Soylent Isn’t About to ‘Disrupt’ World Hunger

Creators of meal-replacement products have suggested they could help with nutrition aid.
(Photo: SupermealX/Facebook)
Oct 29, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

While we’re willing to turn sugary cereals into “food” by fortifying them with vitamins and nutrients, the concept of replacing food with nutritional substances is more controversial. Sure, people will occasionally sip a protein shake or a smoothie in lieu of a sit-down meal—but doing away with variety in our diet altogether? That’s another story.

However, freedom from food and the cooking-free lifestyle promised by Soylent when it first went on sale in 2014 has garnered it fans and a lot of curiosity. It’s marketed as a meal replacement that can be eaten exclusively in lieu of food or as an occasional time-saver, and it and similar products have become wildly successful among busy Americans, particularly in the tech sector. But could it help solve the problem of what to feed those who have neither food nor means to purchase it?

While most of Soylent’s customers can afford to spend $3 a meal for the new bottled version of the shakes—less than eating lunch out at a restaurant or a fancy home-cooked dinner—it’s still far more than the $194 a month allotted to a single person by SNAP. In poorer countries where the income is closer to $2 a day, Soylent and similar products are even farther out of reach.

In 2013, when Soylent creator Rob Rhinehart first started blogging about the beverage, he told CNN that he would like to see his product used to help end world hunger once it became more profitable. Now, “Indian fitness entrepreneur” Harsh Batra has created a similar meal replacement, according to The New York Times. Batra intends to create a sell-one, give-one donation project, à la TOMS shoes, to get his non-food into the bellies of hungry people.

But alternatives to made-for-consumer meal replacements already exist for the poor and are less expensive than Soylent and the like. Antihunger organizations use these products regularly in the case of micronutrient deficiency, disaster, or acute malnourishment—but they don’t believe replacing food with powder and shakes is a good idea.

“The idea is to promote the local diet,” Lynnda Kiess said of the way “specialized nutritious foods,” such as micronutrient powders or eat-from-the-packet meals, are used. Kiess, the head of the nutrition branch at the World Food Programme, explained that these fortified or meal-replacement products, which are regularly used for hunger relief, are intended to be either supplemental to people’s diet (getting them nutrients they aren’t getting otherwise) or used in cases of emergency.

A great example of this is Plumpynut, a product used to treat severely acutely malnourished children. Previously, children who experienced life-threatening degrees of malnourishment had to be treated in clinics, and it could involve a stay of up to a month. A parent also had to be on hand during the course of treatment. “The success of these programs was really poor, because the child was exposed to infection in the hospitals, and mothers couldn’t stay away from the rest of the family for such a long time,” Kiess explained.

Now, children can simply visit the clinic periodically to monitor their health and eat ready-to-use foods like Plumpynut, which has 100 percent of their required nutrient intake, at home. Not only is the recovery rate higher than before, but more children can be treated, because there’s no need for a hospital bed.

But kids aren’t expected to continue eating these foods forever. One reason is that eating an unvaried diet as a child can lead to a narrow diet as an adult. “We strongly encourage introducing new foods to children,” Kiess said, adding that parents are often looking for more diversification in their diet as well. The meats, fruits, and vegetables needed to create a balanced diet aren’t available in many of the world’s poorest areas. If animal-based foods are available at all, they’re often too expensive for families to afford on a regular basis. Without refrigeration or regular market infrastructure, a once-a-week market might mean fish, eggs, or leafy greens are available for a day or two but have to be consumed before going bad. “This idea that local foods could actually fill those nutrient needs is not so practical in many of the countries,” Kiess noted.

On the one hand, the lack of available foods might make it seem like an endless stream of meal replacements is the perfect solution to world hunger. But, as the WFP recognizes, these products work best as short-term solutions. To lower the incidence of malnutrition, countries need higher incomes, better infrastructure, and higher food production—not Soylent for all.

“In the countries where we work, there will be generations of children who don’t get the nutrients they need and won’t have the cognitive development they need while we’re waiting for markets to work better,” Kiess said.

A full 70 percent of the world’s poor live in rural areas, and the majority of them are farmers, according to the World Bank. Growing more food not only helps feed their families but provides them with what is often the only source of outside income available. Switching to a diet of Soylent in lieu of food (when that food is available) will only drop prices for these farmers and provide less incentive for necessary infrastructure development.

If consumers in the United States and other developed countries want to give up the plethora of food around them for shakes and quick meals, so be it. But producing food—the real stuff—is about more than getting fresh lettuce in the grocery store. In many parts of the world, it’s providing families with a source of income and a chance to feed themselves without relying on nutritional supplements or outside organizations.