On the first day of a month in which Vice’s Brian Merchant will eat no solid food whatsoever, the host of a new Motherboard documentary on the total meal replacement Soylent is apprehensive. Facing a Nalgene bottle of the off-white muck, he tells the camera, “I can’t imagine eating this for the rest of the day,” never mind for the next four weeks.
The gimmick journalism works well here, in the 24-minute doc, which weaves together Merchant’s experience of living off Soylent (along with canola oil, fish oil capsules, and water) with interviews with the young tech-bro founder of the startup, Rob Rhinehart, and experts whose areas of study touch on the issues surrounding the meal replacement.
“I don’t think we’re going to feed an exploding population with organic farms,” says Rhinehart, who says he has considered eating things like leaves—the food of animals—as anachronistic since he was a child. Instead of fruits and vegetables and other traditional items, he’d like to see more people turning to Soylent—made of oat flour, maltodextrin, rice protein, canola oil, fiber, potassium gluconate, sodium, iron, zinc, and chloride—more of the time, allowing for a more sustainable food future in which agriculture is less taxing on the environment and society is less prone to hunger.
Rhinehart's ultimate goal is for Soylent to become a public utility, like water, that’s accessible to everyone. As for agriculture? The end game for the meal replacement is “something as independent of agriculture as possible.” In other words, a complete nutritional product made solely of manufactured additives.
For Merchant’s part, the fried chicken cravings kick in at day 20, and his daily video diaries and voice-over are increasingly focused on the social loss of living without food—the lunches with friends, the after-work drinks.
The documentary raises interesting questions about the emotional culture of food, the real concerns of feeding a growing population, the roots of revolution, and the nature of sustenance—many of which are more posed than answered. One question, however, it does address categorically.
“We want the company to be very transparent,” Rhinehart says regarding the Charlton Heston–inspired name, “in that we don’t use human body parts.”