The DIY Forums That Put the People in Soylent
As Soylent launches new products, its DIY fans make “the end of food” more like real food.
A Soylent fan. Image: frabrunelle/Flickr
"People Chow 3.0.1: Tortilla Perfection!" is a popular recipe, a "smooth" and "velvety" creation with a mild flavour of tortilla chip. High in calcium, chromium, iodine, phosphorus, pantothenic acid, and a host of other nutrients you never knew you needed, it's easy to prepare and made from inexpensive ingredients, with a "fart-free formula" lacking oats (apparently easier on the stomach).
With People Chow, staying healthy is easy and low-maintenance. Live off this nutritious, home-prepared slurry, and you'll never have to worry about chewing again.
People Chow is one of many variations on a "complete food"—the powdered, nutrient-dense, apparently apocalypse-proof formulas some claim to be the future of nutrition, the most famous of which is Soylent. But unlike Soylent, People Chow and its ilk are not sold for profit: They are created by enthusiasts in their homes and shared on DIY Soylent, a database of thousands of recipes for homemade complete foods, which doubles as Soylent's online community.
Before the original Soylent product was crowdfunded, fans created homages and rival products at home, sharing the results online and tailoring the recipes to suit their nutritional needs with an in-built calculator. A community has grown around the search for a "complete food," evolving into a database which currently numbers around 6,500 recipes.
As Soylent evolves, with new flavours, formulas, and formats (a Soylent bar has just debuted), it could even be argued that it is not just an inspiration for this DIY community but, in some ways, a product of it as well.
Earlier this month, Soylent debuted a new product, Coffiest, which blends algal oil, soy protein, L-theanine (an amino acid analogue), and roasted coffee. Hailed as a Soylent product "regular people might drink," it is named after a dystopian fictional product from Frederik Pohl's science fiction satire on consumerism The Space Merchants.
Search "coffee" on diy.soylent.com, and a recipe dating back to 2014 appears involving coffee, almond flour, coconut powder, vitamin mix, and (ahem) capsules of Kirkland enteric fish oil. People have been experimenting with flavouring Soylent and Soylent substitutes for years now; some DIYers believe the official product was intentionally made to taste as bland and "neutral" as possible to encourage users to add their own flavour.
"People Chow" might sound odd—like something found at a 1970s dinner party, or perhaps in a sketch by Tim and Eric—but the recipes shared on DIY Soylent get stranger still. Their names reveal a little about the enthusiasts who dream them up: their tastes and workout habits, their aspirations, and their weird in-jokes. Take your pick from "Vibrant Vittle," "Toats," "Hulkmix," or "Chocolate Dharma" (which sounds more like a strain of weed than a liquid meal-replacement). Labels divide the recipes into searchable categories: There's "Bodybuilding," "Ketogenic," "Vegan," "Kosher," and "Tasty!"
I spoke to Nick Poulden, creator of the DIY Soylent website. Poulden first learned about Soylent from Rob Rhinehart's original blog post, "How I Stopped Eating Food," which laid out the idea of Soylent before it existed, and went viral on social media sites. "Someone I know posted it to Facebook. I read it and thought it was a great idea," Poulden told me over Skype.
His imagination captured by the idea of a "complete food," Poulden joined Soylent Discourse, another discussion-based forum Rhinehart had created, and started gathering information on how to create his own version before the official Soylent formula shipped. "It seemed like the crowdfunding campaign wasn't going to get started any time soon," he said. "People had already started making spreadsheets with their own recipes on them, and sharing them on the forum. There was a lot of debate around nutrition and which national guidelines should be used, and how one nutrient might affect the uptake of another."
The recipe for this "complete food" will never be complete
Any alternative way of eating will turn out to be controversial online—look to mono meal enthusiasts on YouTube for proof. But the more detractors, the tighter the community of diet adherents will form. With Soylent this has proven to be the case.
As fans continued to upload their recipes, Poulden noticed that formatting differences were making the spreadsheets hard to read. Inspired by the growing activity on the forum, he decided to build a site which could compile Soylent-alternative recipes and help members to create their own. He approached Rhinehart asking if he'd like to incorporate it into the official website, and he agreed.
In many ways, what resulted is simply a recipe database, albeit one which makes cooking sound more like futuristic drug dealing, with a succession of carefully weighed out powders included for different mind and body-enhancing abilities.
Detractors love to portray Soylent users as joyless utilitarians. But what's interesting is how making the product "open source" leaves its recipe open to debate and endless modification. The recipe for this "complete food" will never be complete.
Soylent has encouraged this forum culture since its inception, following in the vein of other fringe diets and lifestyles, from zero-waste to the quantified self movement, and more traditional diets such as veganism.
The site also hosts a survey which has gathered around 7,000 replies since DIY Soylent first went live. The results offer an overview of potential Soylent customers and their demands. They want something nutritious, easy to prepare, with a long shelf-life, and that's tailored to their specific needs. They're not bothered about discussing Soylent with their friends and families and the embarrassment this might entail. They believe that Soylent will very soon be considered mainstream and that it will be stocked in supermarkets and vending machines within the next five years. The site's users are overwhelmingly male, aged from their late teens into their early 30s.
A DIY ethic has always applied to Soylent, complementary to the sense of experimentation it inspires. The drink is popular among body-hacking types and enthusiasts of the quantified self movement, nootropics, bodybuilding, and the keto diet, a regime wildly popular on Reddit that involves encouraging the body to burn fat, rather than carbohydrates, for fuel (the most popular recipe on DIY Soylent at present is "Keto Chow 1.5.0").
The Soylent community also overlaps with that of apocalypse preppers—the powdered formula is perfect for stocking up underground bunkers—and thrifty shoppers willing to sacrifice solids for an assured source of nutrition.
Watch: Is Soylent the future of food? Motherboard's Brian Merchant lived off the meal replacement for 30 days to find out.
A large segment of the DIY Soylent community is dedicated to making the product cheaper; the starting price for bottled Soylent is $32 for a pack of 12. On DIY Soylent, your diet can be cheaper, though it might be a concoction of cod liver oil, ground parsley, electrolyte powder, and ultra fine scottish oats (the ingredients for "Minimalist Soylent UK," which may or may not be serious—Soylent trolling, to a wider community at least, can be confusing, because the sincere recipes are so outlandish in the first place. Is "First Mush," made purely from quinoa, meant as an actual recipe? Is it intended for Soylent babies? What should we make of "Liberation Chow"?)
Another recipe is called "Cheap and Homeless": it consists of rolled oats and lentils. If meant seriously, this might count as a "real food," a subset of enthusiasts within the Soylent community agitating to make Soylent from recognisable, "normal" foods, the kind available in supermarkets, rather than in powdered form from iherb.com. Recipes include "Real Food Chocolate Oat," which looks (almost) like a milkshake, and another made from rice flour, peas and multivitamins, which sounds less appetising. For others, the definition of "real" is more flexible: Who keeps choline bitartrate in their kitchen to make "High Fat Low Carb Real Food"?
"Real food" might mean something quite different to a Complete Foodist compared to those accustomed to what some Soylent enthusiasts have called "muggle food," but these recipes may build a bridge between the two. Soylent has been called "the end of food," but what its community reveals is a less extreme, less absolute vision for its future.
"I think Soylent's just getting started," said Poulden. "They recently worked out a deal with Amazon for distribution. Until now they've been doing sales by themselves. I think you'll be able to go into a 7-Eleven and Coffiest will be on the shelves before too long. It's pretty clear that eating meat is not a sustainable way to get nutritional value from food, when you consider the amount of energy and water that goes into just raising cows for meat. Though if you look at the Soylent survey, people don't mention the environmental aspect as much…"
What's valuable about the Soylent community is their ability to democratise a daunting proposition, to admit its faults and to take it apart in order to understand it better, and rebuild it. They comment, and debate, and improve: For every dystopian juice cleanse there is a recipe for Liquid Cake.
The official Soylent has been through seven iterations so far, alongside the launches of the new products. "They've said in the past that they see Soylent as more of a movement than as a purely commercial enterprise," Poulden said. "They've always maintained that it's more of a concept than necessarily an individual product."
Soylent is less a product than an idea. It might just be made of people after all.