Soylent food substitute raises concerns

Credit: Eunice Oh/Art Editor Credit: Eunice Oh/Art Editor

This week at Pugwash, the science, ethics and society discussion club, we discussed the “food” Soylent, a drink that may drastically change how people consume food.

Soylent is a drink that claims to contain all the vitamins and nutrients one needs to survive. According to its creators, this beverage, soon to be solid block, can replace all of one’s meals, thereby significantly boosting the consumer’s efficiency by eliminating all unnecessary food preparation and spending. Furthermore, Soylent may be the ultimate vegan food since it can be produced without involving animals in any way. In a sense, Soylent’s dream is to replace farms with the potentially ethically superior and efficient factories.

Soylent certainly sounds good, but how does it taste? This was the question on Pugwash members’ tongues as we prepared to collectively try some Soylent at the meeting. After downing a small paper cup each, in addition to the usual pre-topic pizza, the conclusions regarding the taste ranged from the lukewarm response of “kinda like pancake batter” to the ominous “it tastes like prison food.”

While Pugwash does occasionally market itself as a free-food club, we try to incorporate discussions too. Our first topic was whether or not going full Soylent was a healthy choice. Major points of dispute included our ignorance about what constitutes a healthy meal. We know as a species that eating natural food works, but do we really know enough to fully engineer the food ourselves? There may be many nuances surrounding our natural meals that may be missed by eating cherry-picked chemicals. As one member pointed out, Soylent contains “everything that food contains except the food.”

In response to this, some members explained how switching to Soylent needn’t be an all-encompassing decision. Soylent can be a highly effective supplement if we use it to replace only our already artificial meals. The natural foods we already eat do not have to go. Furthermore, large swathes of society eat substances that we fully understand are destructive to the body, such as McDonald’s. Couldn’t a cheap substitute like Soylent act as a major boost to the health of these consumers? It is quite possible that, via mass production, Soylent could compete with even the cheapest meals.

Next, we explored the philosophical consequences of Soylent. What would it mean for society if we abandoned the feast? Do we want to live in the society where most people forgo solid food? Some members pointed out that food is a major part of many people’s identities and lives. One member explained how Europeans already believe Americans are processing the culture out of food by treating meals as fuel rather than as something that adds greater value to their lives. This member then pointed out that a European could potentially see Soylent as “processing the food out of food.”

Another ethical issue arose when we considered the possibility of parents raising their children on pure Soylent diets. Parents are free to raise their children vegan, so why not raise them on Soylent? On the other hand, raising one’s child on a new, unstudied substance is sure to raise concern.

Although everyone agreed that we should not force people to eat Soylent, the opinions on Soylent were far from unanimous. While some members championed the opportunity for a high-nutrient and vegan diet, others felt unease at our uncertainty regarding nutrition and the cold world of maximum progress that seemed far too present in Soylent’s bland, yet efficient, taste.

Student Pugwash is a non-advocacy, educational organization that discusses the implications of science, technology, and medicine on society. This article is a summary of last week’s discussion on Soylent, a processed drink containing all the vitamins and nutrients humans need to survive.