It’s not green, either

To bring you up to date: some guy decided that he just wanted to drink a shake instead of bother with food preparation.  He read up on what should be in that shake and made it.  He decided to make the result into a product, call it Soylent, and try to sell it.  Various people have tried it out, including, now, Brian Merchant of vice.com, who wrote about 30 days of eating nothing but Soylent.

Okay, so.  Soylent is interesting to me.  I’ve found that I lose weight the best when I establish a very, very, very tight eating routine.  And the claims of feeling good while eating nutritiously are appealing.  So I’ve read a fair amount of Soylent news, and have noticed something:

The amount of acrimony Soylent draws is completely insane.  Check out the Hacker News thread on the article linked above.  Every conceivable thing that could be criticized about it is criticized.  From “it will destroy our future” to “it’s a scam” to “it will destroy culture by destroying mealtimes” to “it will kill you because it’s unhygenically prepared” to “it will kill you because it’s not actually nutritious.”

You can draw pretty strong conclusions about the merit of any one of those objections based on the fact that every one of those objections is loudly trumpeted in every article about it.  People feel uniquely threatened by Soylent and cast around for reasons to dislike it.

But I want to address the last one, the thing about nutrition.  Now, Soylent’s creator has made some kind of ludicrous claims, like the idea that Soylent is “perfectly optimized” for human consumption.  We can reasonably say that “perfect optimization” is both probably unique for each different human and in any case not knowable by present science.  But getting beyond such fine parsing, guys, we basically know how human nutrition works at this point.

And the reason that we know that human nutrition works that way is that humanity has been conducting a 100,000 year natural experiment in human nutrition, and it turns out that human nutrition needs are in fact pretty flexible.  Modern day humans eat diets that are:

  • Principally meat
  • Entirely vegan
  • Based on yams
  • Based on wheat
  • Based on rice
  • Based on fish
  • Based on potatoes
  • Based on legumes
  • Based on corn
  • High in calories
  • Low in calories
  • Very broad
  • Extremely narrow

And much, much more.  As a species, we have shifted diets many times.  We have started eating entirely new classes of food, like dairy products and alcohol.  We have expanded everywhere on the globe and eaten different things in each place.  And what we’ve learned (or, perhaps, what we have forced ourselves to evolve into) is that the human body is not particularly fussy about its diet.  There are a few hard restrictions: horrible things happen to you if you don’t get any salt, any vitamin C, any fat.  But they’re rare, and they are pretty well understood at this point.

The idea that Soylent lacks some magical special substance that all other diets across the entire world contain which is totally unknown to science is purely magical thinking.  It is not perfect.  On some theoretical plane, you may be doing yourself harm when eating Soylent compared to a perfect diet.  But that harm is going to be comparable to the harm that hundreds of millions of people do to themselves already, with their own particular non-perfect diet today.  And it will be correctable by changing your diet, outside of you letting yourself deteriorate for an unconscionably long period of time without intervening.

Now, does that mean that Soylent will actually be a useful product that will have benefits?  No, certainly not.  But if it’s not a useful product, it will be because its benefits are sufficiently low, not because secretly wheat germ turns into arsenic when blended into a shake.

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