We're Not Beyond Food Yet

Have you ever heard of Soylent?

How about Ambronite? 

Soylent and its competitor Ambronite are meal replacement beverages. Soylent is the most recognized product by far. Soylent shot to fame in 2014 after its founder/creator, software engineer Rob Rhinehart of Silicon Valley, decided to try to take "Diet Hacking" to the lab. He found that with his busy work schedule eating was an inconvenience and he wanted to formulate the "Perfect Meal" that could replace eating as we know it. This meal would contain "ultimate" nutrition and could be consumed in place of every meal.

Soylent became a crowd-funding darling, raising over $3 million, allowing Rhinehart to take his concept to the lab and into production. Since that campaign, Soylent has acquired over $20 million in its initial round of venture capital financing. Much has been written about Soylent over the past year and a bulk of the press has been negative, talking about the poor quality of it's ingredients and the ridiculousness of never eating real food again. And yet, Soylent is so popular that it cannot keep up with production. There was a 4 month backorder waiting period for new orders.

So what is the deal here? And why am I writing about this now?

I'm writing about this now because according to the LA Times, more pairs of tech savvy entrepreneurs are now hitting the lab in an attempt to hack our diets by creating a complete meal in a beaker. Which raises the question: are we ready for the end of food? Is this progress or a misguided movement? Meaning: this topic is as relevant as ever.

What is Soylent?

Let's take a step back and first get a little background on Soylent and how this company has come to be valued at $150 million this year, selling over 1 million of it's daily powder pouches and already becoming profitable.

Soylent is the brainchild of CEO Rob Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley software engineer. He was working very long hours and having serious money concerns as he and his small team of friends/business partners were attempting to get a startup off the ground. Trying to save money wherever he could, Rhinehart looked at his lifestyle and noticed that eating was one area that he could improve upon. Even while consisting on classic budget foods, such as ramen, his food costs were still substantial. He researched nutritional biochemistry and determined what he felt that current science had come to agree were the 35 essential nutrients for human survival. He then purchased these individual components on the internet and poured the powders and pills into a blender.  

So how do I feel about this?

The idea of formulating the perfectly nutritious meal has been envisioned before. Science fiction has embraced the idea many times, even going so far as to imagine meals in pill form.

Ever since we've started identifying key nutrients in foods and their role in our bodies, someone looking to make a lot of money has set forth on a giant lab experiment that involves taking individual components of foods (certain vitamins, minerals and macronutrients) and trying to combine them into a meal of "Ultimate Nutrition" that is somehow still palatable. These "Ultimate" meals are usually formulated as powders or liquids.

My main problem with this idea exists in one MAJOR flaw that these ambitious entrepreneurs have overlooked: 

We do not yet fully understand the complexities of our food and dietary habits.

We just don't.

Yes, food science and nutrition research has come a long way over the last several decades. We know a lot more than we used to.

We have names for many more micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) and understand a number of the chemical pathways that they are involved in. We also understand that certain diseases are caused by specific nutrient deficiencies and can treat accordingly. Nutritionists are able to do many wonderful things to help people improve their overall wellbeing and address specific health concerns. It's great.

We still don't know enough to ditch whole foods in favor of a synthetic lab concoction.

Better Together

We have identified some of the major components of specific foods, i.e. oranges have a lot of vitamin C. But oranges are much more than vitamin C. They have a number of additional micronutrients, as well as a general make up that is more complicated than we understand. It has been suggested that micronutrients in our food might actually work in tandem to be more biologically significant to us when consumed together as that food than those individual micronutrients act individually. In other words, the sum is much more than its parts. 

Rhinehart, the mind behind Soylent, has been quoted in The New Yorker as saying, "You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself. You need carbohydrates, not bread." He has falsely assumed that fruits and vegetables are not vital as themselves, but are merely inefficient vehicles of certain vitamins. He's wrong on this point. Whole foods are revealing themselves to be much more important than the few components that we've managed to identify. More research is definitely needed to help us understand what truly makes up the food we eat. We haven't fully learned exactly what our food is made of, nor understand the complexities of how our bodies respond to the delivery system (i.e. the whole food). For example, in the last decade we have discovered hundreds of components in our plant foods that we didn't know about previously. These newly discovered phytochemicals are so important as to now be household names, such as lycopene. Think how much more we are still missing.  

Soylent, and many other similar products, derive their vitamins in a lab, avoiding whole foods altogether. Synthetic ingredients are often less bioavailable and sometimes even dangerous. Some examples: Soylent uses D2 (ergocalciferol) as its vitamin D source instead of D3 (cholecalciferol). Cholecalciferol is the superior form of vitamin D; when consumed, D3 is more effective at raising our blood vitamin D levels [1]. Soylent also uses the synthetic version of vitamin E. Synthetic vitamin E is dl-alpha tocopherol while the naturally derived form is d-alpha tocopherol. Note that the "dl" forms of any vitamin are synthetic. According to the National Institute of Health, the synthetic version of vitamin E is only half as active as the same amount of the natural form. But even more concerning is the fact that the synthetic form of vitamin E has now been linked to an INCREASED risk of cancer [2]. Supplementation of isolated vitamin A, also included in Soylent's ingredients as the synthetic Vitamin A Palmitate, has been associated with in an increase risk of all-cause mortality [3]. It would seem that our bodies have evolved to obtain complex nutrition in the form of whole foods.

With regard to the importance of food synergy and reinforcing the idea that we have more to learn: Studies have shown that consuming broccoli and tomatoes together has a better effect on tumor growth than eating broccoli or tomatoes alone, AND (and here is the extra kicker) better than consuming isolated cancer-fighting chemicals that we've already identified in those foods. There is more to tomatoes and broccoli than we know.

One Size Does Not Fit All

The idea behind "Ultimate" meals are that their given parameters apply to everyone (or at least nearly everyone). In reality, we all have varying dietary needs. Over simplifying and attempting to create one meal that is appropriate for everyone is a fool's errand. 

There is not one perfect ratio of protein : fat : carbs that is best for all of us. We have different caloric needs. We each need more or less of various micronutrients based on our lifestyle and biology. Not to mention various allergies, sensitivities and tastes. The whole notion that it is possible to create one meal that is right for everyone is just wrong. 

How We Eat

The ritual of eating a meal has been shown to be important as well. When we smell food our bodies start to prepare for incoming nourishment. Our mouth salivates, our gall bladder releases bile etc. Truly tasting our food, the act of chewing: these things have been shown to be linked to physiological responses in our bodies that help us digest and absorb our food. If we remove these steps by simply consuming all-in-one liquid food-stuffs, we will remove important cues. We may not even absorb all of that supposedly "perfect" nutrition.

There's also the importance of getting your body into parasympathetic mode before eating so that we can properly digest our food. (Parasympathetic mode refers to our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the colloquially named Rest & Digest mode, the opposite of Fight or Flight.) Most "Ultimate"-style meals are designed to be easily consumed on the go and as a solution to traditional time consuming eating. While we all sometimes need quick meals, perhaps encouraging eating full meals on the go is not great for our bodies. We shouldn't be running around while eating. Taking the time to stop and prepare your body for food is important.  

Food as Culture

There's also the greater role of food in our lives.

Preparing meals as a family. Connecting with the Earth and where our food comes from. Cultural recipes and traditions around food. All of these are deeply important to our identity and daily lives. The whole notion of removing these key elements can have detrimental effects on our overall wellbeing. 

Granted, many people do have strained schedules, and for them Soylent may offer up a reasonable option. After all, if you were going to choose a fast food drive-through, Soylent is probably a better choice. A better choice, yes. Still not a particularly great choice. If you are honestly looking for a way to eat healthy when money and time is short, there are real options.  These options require looking at ways to hack our schedule. Not our diet. I promise you there are brilliant ways to incorporate meal planning that result in lots of good food being made without a lot of time or money. But yes, I can see Soylent being a decent option in a pinch.

Intention is Everything

Which brings me to this point.

I believe that when it comes to these meal-substitutes, how we use them in our lives is everything. 

According to a Time article, Ambronite's creators hope that their product replaces things like protein bars, which are full of sugar and crappy ingredients, not regular meals. This is precisely the intention that I can get behind. 

The stance of Soylent's creator Rob Rhinehart, who believes that eating is inefficient and is seeking to replace the traditional act of consuming food with lab concoctions, is not.

Sometimes we really do need something to grab and go and attempting to formulate a better one is great. Rhinehart's approach is that his little bottle is in fact sufficient to replace, and is superior to, all of the things that I have mentioned before. The complexities of our food, the manner in which we eat, the culture and community formed around eating: All of these he thinks are better replaced by a single bottle. That is the arrogance that I believe many other writers are responding to so strongly.

Marketing and intention do matter. 

I would like to borrow the concept of "Upgrading" from my previous article, Superfood Confusion.

We should view these products as processed food upgrades.

If you were going to consume a processed food full of sugar and crappy ingredients, you would be better off consuming Soylent with its lower sugar and modest amount of nutritional content. It is not, however, a health food. Its ingredient list proves this point. Maltodextrin is an artificial sugar. Soy protein isolate is very controversial with its health risks being currently debated and researched. There's a lot of concern over contamination and additives during the chemical process that isolates the soy protein, as well as the high estrogen content in soy. As I mentioned before, all of it's vitamins are synthetic versions that are generally not the most bioavailable and have the potential to be dangerous.

If you want to upgrade Soylent: choose Ambronite.

Or any other food based "complete meal." They will have a lot more nutrition and a lot less crappy chemicals. While these meals will still be processed, they are at least starting with real food. For comparison, here are Ambronite's ingredients: organic oats, organic coconut, organic lucuma, organic chlorella, wild bilberry, wild sea-buckthorn, organic brown rice protein, organic stinging nettle, organic rice bran, nutritional yeast, organic spinach, organic spirulina, organic almond, organic flaxseed, organic apple, mineral salt, organic brazil nut, organic blackcurrant.

Still, Ambronite is a packaged powder and should not be a substitute for all food. It does not address the one-size-fits-all issue, how we eat, or food as culture. It does, however, offer up a rather good alternative to quick, processed options for when we would need something to fit that bill.

It is worth mentioning, though, that Ambronite is significantly more expensive than Soylent. Ambronite costs about $6 more per meal (albeit, Ambronite's meals are 500 kcal while Soylent's are 400 kcal.) And so while I would offer up Ambronite as the clearly better option for those who can afford it, the sheer price-point of Soylent has its merit.

Which now brings me to:

Global Impact

It should be mentioned that the idea of developing a "complete meal" powder has been floated as a way to improve global health by getting better nutrition to the malnourished all over the world. This is commendable. A non-perishable, cheap food source with some degree of nutritional value would be lifesaving for many people in the world. Soylent (or others) has the possibility of being a really wonderful thing for the world's malnourished. While it should not be thought of as a health food for those of us with access to quality whole foods, it could certainly help address world hunger. Personally, I think that should be its main pitch. 


photo: source

1.  Logan VF, Gray AR, Peddie MC, et al: Long-term vitamin D3 supplementation is more effective than vitamin D2 in maintaining serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D status over the winter months. Br J Nutr 2013, 109:1082-1088.

2.Klein EA, Thompson Jr. IM, Tangen CM, Crowley JJ, Lucia MS, Goodman PJ, et al. Vitamin E and the risk of prostate cancer: the Selenium and Vitamin E Cancer Prevention Trial (SELECT). JAMA 2011;306:1549-1556.

3.Bjelakovic G, Nikolova D, Gluud LL, et al: Antioxidant supplements for prevention of mortality in healthy participants and patients with various diseases. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2008:CD007176.  

1 Comment /Source

Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

The State of Agricultural Research


I'm a big proponent of supporting local farms and knowing your farmer.  Therefore, I was a bit ashamed that I didn't know what really went on at the University of Maryland Farm that is right down the street from the house I grew up in. Luckily, they hold an annual open house that I managed to attend last year.  I took a tractor ride tour of the land.

Tractor Collage.jpg

And felt inside of a cow's stomach. I had seen the whole "cow with a hole in the side of it" thing before on documentaries, but actually putting my hand inside was brand new. I'm still not sure that I think cutting a hole in the side of a cow is particularly ok, but the cow I met was very sweet and didn't seem in any pain. They swear that she was not drugged and that she is, in fact, not suffering.

Farm Collage3.jpg

Some interesting facts that I learned that I really wanted to share with you all deal with the state of agricultural research in this country.  The sad truth is that it is extremely rare to get independent research conducted today.  Students at the University of Maryland, and other agricultural universities, don't receive enough government or university funding for research. Which means that they must go out and get grants elsewhere.  And where do you think they get this money from?  Industry.  

Now think about that.  If the research being conducted is being paid for by the very companies who have a stake in a particular outcome, how unbiased and trustworthy are the results?  

Independent testing is important.  The government is often overly entangled in things in this country, but research is an area where it actually should be, and it is  becoming less and less involved.  Fair and unbiased research is in the good of the country.  

In case you were wondering, yes, the UMD farm plants all GMO corn.  Even BT corn.  Anyone surprised?


Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.

Genetically Modified

What the heck is a genetically modified food?

Well for starters, we probably should use a different term: transgenic.  Technically speaking, any deliberate form of cross breeding is a form of genetic modification.  This is not, however, what people are usually referring to when they speak of genetically modified organisms (GMOs).  Therefore, I will use the less ambiguous term, transgenic, to refer to the specific splicing of the DNA of one organism and the subsequent insertion of a gene(s) from a different organism.  Although, note that when you see the terms GM or GMO elsewhere it is most likely referring to transgenic organisms.


The process of creating a transgenic organism (whether plant or animal) is not a natural process.  There are many steps involved that require the invasion of a cell usually through a bacteria or virus that has been altered with the desired gene.  The plant or animal that is being modified will have the altered bacteria or virus forced into the nucleus of its cells.  

Here is a great video that explains the process.

The main question is why have biotech companies created transgenic crops?

The original idea is based around improving crop yields.  Whether or not yields have even been improved is up for debate, but what is for sure is that the biotech companies have created a profit generating machine by patenting seeds (live organisms which can replicate and cross-contaminate).  The most prolific transgenic seeds are those that have been engineered to be resistant to a specific herbicide: Monsanto's Roundup Ready Herbicide.  This means that farmers can spray massive amounts of Roundup Ready Herbicide without fear that it will destroy the crop.  Of course, Monsanto is the company that has both patented the seeds and the herbicide.  How convenient?  The company is making money selling farmers seeds and the herbicide.  So, now we've got transgenic food that is being sprayed with a massive amount of herbicide.

There is also Monsanto's Bt corn which is engineered to have an insecticide built into its DNA, which can liquify the stomach linings of insects trying to eat the crop.  What does it do to humans?  We don't know.  

There are a number of others, but Monsanto owns 90% of all transgenic crops and those are the two big ones.  Do not be fooled by Monsanto's claims that it is trying to feed the world.  It is the chemical company that brought us Agent Orange and it is mainly concerned with profits.  Otherwise, Monsanto would perform the necessary tests to determine that it is actually safe to feed the world transgenic foods.

For those of you who may not know much about transgenic foods, the following may come as a shock:

***In the U.S.A., transgenic foods are in as much as 80% of all conventional processed foods***

The following are considered high risk transgenic crops:

  • Alfalfa (first planting 2011)
  • Canola (approx. 90% of U.S. crop)
  • Corn (approx. 88% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Cotton (approx. 90% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Papaya (most of Hawaiian crop; approximately 988 acres)
  • Soy (approx. 94% of U.S. crop in 2011)
  • Sugar Beets (approx. 95% of U.S. crop in 2010)
  • Zucchini and Yellow Summer Squash (approx. 25,000 acres)
  • Also, Animal Products due to contamination of feed and rBGH (Bovine Growth Hormone which is a transgenic hormone inserted into conventional cows)

[statistics from the Non GMO Project: http://www.nongmoproject.org/learn-more/]

Essentially, this means processed foods.  Canola, corn, soy and sugar (sugar beets) make up the majority of ingredients in conventional processed foods.  Also, any actual corn, soy or canola oil that is non-organic and not certified as Non-GMO is almost certainly transgenic.  Alfalfa is poised to become a big factor because it is both easily spread and fed to livestock.

Transgenic crops have been around for well over a decade, which means that almost all of us have, at one time or another, consumed transgenic foods without our knowledge or consent.  This is unique to the U.S.A.  In the European Union, transgenic crops are banned.  Even Russia and China require labeling of transgenic food.

Despite their proliferation in American diets, very little testing has been done on the safety of transgenic crop consumption.  The big biotech companies have a lot of money and have managed to lobby the government to reduce regulations and treat transgenic crops as normal.  Which means that they've entered our supermarkets and our stomachs without extensive testing, causing the public at large to be the biotech industry's own personal guinea pigs.  I, for one, do not appreciate that these companies have placed profits over public health.

via golivegreenlife.com

via golivegreenlife.com

Clearly, eating a single serving of transgenic food does not produce immediate, acute effects that are easily identifiable, but what about consumption over time?  The answer is: we don't know.  Biotech companies have attempted to prevent testing of transgenic crop consumption, but slowly tests are coming out and the results are not looking good.  Connections are coming out between transgenic foods and infertility, immune problems and altered organ function, among others.  See the links below:

What does this mean for us, today?

Personally, I want to see labeling on transgenic foods.  This is extremely relevant today.  In an exciting new turn of events, Senator Barbara Boxer (D- CA) and Congressman Peter DeFazio (D-OH) have sponsored new federal legislation that would require labeling of all transgenic foods in the U.S.  This is a right to know issue.  

If you do not want to consume transgenic foods your best bet is to: 

  • Avoid processed foods
  • Buy certified Organic and/or certified Non GMO foods
  • Try heirloom varieties of foods

If this resonates with you, please get involved.  Monsanto, Dupont and others spent just under $25 million in order to block Proposition 37, which would have required labeling of transgenic foods in California in 2012 (1).  We need people who will protect the interests of the public, not the interests of company profits. Get the word out.  Encourage people to call their representatives and tell them that they want transgenic food to be labeled.  We have the right to know what is in our food.

Some resources for getting involved and/or learning more:

(1) http://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/08/22/monsanto-dupont-spending-millions-to-oppose-californias-gmo-labeling-law/



Katie Dawn Habib

Katie Dawn Habib is a Holistic Nutrition Coach with a M.S. in Nutrition and Integrative Health. By combining her nutrition knowledge with a love of writing, Katie created her own website, The Hungry Gypsy, where she talks about food, nutrition, wellness and travel. On her site you can also find information about her nutrition coaching practice and join in on the conversations. Katie would like to contribute in some small way to global healing and help her clients and readers feel inspired.