rob Rhinehart's blog details his two-month experiment consuming mostly Soylent, a concoction he invented to provide all the nutrition and none of the hassle of food. It first attracted the attention of Vice, and then The Washington Post, which said that his plan just might work. Rhinehart, a 24-year-old electrical engineer in San Francisco, soon found himself inundated with queries from people interested in testing Soylent. He'd apparently hit on something that resonated with others.
But wait a minute, we wondered: What exactly is so bothersome about eating food?
"I resented the time, money and effort [that] the purchase, preparation, consumption, and clean-up of food was consuming," Rhinehart writes on the blog. His liquid solution has left him feeling sated, leaner and more focused, he writes. And in an email to NPR, he added: "Personally, I've found separating the social and cultural enjoyment of food from food as 'fuel' has vastly improved my quality of life."
Strange as it may seem to those of us who adore food, there is a veritable subculture of otherwise healthy people who find eating to be a nuisance. When I did an informal poll of my colleagues and friends, a few said they could relate to Rhinehart and his interest in an alternative to food. (For the record, they were all young men.)
Of course, there are also people who have difficulty with food for much more serious reasons — food allergies or other illnesses (think the late Roger Ebert), as well as people with eating disorders or dreams of weight loss.
Amanda Holliday, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, says she has come across a lot of people who've given up on food. "Some feel overwhelmed by all the choices," she tells NPR. "Others feel defeated by having to choose something healthy." Holliday also has patients with dementia, for whom chewing and swallowing is problematic.
But is it really possible to come up with a meal replacement product that's equivalent to a diverse diet of real food?
Big food companies have tried with liquid meal-replacement products like Ensure, made by Abbott, or Boost, made by Nestle. Holliday and other nutritionists recommend these products to sick people who really can't eat — but they have reservations about them for the rest of us.
Even though such meal replacements may be packed with micronutrients, they're missing the other beneficial components of real food that haven't yet been isolated, Holliday says. And these products may include processed ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.
"In the hospital nutrition world, we're still looking for products based on real food," she says. "We could make them ourselves, but there's labor involved."
Rhinehart hasn't released his Soylent recipe, but he tweeted that it has "ingredients produced by the food processing industry by the megaton."
But the "food averse" should think twice before turning to Rhinehart, or any other rogue inventor, for a silver bullet meal replacement, warns Sharon Akabas with the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University.
Akabas takes issue with Rhinehart's scorn for nutrition science. She calls it "hubris" for Rhinehart to assume that he can calculate exactly what his body needs, based on loose proportions of micronutrient recommendations gleaned from biochemistry textbooks.
In fact, says Akabas, nutrition science has learned a lot about what the body needs by studying the effects of certain foods and diets over decades.
"For someone to do something for two months and say they feel better is pretty meaningless," she says.
She is, however, sympathetic to the anxiety that many people feel about food: "People are exasperated with the complexity of advice they're getting and the mixed messages from the industry," she says. "There are ways of simplifying food to the point that wouldn't take much effort or cost much. But there is no equivalent of manna — a single food with everything we need."