Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals? ... Rhinehart, who is twenty-five, studied electrical engineering at Georgia Tech, and he began to consider food as an engineering problem. “You need amino acids and lipids, not milk itself,” he said. “You need carbohydrates, not bread.” Fruits and vegetables provide essential vitamins and minerals, but they’re “mostly water.” He began to think that food was an inefficient way of getting what he needed to survive. “It just seemed like a system that’s too complex and too expensive and too fragile,” he told me. ... What if he went straight to the raw chemical components? He took a break from experimenting with software and studied textbooks on nutritional biochemistry and the Web sites of the F.D.A., the U.S.D.A., and the Institute of Medicine. Eventually, Rhinehart compiled a list of thirty-five nutrients required for survival. Then, instead of heading to the grocery store, he ordered them off the Internet—mostly in powder or pill form—and poured everything into a blender, with some water. The result, a slurry of chemicals, looked like gooey lemonade. Then, he told me, “I started living on it.” ... One of Silicon Valley’s cultural exports in the past ten years has been the concept of “lifehacking”: devising tricks to streamline the obligations of daily life, thereby freeing yourself up for whatever you’d rather be doing. Rhinehart’s “future food” seemed a clever work-around. Lifehackers everywhere began to test it out, and then to make their own versions. Soon commenters on Reddit were sparring about the appropriate dose of calcium-magnesium powder. After three months, Rhinehart said, he realized that his mixture had the makings of a company: “It provided more value to my life than any app.” He and his roommates put aside their software ideas, and got into the synthetic-food business.
As a tech-obsessed child growing up in the nineties, Rob Rhinehart was always puzzled by food. Here he was, eagerly embracing the wonders of the information era, and he had to gnaw on seared chunks of meat and raw vegetables. “I remember when I was very young, eating lettuce and thinking it was very weird to be eating leaves, sitting in this nice house with all of these electronics around us,” he says now. … These days, Rhinehart doesn’t eat much lettuce or anything else recognizable as food. Instead, the 25-year-old gets most of his nutrition from a water bottle filled with a thick, light-brown slurry he invented. A cocktail of highly processed foodstuffs mixed with water—oat flour, tapioca maltodextrin, rice-protein powder, canola oil, and scores of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrient additives—it contains everything the human body needs, or so he claims. … After Rhinehart posted his recipe online in February, Soylent quickly became the first drinkable meme. … “For me cooking is like an art form,” says Zach Alexander, a 30-year-old software developer in San Francisco and DIY soylenter. “And it’s really frustrating how biology compels you to eat food three times a day even though you don’t want to.”