Can Techies Improve Food?

Technology has improved our lives, whether through the creation of new tools or by upgrading existing ones. Taxis were okay, but Uber and similar car service apps make them better (and self-driving cars will improve upon car service further). Craigslist makes classified ads free and easier to access. E-readers save trees and let people store entire libraries in the palm of their hands. Whereas world travelers used to have to wait a month for their postcard to reach a recipient (with another month for the reply), emails sent from Bangalore to Boston arrive in milliseconds. And perhaps most importantly of all, knowledge has been democratized. You can read anything from almost any time period using a device that fits in your pocket. You can talk to people halfway across the world in real time. Without technology, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do on a daily basis. Using the tools created by tech enthusiasts, I can reach millions of people every day and millions of entrepreneurs are creating new lives for themselves and new services and tools for others.

But are there limits to technological progress? Can technology improve everything?

We’ll find out. There’s talk of a “food revolution” brewing in Silicon Valley, helmed by engineers and entrepreneurs convinced they can do food better than both nature and traditional agriculture.

There’s Soylent, the food replacement shake that promises to render home kitchens obsolete save for dedicated hobbyists and save millions of hours better spent working and “being productive.” They’ve raised over $20 million in venture capital funding and are taking orders for Soylent 2.0, due to ship in October.

There’s Hampton Creek, the food tech startup seeking to replace eggs with plant-based substitutes and make food healthier and safer “for everyone, everywhere.”

Now, I’m not one that thinks pre-made foods have absolutely no place in a Primal eating plan. There are some incredible food manufacturers doing some really useful and important things using only fresh ingredients. There’s Exo, whose cricket bars are raising awareness about how delicious and nutritious insects can be. Heck, I’ve made my own foray into the food world with Primal Kitchen™ Mayo and Primal Fuel. In these cases what’s really provided is convenience without sacrificing quality or nutrition. And for most people these days, when time is so scarce, that’s genuinely worth something. I know that matters to me and I’m willing to pay a premium in many cases. But what’s important is that the food doesn’t suffer. That the quality is maintained. That nutritional compromises aren’t made. And that these foods remain adjuncts to an otherwise healthy diet.

The human brain is this planet’s ultimate technological innovation to date, and we’ve used it to improve food before. Watermelons were seedy, fibrous gourds before we used breeding to expand and redden their edible placentas to encompass the entire interior. The wild ancestor of corn, teosinte, contained only about a half dozen kernels per ear, each covered in a stony, inedible casing. Wild bananas are riddled with seeds and mostly inedible to humans. And generations of human intervention created the delicious, well-marbled wagyu breed of cattle. Our ability to wring edibility out of harsh wild plants and unpredictable half-ton beasts with selective breeding has been a huge boon to us as a species.

But bananas, watermelons, corn and wagyu cattle are still complex biological systems. They are food, and we treat them like it. We’re not trying to break down, catalogue, and reduce them to their constituent parts, transforming them into something barely recognizable.

Should we really “optimize” food in this way? Can we?

Rob Rhinehart, the founder of Soylent, thinks so:

Two years ago today I decided to bet my life on the idea that food could be empirically rebuilt. I theorized that food and the body were reducible and a novel foodstuff could be superior to that which was naturally occurring.

I’m very skeptical. In theory, we can recreate all the possible components of a given food — if we could only identify them. With the relatively infantile base of knowledge we currently possess, I don’t think any engineered food powder will contain all the micronutrients we get from real food.

Infant formula has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. They’ve introduced DHA, prebiotics, various specific nutrients like taurine, inositol, and choline, and played with the macronutrients to get it closer and closer to the real thing. Yet it’s still inferior to breast milk. Now, some time out in the future, maybe we’ll finally pin it down. Maybe parents won’t have to take leave at all. They’ll just strap the kid to the android wetnurse, refill its lab-grown mammary sacs with optimized formula, and head straight back to work. Progress!

But you see my point, don’t you?

Every major time we’ve tried to engineer food, we’ve encountered unforeseen consequences.

Margarine was supposed to improve upon butter. It was worse.

Vegetable oils were supposed to improve upon animal fats. They seemed awesome (cheaper, more profitable, “healthier”) but were worse.

Trans-fats were supposed to replace saturated fats. They looked good on paper but were way, way worse.

We can’t foresee what we don’t know. If we’re constructing our diets using isolated, reduced nutrients, we risk missing out on food-based nutrients we have yet to catalogue or whose importance we have yet to uncover. If we construct our diets using food, we get those unknown nutrients — even if we have no idea we’re consuming them.

Look at all the components that make up a simple banana. People usually cite this image as a rejoinder to chemical scaremongering, but it also illustrates the folly of thinking we can engineer the perfect food by mixing together powdered grains and synthetic vitamins. That is a huge list of “ingredients” in a simple food. Does Soylent include every last component comprising the food it attempts to replace?

And even when it comes to what we do know about what’s in food, Soylent falls short (PDF).

It’s got vitamin K1, not vitamin K2. The latter is the form that protects bone and heart health and which is missing from most normal diets. You can convert K1 to K2 if you have the right gut bacteria, but I’m not sure eating Soylent will support that conversion.

It’s got vitamin D2, not D3. D3 is better-absorbed by humans than D2.

It’s got soy protein, which makes for good vegan-friendly headlines but is of questionable nutritional worth when compared to whey protein, particularly in the context of resistance training and weight loss.

It’s fairly low in protein and the protein isn’t of sufficient quality. You can get away with plant-based protein as long as you’re eating a lot of it and low protein intakes as long as it’s animal-based protein. But lower levels of plant-based protein may not be adequate for sedentary people, let alone active people.

Where’s the prebiotic fiber? The latest (1.5) version of Soylent powder comes in at 3 grams of fiber per serving. Were it raw, the oat flour supplying the bulk of the carbs in Soylent would provide a good amount of resistant starch, but since they go rancid quickly the majority of oats on the market are heated.

It contains no phytochemicals beyond the ones found in the oat fiber/flour and soy protein components. Cocoa flavanols? Nope. Blueberry anthocyanins? None. The founder’s skeptical of their importance in our diets, doubting most “humans in history were even getting broccoli and tomatoes.”

Broccoli and tomatoes aren’t the only plants with phytochemicals. Every plant has them, and every human throughout history has consumed plants. Even historically low-plant food cultures like the Masai and the Inuit regularly consumed wild plants high in phytochemicals. The Masai cooked their meat with anti-parasitic spices, drank bitter (read: tannin- and polyphenol-rich) herb tea on a regular basis, and used dozens of plants as medicines (PDF); the Inuit utilized a wide variety of phytochemical-rich plant foods including berries, sea vegetables, lichens, and rhizomes. They also made tea from pine needles, which are high in vitamin C and polyphenols.

In related news, Hampton Creek has promised to render eggs obsolete and replicate their gelling, emulsifying, and binding culinary properties using specialized textured pea proteins. They’ve got a cookie dough and mayonnaise on store shelves and hope to bring pancake batter and a realistic scrambled egg substitute to market. They talk big, touting their ever-growing in-house database of novel plant proteins they plan to use to emulate animal foods.

I get the motivation. Wanting to save the world is laudable. Trying to eliminate the need for cruel and destructive egg farming is a just cause. But from a health and nutrition standpoint, these aren’t the Eggs 2.0 they and their supporters are hoping.

Hampton Creek’s responses to these interview questions are telling:

When asked about the status of the scrambled egg substitute and whether its nutritional profile was similar to that of actual eggs, they answered only the former (“hopefully by next summer”) and ignored the nutrition question.

In another answer, they reiterate that they’re “not focusing on the strict nutritional details at this time… so even if it is a little healthier, (e..g no cholesterol in your mayo) that is a start.” So that’s “healthier”: a lack of cholesterol. They’ve fallen into the same trap as the Soylent people — failing to realize that nonessential nutrients can still be beneficial. And the failure to mention the choline, vitamin A, DHA, folate, and biotin real eggs provide indicates that those nutrients will also be missing from the egg substitute.

Mostly, they don’t seem to care about the nutritional details. It’s about the environment, or humaneness, or cruelty. But for any food to be a worthwhile caloric source for humans, it must contain adequate micronutrition. If you’re going to replace a source of nutrition as complete as the humble egg, you’d better know what you’re doing.

Those are the two most egregious attempts at better feeding through technology, but they certainly won’t be the last. Again, I understand the sentiment behind both Soylent’s total meal replacement and Hampton Creek’s mock eggs. The techies may very well one day address the issues I’ve raised and the issues that arise in the future, and their current efforts may beat the standard American junk food diet (particularly if you throw in some colorful fruits and vegetables, a bit of liver, some raw potato starch, and maybe some whey protein), but they smack of hubris.

And when your stated goals are the replacement of the foods we’ve used for hundreds of thousands of years to fuel our brains and our cells and build enzymes and endogenous antioxidants and muscle tissue and grow new life inside our wombs, hubris doesn’t cut it.

But the potential micronutrition deficits aren’t even my major issue. My biggest qualm is that eating Soylent (even if it’s got every nutrient we require) or ditching real pastured eggs for some equi-nutritional glop that comes out of a carton and lasts for years in the fridge is missing the point of food. Food is supposed to taste good. It’s supposed to be chewed, savored, and shared with others. About the most depressing communal meal I can imagine is a bunch of 20/30-somethings sitting around together, staring into their smartphones, and sipping Soylent. Optimizing food is like optimizing sex; while I’m sure there’d be a few people interested in a pill or device that produced instant orgasms so they could get back to work, that’d be missing the point entirely. It’s the journey that makes the destination.

They’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist. Is stocking the kitchen with Soylent a better option than ordering a bunch of pizzas and cokes for your engineers so that they can get back to work right away? Maybe, maybe not. But the vast majority of people look to food not just to sustain their health and provide the necessary calories, but also to bring pleasure to their lives. To create and maintain connections with our dining companions and to do what humans have been doing for millennia: creating, sharing, and enjoying meals made out of raw plants and animals with our own hands.

Thanks for reading, everyone. I’d love to hear from you down below. What’s your take on the techies’ attempts to optimize, improve, and replace real food?

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TAGS:  Hype

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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70 thoughts on “Can Techies Improve Food?”

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  1. *puts on heavy cloak of sarcasm*

    I say “Bring it on!”
    If all the people stupid enough to fall for the marketing hype and poor nutritional science behind these products stop buying conventional real food, there will be more space for grass fed cows, pastured pigs, free range chickens, organic “broccoli and tomatoes” (and avocados) etc etc. Supply up and demand will drop and prices will go down. Then we all (that is, those of us in the know that ignore it) get to eat good stuff for less money while everyone else dies early of the unintended consequences of the new artificial crap. Population pressure is naturally mitigated and the earth is a happier place. Natural selection at work in perfect balance for the benefit of the Primal population.

    *removes heavy cloak of sarcasm*

  2. Leave food alone. Planting it in the earth, growing it, and eating it, is a formula that’s worked fine for hundreds of thousands of years.

  3. Hard as it is for me to understand, I’ve met people who see food as a necessary, but pain in the butt thing to deal with. WTF? Eating is a pain? Necessary evil?

    I will never fully understand that attitude toward food, but it absolutely exits. Kind of sounds like the Soylent creator, eh?

    Also, why oh why would you name a product-that is meant to be taken seriously- after the name of a 70’s movie about killing old people to make food?? Remember “Soylent Green”?

    1. My wife is like this. She doesn’t “get” eating. She would probably like Soylent.

    2. Agree completely with the post and the comments. There is still so much we don’t understand about nutrition, micronutrients, phytochemicals, enzymes, etc, and the efforts to reduce food needs to a short list of raw chemicals is absurd. Potentially a GREAT product for emergency food stores, but for everyday consumption? Ah, sorry but no. And who thought of co-opting the absolutely revolting Soylent name which is mostly reminiscent of the “Green” product in the film of a dystopian future??

      And now I’m going to spend a few minutes in making an omelet of free range eggs and butter…

    3. Sure do. As soon as I saw the name, soylent, I thought of the movie with Charlton Heston.

      More useless food crap being foisted on the public, there’s more than enough land to grow real food and humanely grow animals and chooks for us to eat. Get rid of some of those millions of acres used for growing useless inedible grains, get rid of all the roundup and artificial fertilisers that are poisoning the land.

    4. First thing I thought of was Soylent Green???? Are they serious. I was waiting for the punch line.

    5. I’ve met people like this, too. I’m sure this will be a hit with them, but I’ll never understand it either. Cooking is one of my favourite things to do! Then again, I’ll never understand why anyone would want a self-drivng car. I absolutely love driving, yet the majority of people seem to hate it. To each their own, I guess.

  4. Thus is the downfall of machines and devices: they cannot taste or touch. All their limited sensory output is reliant upon our input. Unless somebody figures out how to interpret the taste centers on a tongue to a machine or device, we humans will always have the superiority of a sense of taste.

  5. “It’s the journey that makes the destination.”

    I’m on the cusp of 40 and am just figuring this out…

  6. Wow, Doesn’t anyone remember the old movie Soylent Green. Who would ever name their product, Soylent, with the association that comes with that name.
    Putting aside my paragraph above. Real food is the way to go!

    1. They are being intentionally ironic with the name. It’s meant to start of a conversation and be a bit jarring.

    2. Actually, I would totally get behind Soylent Green protein bars. 🙂 That would be hilarious.

  7. Great post, Mark! Thanks.

    I also know a person or two who really don’t like to be
    bothered with eating and don’t really get the idea of sharing pleasurable meals with others. Guess that leaves more of the good stuff for us.

    Still, I just can’t imagine living in a world where we all get our nutrients from powders. I suppose it will eventually happen, but I’m glad I won’t be around to see/taste it.

  8. There is an especially large glut of money flowing into the Bay Area right now for tech start ups. Yes, it’s been there for some time now, but in the past several years it has been of particular note. Everyone is throwing crap at the wall to see if they’re accidentally the next “unicorn” (a tech company valued over $1b). With that in mind, unless I see client lists or actual shipments, I assume that most of the talk coming out of companies like this are fishing expeditions for investment.

    “Why, I’ve solved FANTASTICALLY complex problems before! And, oh my! Just look at this food label! There are only, maybe, fifteen things we need! This will be my golden ticket!”

    They then call up their old friend with an MBA, get some investors, wrangle up some engineers who just want a paycheck, put up a vague (yet beautiful) website, and burn through several million before closing the project in frustration.

    With THAT said. Yes, food is far more than a glued together checklist of the dozen or so items that we typically find on the food label. This really reeks of the hubris of us engineers.

    For any complicated problem there exists a solution that is simple, elegant, and wrong.

  9. Mark, I love this post! I have recently fallen for a “shake replacement” scheme and quickly realized how much I miss eating actual food, and how much sitting down to a meal with my husband means to both of us. These companies, and many others are assisting us in our “were too busy for life” downfall, when we really need more people like you preaching to slow it down and enjoy the small things like food (and sex) 🙂

  10. From a purely scientific aspect I can understand why people are excited about creating these foods. With a world population of over 7Billion, we need to figure out how to feed everyone. However, as has already been posited, these ‘foods’ are nutritionally inferior to the real deal. Ultimately the effects of malnutrition would become evident if these were widely consumed, to the exclusion of nutrient dense, whole foods. I’ll stick with my plants and animals, and the occasional insect based treat.

    1. I’m always flabbergasted by scientists that want to figure out how to feed 8 billion people. We need scientists to figure out how to stop the madness of mankind reproducing like a virus.

      These companies are just producing more Frankenfoods. Let the Vegans have at it!

      1. The problem is that a lot of the breeding is completely logical. Birth control is inaccessible or too expensive. Diseases and famine are rampant… you need to have eight children just to have a few survive to adulthood.

        My thought about feeding 8 billion people though… we won’t. There will be starvation. The world is very cruel sometimes.

  11. Hubris summarizes these tech endeavors well. These “world changers” are missing the boat. Their focus should not be conococting achemy nutrition. They should be developing technology to produce natural foods more efficiently. I am more impressed by someone who creates a hydroponic vegetable plot on a city rooftop or maintains healthy clutch of bug eating backyard chickens. Spirulina is natural aquatic alge that is processed and repackaged with technology. I would imagine spirulina to be superior to ingestible lab food. It was used as a food source by primal mesoamericans before the lakes were drained for agriculture.

    1. The answer to Mark’s question is a resounding NO, they can’t! This idea that food can be “engineered” is disturbing. Not only does it smack of hubris, but it also smacks of a deeper fear. These guys are control freaks, and life can’t be controlled. Duh. Engineered food nearly destroyed me. I’d like to see what this Rhinehart guy’s health is like after a few years of consuming his ‘Soylent.’
      I’d rather support someone like Joel Salatin who figured out how to work with nature instead of against it to get a healthier product.

      This post reminded me of the scene in the Soylent Green movie when the woman is eating “illegal” strawberry jam. I hope it never comes to that.

      1. This is just angling to feed 10-14 billion people with what comes out of a factory.

  12. Hear, hear!

    The ideas that you have to be very efficient, and that you need to strive for something beyond what you have, seem to me to be very characteristic of industrial society. It’s fine if food is just something to get over with to get back to something you’re really passionate about, but people shouldn’t be led to believe that being productive in itself is generally such a good thing.

    Having just spent time in another country, I was negatively impressed by their use of dairy, and a product that is a mixture of skimmed milk, vegetable oil, emulsifiers, fish oil, and added vitamins (Puleva Omega 3, it’s called).

    On the question of whether we are smart enough for us to use our minds to develop better nutrition, I don’t think so. With the changes brought about by new technologies, some are good, and some are bad. Science has been good for ideas like vitamins and essential nutrients, and supplements seem useful, but trying to create it on our own seem like a bad idea.

  13. I think these things are a good occasional crutch when you really don’t have the time or food availability to truly eat Primal. We all wanted to be an astronaut when we were kids but Tang and Space Food Sticks (remember those?) never composed a healthy diet and never will (at least during the lifetime of anyone reading this).

    1. Ha ha! My aunt and uncle worked at NASA during that time and would bring home “astronaut food” I remember freeze dried strawberries…back in 1968! Poor astronauts.

  14. What I find particularly frightening is how much even whole, real foods have changed over the past century (usually as a result of intentional efforts to make things sweeter, more homogenous and less perishable).

    Jo Robison’s book Eating on the Wide Side offers a highly fascinating, highly disturbing look at this in regards to fruits and veggies.

    Looking at the differences between isolated compounds and whole foods, there’s a parallel with Chinese herbs. Decocted in their natural state, herbs have numerous compounds interacting in ways modern science has yet to fully understand. Gets even more complex when we put various herbs together in a formula….and when we consider the various processing methods (which is an entire art & science in itself, within the wider field of Chinese herbal therapy). Drug and supplement companies, meanwhile, isolate one or two or three compounds. Not the same.

  15. “I’m very skeptical. In theory, we can recreate all the possible components of a given food — if we could only identify them. With the relatively infantile base of knowledge we currently possess, I don’t think any engineered food powder will contain all the micronutrients we get from real food.” — True. However, I feel that natures does the best job in any given situation. The need to make things “better” is a human construct.

  16. This reminds me of a British show I watched, where a fat person and a thin person had to eat each other’s food for a week? Month? Anyway, I remember where the thin person ate nothing but rice with raw garlic. The fat person thought he could eat anything but he met his match with that. He said, “This is food for people who hate food.”

    Where am I going with this? Things like soylent strike me as food for people who hate food. People for whom food is nothing but fuel. I can’t get behind that… I enjoy food too much. Honestly, I think it’s rather sad.

    1. I was under the impression that people in the UK who hate food ate Quorn. Quorn is that fungus derived tofuesque protein mass engineered to taste like chicken.

      1. I think that show was filmed a while ago. Maybe Quorn wasn’t around yet and raw garlic was the thing. 🙂

        1. Unfortunately Quorn has been around far too long in the UK. I wrote to the Advertising Standards Authority 3 years ago to complain at their ads saying you could make spaghetti Bolognese healthier by replacing the meat with Quorn. I suggested that the only thing that could be replaced by Quorn and stand a chance of being healthier was the spaghetti! Unsurprisingly I got a standard response saying there was no foundation to my complaint. Ha! The ASA supporting Big Food, whatever next?
          And now Mo Farah advertises it. I mean, I applaud his running achievements as much as the next person, but look at him. He’s not exactly a shining example of health, is he?

  17. It’s a small, remote point, but I do like to point out the misconception that less paper = saving trees.
    Paper isn’t made from trees. Paper is made primarily from the brush and undergrowth that grows up in a tree farm around the trees. What parts of the tree do get added to the feedstock for paper would only be a waste product of forestry otherwise. Finally, the trees that are used even indirectly in paper production are planted with use potential in mind. So, without the demand for paper and – more accurately – building products, these trees woudn’t have been planted in the first place. In other words, demand for paper creates trees.

  18. Engineering a meal-replacement food that is optimal presumes that we known what an optimal diet is, and we seem to be some decades from that. Then of course it can’t be just one product, as “optimal” is apt to be specific to goals, genotype, phenotype, gender, age, incep status, lifestyle, etc.

    But I’d be happy with a decent snack bar that isn’t loaded with junk – something like a Quest bar with vastly more [specific] fats, and no sucralose or corn byproducts in any of the flavors.

    1. I had a Quest bar a couple weeks ago and thought I was going to die of sadness. Think I’ll stick to Epic bars and nuts when I need road food.

    2. “Engineering a meal-replacement food that is optimal presumes that we known what an optimal diet is, and we seem to be some decades from that.”

      Well said. I collect diet books, and have many from the late 1970’s – ninteties that rail against saturated fats and red meat, insist you MUST avoid coconut oil like the very plague, and same with palm oils, and focus instead on eating as many grains as you can physically choke down.

      Even CW has relented somewhat on “grains make you thin” and coconut oil gets a green light from the most conservative CW sources – “used in moderation” of course!

      There simply isn’t the knowledge available right now to create a food-replacement, and with different gut biomes, body chemistry and so on, I doubt there even will be one product suitable for all people – some men have a problem with excess iron whereas women often need more, some people can’t handle high-fat diets where others are derailed and driven crazy by too many carbs.

      1. My wife’s neurologist sent her home with a nutrition guide for MS patients last time she was in. They seem to have relented a little on the grain front, but any time saturated fat is mentioned, there’s an adjective in front of it (unhealthy). It suggests canola or corn oil as substitutes. If it wouldn’t take up so much of her already short appointments every quarter, I’d go with her to the appointment, and run them through the ringer over it.

  19. Soylent does not contain soy protein. Read the label you link to: rice protein and soy lecithin, but no soy protein.

    And to other commenters, yes, the name is a tongue in cheek reference to soylent green. It might not be everyone’s favorite type of humour, but is certainly is memorable.

    1. Just read the soylent 2.0 notes on the soylent website: its seems they will be switching to soy protein, indeed. My mistake.

  20. The person that invents the insta-sex pill needs to be stopped before it gets turned into a product!

  21. If you want to be ‘enlightened’ about food manufacturing, read Joanna Blythman’s book “Swallow This”. If you’re not already turned off processed food you probably will be after reading it.

  22. I for one would like the most nutritious and best -tasting food possible. I don’t like linking food to reward though. Hey, if you spent the whole day farming the food, then cooking the food, I can see why it was a big deal. With calories being so cheap and ready, continuing the tradition seems to be unnecessary. I don’t use food as a treat or incentive in my house, but that doesn’t stop me from buying ice cream or chocolate sometimes. Hey they mate well with other foods of the day, just like broccoli does.

    I also think that science and innovation should continue in this and every other corner of our lives. We are free to choose if we buy an iPhone or a powdered meal replacement. Maybe some day this powder will be nutritionally equal. We will never know if we don’t try, and get people to consume it long enough to kill themselves. Heck, there are 7 Billion of us, and they are willing.

    1. Is it really choice these days whether or not to own a mobile phone, though? It seems not – just as it’s no longer a choice not to use the net, when some government business needs to be filed online.

      And try bringing up your kids to embrace that “choice” – you’d probably get social services investigating you!

      This is the problem – get the world thinking meal-replacements are the moral, laudable, responsible thing, and it stops being a choice and becomes the expected thing.

      “Heck, there are 7 Billion of us, and they are willing.” For how long though?

      People want real food, once they’re no longer starving they usually want meat, it’s deeply insulting to assume that people will be happy to stay eating gunk indefinitely just because their predecessors suffered from hunger, whereas the developed world eats whatever it damned well chooses.

      Anyway the fact more people are now suffering from obesity than starvation, including in the developing world, rules out forever the implied moral blackmail that the world is crying out for calories, and that anyone who opposes innovation is as good as starving kiddies to death (a frequent refrain of pro-GMO lobbyists).

  23. Hampton Creek’s target customers aren’t the home cooks – they want to sell to the commercial bakers of the world. That’s why they focus on making an egg substitute that can make good cakes and donuts. The current egg shortage (due to bird flu?) is their opportunity, and they’re going to run with it. This will have no impact on anyone who wants to use real eggs.

    1. Wanna help with the egg shortage? Raise a few chickens in your backyard.

  24. I thought you were joking about the Soylent. Ick.

    Didn’t we already discover that vitamin supplements and fish oil capsules didn’t really do anything? Is liquefied food that’s absorbed almost immediately exactly the opposite of how we’re built to absorb food? I know we can get by and live on almost anything, but the whole idea of ‘composed’ food in a liquid form or highly processed form just seems to be another way to put factory food into our faces.

  25. Real Soylent Green was as Paleo as it gets: Nothing contains all the nutrients a human needs quite as well as a human.

  26. I was horrified a few days ago when I read about researchers (not cooks, researchers!) developping ice cream that doesn’t melt, but this is even worse! I wish they’d just leave our food alone.

  27. The chemist in the kitchen has a very poor track record… sweeteners, dyes, transfats, low-fat et cetera… and Apps are usually incompetent. The real problem is people today prefer to rent information in their hand than own it in their head. Which means when the battery goes dead they are empty and ignorant.

  28. They would be far better served to take all that money and work at finding a solution to lesson the cruelty to animals, and find a way to make healthy food at a lower price point. Not to mention spending some time and effort on educating the masses about what really healthy food is. Of course, most of the masses just don’t want to know and there might be a slight decrease in mega profits if you actually do it right. I echo what someone else said above. PLEASE just leave our food alone!

    1. “They’re trying to solve a problem that doesn’t really exist.”

      This completely sums it up.

      Let’s look at the “problems” Soylent solves:

      1. variable intake of nutrients – gives the same “dose” in every helping. It’s possible our bodies thrive on highs and lows though, including via hormesis, and even more probable that consistant intakes of certain proteins, over time, creates intolerances, which then cause sub-clinical malaise and gut disorders.

      2. enjoying a variety of fresh, in-season foods – this “problem” means that if Soylent and things like it ever come to be seen as the “responsible” dietary mainstay, small farmers and crafts will be driven out of business.

      3. people not knowing what to eat, for health – I see little evidence that people know right now exactly what the optimal human diet is, and no evidence there will ever be such a thing, since our biomes and genetics vary so widely.

      4. welfare problems inherent in animal husbandry – this replaces those with the need for new tests, and I’m sure most animals would prefer life on a decent farm and a humane slaughter, to the hell of a vivisection lab, being poisoned and tormented every day until death.

      5. time taken away from work to eat properly – this is replacing the concept of battery-farmed chickens (for example) with battery farmed people. Neither are actually necessary, good, or correct, and stress plus long working hours underlies many illnesses. Creating a product that facilitates a “live to work” culture and implies time spent preparing food is somehow decadent seems like the height of recklessness to me.

      Yes, I am very against this kind of innovation, research, and the moral beliefs it tries to foist upon us – if you care about animal welfare, create a non-profit that teaches animal sentience to farm workers, there’s a lot of great research into this already, lobby to make abattoir and farmhand work into careers (like nursing) which you have to qualify for, and be paid a decent rate, and make the bulk of the training revolve on teaching that animals feel fear, panic, despair and pain exactly like we do.

  29. I really have a hard time putting anything to words that isn’t offensive – this type of thinking galls me so much.

    I suppose this is the next logical step from bread in a bag and cake in a can. Industrial GOO in a tube! Don’t ask whats’ in it, just eat it.

    This really seems to stem from people becoming lazy. Too lazy to cook, too lazy to shop… Pretty soon Google will make you too lazy to even drive. Technology seems to be making people lazy. I would hope that wasn’t the intent, but you really have to wonder.

  30. I for one think Tech improves lives as you do seem to think Mark. There are hundreds of entrepreneurs trying to “disrupt” food around the globe, and I think of it as a positive thing. People want to change the status quo. Hampton Creek don’t really want to bankrupt farmers, they want to compete against Helman and other Mayo guys. Fine.

    I do think all the momentum around Food&Tech should bring more positive than negative things.

    I believe (this is the purpose of the startup I’m launching btw) that tech can help us cook. Not by inventing yet another fancy gadget no-one uses and stocks in his garage because they have no use. By connecting people who know how to with people who don’t and get really hands on with cooking.

    I follow the primal precepts of healthy eating although sometimes I allow myself some bread (being French is hard!!!) but I love sharing this diet with my friends when they come over for my Sunday night cooking sessions and we cook together our meals for the week.

    It seems a pretty simple idea, why tech? Well, tech enables me to create a session, animate it, even though I’m not a chef, even though I’m not a teacher.

    Tech and the Internet allow us to do things and communicate them faster than ever, allowing change in the world at a pace that was never ever possible before. If we want to make a change, we should embrace the tech revolution, even in food.

    Empowering cooks all over the world is a great Tech Mission don’t you think?


  31. The anti-cruelty argument doesn’t wash since most of these things will at some point need to be tested on animals (and those tests are horrific), plus any “oops we didn’t really know what we were doing” moments, as happened with trans-fats and the shift towards a starch-based diet, will create illnesses that then lead to the development of new drugs.

    Each of these drugs, including the many that don’t make it out of early development, will again be tested by inflicting pain on animals, often not anaethetised at any stage (as with research on IBS & Crohns, the pain is part of the test’s parameters) and will result in enormous numbers of animals feeling pain, panic, and suffering on a scale we can barely imagine.

    Addressing the existing welfare problems in big agribusiness, and realising that everything that is now alive will die, and that in nature those deaths are often pretty unpleasant, would go a long way towards solving the ethical problems inherent in the meat, egg, and dairy industries.

  32. Let’s look at the problems “solved” by both products.

    Soylent – time . Okay but working more hours is proven less effective even when self-imposed.
    Skipping cooking and or chewing time only feels productive because it’s less effort.

    This already has a low-tech solution, eat one amazing real food high quality meal a day.

    Hampton Creek’s eggs . turn low quality cheap mass produced plant proteins into something resembaling a real food.

    low tech solution : tofu , tempeh.

    I’m all for making pea , rice and other plant proteins more palatable , but the egg is taken hens own the patent and the trademark , be original not fraudsters.

  33. Very good points, and well stated. I really enjoy Mark’s writing.

  34. Protein bars. Nut bars. Soy powder. Carob extract protein powder. Oh my.

    Why can’t people just eat wholesome foods? Though I’ve known many people in my own life who view cooking as a “chore”.

  35. I’m all for innovation but man did Mark hit the nail on the head: we haven’t one-upped nature on any other food “innovation” so why should this be any better? A few people said “hubris”. Can’t think of a better word for it.

  36. Mark raises such a great point with this post of concerning and growing issues and confusion that resonates deeply with us.

    Food is so much more to us than just a way to give yourself “maximum nutrition with minimum effort” (directly from the Soylent site).

    I believe what a large part of nourishing our mind, body and soul comes from the actual mindfulness of food preparation and the company we share the nourishing moments with. Hunters/Gathers anyone?… So much growing and healing comes from these simple acts associated with food than just the quantitative aspect of what these food tech companies are trying to tell us what we need from it. No engineer/scientist can recreate this.

    I also agree with Mark that food alternatives, snacks, supplements or any other source of nutrition outside of personally prepared food for your primary meals, are needed and necessary for so many of us for different reasons (athletes, busy professional, traveling, etc), BUT should only be considered and used in addition to and not replacing our primary diet of prepared food. I will be the first to tell you that some of these options can (and should) be very tasty and nourishing, but as Mark said very well, these food alternatives should simply provide the needed “convenience without sacrificing quality or nutrition” for those moments that we need additional help/support to carry us on until our next sit down meal.

    In my opinion, nothing compares to benefits and nourishment of being present and mindful of what we are eating (what are food is, where it has come from, and what it has gone through to provide the needed nourishment for or bodies – this is just the basic food chain, but with just a slightly deeper perspective on purpose).

    And really, are we just so spoiled (and confused) in our modern civilization that people have completely disconnected with some of the basic joy and fulfillment in life? (seriously, you survived another day.. be thankful and enjoy a plentiful meal with those that you are happy survived with you – our ancestors certainly would have done it.)

    If anyone needs any convincing of this disposition on food tech, just apply a little pressure and refrain from eating for only one day (24 hours), with the acceptance that once you do finally eat, your next meal will not come for at least another 24 hours again, and see what your body and mind tell you to do if you are given the choice between nourishing yourself with steak and eggs (real eggs) or that of a scientifically engineered protein shake… (believe me, we make one ourselves and my body would not let me choose my own powder meal supplement over eating actual food when my body is telling me its hungry if these were my options – just being honest). There is so much more to nourishment then just calories.

    Thanks for posting Mark. You’re such a needed voice for such a misunderstood but fundamental part of our existence – Food by nature isn’t confusing, but unfortunately corporate marketing by some companies and industries have certainly done a great job screwing it up for so many of us. Keep up the great work.

    – Michael

    1. Forgot to note that I do understand and agree that we are certainly facing a global food issue/shortage. However, IMHO, the primary questions/issue to address isn’t how to create cheaper, more easily reproduced food, but rather why and how we waste so much food and what we can do to solve that.

  37. I’m going to try this to see what happens. I plan to drink Soylent when I don’t have leftover food from dinner. So I expect it will replace 100 percent of my breakfasts and about 50% of my lunches. It seems interesting. If I like it, then I’ll keep doing it. If I don’t like it or get bored, then I’ll stop. Looking at the data so far, I know it’s better than a lot of the food I currently eat. So for me it isn’t a choice between truly primal versus soylent. It’s more of a choice between frequently primal with other really mediocre food (bag of chocolate chip cookies, potato chips, Soup and Sandwich at Panera) and Soylent.

    I applaud those of you that go fully Primal. Right on. But I’d wager many of the readers of the website are like me. We are not truly 100 percenters or even 80/20’s.

    And… food for thought… if it really was made of old people, wouldn’t that be Primal?

  38. I’d wager that it’s probably POSSIBLE to create synthetic food that’s healthier than real food, even with current technology, but who’s going to define”healthier”? We as a society can’t even decide what is and isn’t healthy eating, so how could we ever hope to design a healthy synthetic food?

    Also, like you said, food is about more than just nutrition. I love cooking. I love experimenting to find the perfect temperature, the perfect amount of salt, the perfect amount of oil, the perfect combination of spices, and the science of how they all interact to bring out just the right flavour. It’s the perfect combination of science and art. Just like I plan on driving long after self-drivng cars are the norm, I also plan on cooking should healthy synthetic food ever become the norm. Not because I have to, but because I want to. Because I enjoy it.

    That said, there will probably be a huge market for healthy synthetic foods as emergency rations. I can see myself keeping a box or two in the closet for when the zombies come (or flood, but that’s boring)