Soylent Blames Algae Product For Customers’ Violent Illnesses

The food startup is blaming “whole algal flour” for its recent outbreak of maladies.

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Nov 7 2016, 7:23pm

Image: Soylent

In a not-so-delicious turn of events today, Soylent confessed to what it says was making customers violently and mysteriously sick: algae.

The details are still suspiciously hazy, but a particular ingredient derived from algae, which is commonly used to replace dairy fats and egg yolk, was blamed for the outbreak of maladies by Soylent's co-founder and CEO, Rob Rhinehart.

According to Bloomberg, who broke the news, Rhinehart said: "We are releasing new formulations of our powder mix and meal replacement bars early next year. Our new formulations will no longer contain algal flour."

Complaints that Soylent's food bar caused vomiting, diarrhea, and a "slightly raw tongue" first appeared in early October. Numerous customer accounts of intense and sudden sickness were first attributed to the Soylent Bar, followed soon after by similar reports related to the Powder 1.6 product.

"The vomiting lasted several hours. I think it was probably the worst vomiting episode I ever experienced," one Reddit user wrote.

Read more: Soylent Stops Selling Powder While It Investigates Customer Sickness Complaints

Near the end of October, Soylent put the brakes on all sales of Powder 1.6, and discouraged people from eating the food bar altogether. Still, the company insisted that these events were few and far between, and were limited to select products, making identifying the culprit an easier task.

Soylent's Food Bar lists "whole algal flour" as its sixth ingredient. In the Powder 1.6, "high oleic algal oil" is its sixth ingredient, and "whole algal flour" is its eighth. All of Soylent's algae-based ingredients come from TerraVia Holdings Inc, a company that specializes in algae food products, such as cooking and cosmetic oils, as well as protein and lipid powders.

But here's where it gets murky: In Bloomberg's report, TerraVia's senior vice president, Mark Brooks, wrote in an email: "Our algal flour has been used in more than 20 million servings of products, and we are aware of very few adverse reactions. In no cases was algal flour identified as the cause." Based on Brooks' response, it doesn't appear that TerraVia is taking responsibility for the illnesses caused by Soylent products.

So, is TerraVia misrepresenting the health risks of algae derivatives, or is Soylent throwing another company under the bus for its imperfect products? Are both companies giving the public the runaround? Or is a heavily-funded, Silicon Valley darling cutting corners due to its unique position that straddles the fields of technology and food?

Read more: Soylent Is 'Getting to the Bottom' of Its Diarrhea Problem

Soylent insists that algal flour, in particular, is causing people to become ill. According to Soylent, identical reactions occurred after customers ate a similarly-formulated food bar called "Honey Stinger." TerraVia stated the algal flour used by Soylent had been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration.

It'll be interesting to see what Soylent chooses to replace algal flour with. The product has become popular as a gluten and dairy-free alternative, especially for people with soy allergies. It's unclear if any ingredient exists with the same benefits, and its removal notably detracts from Soylent's ambitious goal to replace food with algae.

In the meantime, Soylent customers who were previously too busy for food will have to find another way to sustain themselves until new versions of the powder and bar are released.

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