A Year Without Food: Living (Mostly) on Soylent

Since last August, Joe Conte has been eating little more than the tech start-up’s meal replacement.

(Photo: Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

May 6, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sheila Marikar is a New Jersey born, Los Angeles-based writer who covers popular culture, society, and technology for publications including the New York Times, Fortune, and Inc.

Last August, Joe Conte, a tattooed tech start-up founder in downtown Los Angeles, gave up eating. Not entirely—he snacks on avocados and fruit during the day—but he started swapping out two, sometimes three, meals a day with Soylent, a two-year-old nutritional drink that he describes as tasting like a less-sweet version of cake batter. At the time, he was working for the community organizing platform NationBuilder, “doing the traditional, get in at 7, 7:30 and work till 8 o’clock every night,” he said recently over an almond milk mocha. (When Conte does eat, he’s vegan.) He heard about Soylent through the company’s crowdfunding campaign.

“I was like, ‘Wait, this is something that I could drink and it’s all my nutrients? Sign me the f--k up,’ ” he said, grinning broadly. “It’s a convenience thing.”

Does he miss the social ritual of going out to eat or dining with friends? “I was eating 60 to 70 percent of my meals alone anyway, which is equally depressing,” he said. “It’s just pour and drink and be done with it.”

Joe Conte. (Photo: Sheila Marikar)

For Conte, an Italian American from Long Island, New York, who grew up on cold-cut sandwiches and heaping plates of pasta, food had become a chore. “I can’t think of how much time was wasted in my life being like, ‘Yo, what do you want to get for lunch?’ ” he said. “I love to eat, but at the same time, food is just fuel.”

That’s the philosophy behind Soylent, which software engineer Rob Rhinehart introduced to the world in 2013, frustrated by the time and money he was spending on putting together nutritionally sound meals. The powder, which is mixed with water to make a thick drink, is made from oat flour, rice protein, and various vitamin, mineral, and fatty acid supplements—a complete meal replacement, containing everything a human body needs. Hence Soylent’s motto: “Maximum nutrition with minimum effort.”

For Conte, the minimal effort—and cost—amounts to about $3 per meal. That lets him funnel more money into City Grows, the company he’s building to help local governments move their permitting processes online.

“It really started gaining a lot of popularity among engineers in the tech scene,” said David Renteln, Soylent’s cofounder and chief marketing officer. “I think it’s because these people understand that a lot of problems are reducible. You can break things down into discrete parts.”

And because it’s also a start-up—in January, Soylent raised $20 million in new funding, led by Silicon Valley venture capital heavyweight Andreessen Horowitz—Soylent speaks to Conte in a way that, say, a Weight Watchers meal replacement shake does not.

“I identify with these guys because I hated eating lunch when I was at my start-up, like them,” he said. “Just based on that, I will totally buy their product. They understand my situation.”

While people who work in tech remain a “core driver” of Soylent, according to Renteln, the drink is spreading across the country, with subscribers popping up outside of urban centers. In the next two years, the company plans to break into Asia and other parts of the developing world that are dealing with food insecurity.

“We want to scale our company so we can sell at a price that’s affordable,” Renteln said.

There are problems the heavily funded food replacement can’t solve. As he sipped the last of his almond milk mocha, Conte talked about a recurring dinner party dilemma. “I don’t cook, I don’t want to know how to cook, which makes potluck super challenging,” he said. “Like, what do I bring to a potluck?”

A bunch of Soylent?

He laughed: “I should try that sometime.”