Can Humans Survive on Food Made in a Beaker?

For most of us, food represents not only a necessity but one of life’s simple pleasures. It provides us with energy and the essential nutrients we need to maintain health and fight disease. But what if you could make food in beaker from the basic chemicals that sustain life and never have to worry again about how to obtain and prepare food on a daily basis? For some busy folks, or for those who don’t like to cook, this probably sounds appealing. If you did this though, how would you ensure that all the necessary ingredients were included? This would surely not be possible unless one had extensive knowledge in human nutrition, right?

Not so fast. This is exactly what has done by entrepreneur, Rob Rinehart, developer of a food substitute called Soylent (Soylent Web Site). But amazingly, Mr. Rinehart has a background in electrical engineering and computer science. How, you might ask, could someone with this background make such a product that would actually sustain human health? That’s an excellent question. So, let’s explore this product and consider its’ possible benefits and drawbacks.

Mr. Rinehart developed Soylent with venture capital investment he raised and tested the product himself and on a select group of others. He learned about human nutrition by reading various sources and came up with a list of all chemical ingredients contained in foods that sustain life. He then ordered these chemicals from various suppliers, mixed them together in his kitchen and started consuming the product 3 times daily. Through trial and error, he apparently modified the product to supposedly contain all the necessary ingredients to support human life and health.

When one reviews the Soylent ingredient list, it seems that most, if not all, essential nutrients are present. If one, however, has knowledge of the discovery of the essential nutrients for humans, there is cause for concern. 75 years ago, the list of essential dietary nutrients for humans looked substantially different from today. What will it look like in the future? No one knows at this point, but amongst nutrition scientists there is constant chatter about other potential essential nutrients. It’s conceivable that long term consumption of a product like Soylent will ultimately lead us to discover additional essential nutrients for humans. After all, many essential nutrients were discovered unintentionally, for example, when individuals were given total parenteral nutrition (intravenous nutrition) formulas that lacked certain critical dietary components.

For many of us, giving up the delicious and nutritious foods that we enjoy cooking and eating every day is not an attractive thought. Meal time for many families is a time to relax, and get caught up on everyone’s busy lives. If you just had to slug down a glass of tan-colored goop, this would all be lost. For others however, these are probably not important considerations. If that’s you, are you willing to be a human guinea pig and have 3 squares of Soylent a day? How long might you be willing to go? Adverse effects could take months or years to develop and could be irreversible. Those with in-depth knowledge of human nutrition would advise caution, and recommend that you stay “on foods”.

(Written with the creative assistance of Brittany Evans, a University of Florida undergraduate student)

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