Soylent Bad: America's Toxic Relationship With Food

The Soylent trend represents Americans' worst food psychology.

Posted Nov 12, 2014

With the advent of the Internet, reality television, and social media, American cuisine has experienced an interesting split between two extremes: between foodies who value meals and food as a way of life, and goal-seekers who view food as a bottom-line obstacle for maximum time management via minimal sustenance. The goal-seeker movement has reached its pinnacle (or nadir depending on how you view it) with the Soylent trend.

Soylent has merged the efficiency and geek chic of Silicon Valley techiedom with gym-diet faddiness, leading to a New Yorker article and a burgeoning start-up company whose mantra is “Free your body.” You can order the original brand-name Soylent powder (although it is notably an open-source formula) via mail (although new orders are reportedly backlogged) or make your own pseudo-Soylent via widely publicized Internet recipes and nutrition stores. The powder is added to liquid and turned into a personal shake, not all that different from Ensure or baby formula really. You can tweak the recipe to your “taste,” ahem. The idea is to create the most essential form of sustenance needed to continue living, eat to live being the credo to save time, money, and work. You create freedom from this tedious organismal dependence on food product. A meal takes seconds to drink.

Yet on the opposite end of the spectrum, this has been the century of the foodie in America. Between Top Chef, the Food Network, and Anthony Bourdain, foodies have burst all over urbanite centers and beyond, looking to reconnect with the joys of slower-paced meals, home cooking, hand-craftsmanship, locavore sourcing. While certainly somewhat mockable as a hipster-driven ethos (as parodied on the TV shows Portlandia and Girls via pickling hobbyists and more), it speaks to a craving for relinking to the essential world around us, live to eat not just live to work.

And for the 20th century in America, food leaned more towards the “eat to live” raison d’etre, for various cultural and economic reasons. America may claim world supremacy in many ways, but our cuisine has not traditionally been one of them. That hasn’t stopped America from trying to dominate the world via McDonald’s and other less-than-pleasant culinary venues. When food meets capitalistic efficiency, the results in America have usually been depressing. France is known for its croissants and coq au vin, Japan for its sushi and ramen, Italy for its pasta and artisanal prosciutto. America has hamburgers and fries and hot dogs.

Part of the sad American culinary tradition has been multifactorial; a predominantly northern European immigrant base for 300 years (bringing the mouthnumbingly bland traditions of England, Ireland, and Germany) meshed with the American industrial complex that has valued productivity above all else--cheap, fast, efficient in all walks of life, and needing to tame that huge, extravagant time-waster, the enemy known as food.

Accordingly, bad cuisine went on for the latter half of the 20th century after the starvation and limited rations of the Great Depression and World War II. Modern innovation and assembly-line precision just like the original American invention, the Model T, would solve America’s food problems. Rectangular, metallic diners resembling spaceships dominated the landscape, serving the same simple staples fast and freshly reheated, drive-throughs-a-plenty. Fast food chains took over suburbia. TV frozen dinners in metal oven trays were the latest innovation, followed then by microwaveable food. Products were churned out in mass quantities by industrialized food companies, processing everything into easy sugary and fatty consumables for the classic American family unit. We were too good at feeding ourselves, and we got bigger as a result.

Then somehow nutrition science caught up with reality in the 21st century, and the idea of original, unprocessed “whole foods” came into vogue. Food as is, sans bleaching, sans chemicals, sans hydrogenation, sans enrichment. And the pleasant discovery was that food au naturel actually tasted better too. The older way was the better way, as had remained traditionally venerated throughout Europe’s Mediterranean countries and parts of Asia and Africa. Mealtimes there are long, valued rituals where families and friends spend hours socializing and bringing out dishes. Food becomes a form of human bonding, even love. Farmers’ markets and DIY (do-it-yourself) gastronomy (such as craft beers and whiskeys, artisanal food products, New American cuisine) now have become trendy, and slow food is a way to take pause and smell the coffee. Returning to the land, to our roots, has become both a dietary and spiritual reassessment. Is the ultimate goal, the bottom line all that matters? Is the endless drive for money and productivity and workaholism the be-all and end-all to American life?

So here we have vastly different competing movements, both mainly part of middle and upper class elites who have the luxury to ponder such choices. There remains, of course, a larger problem with the obesity epidemic in America, which is tied also to education and socioeconomic status. For most, it is still unfortunately quicker and cheaper to drink a soda and buy a burger than to roast organic Brussel sprouts with Applewood bacon at home.

In this vein, Michelle Obama, Jamie Oliver, and other dignitaries have focused on eating our fat-free cake and having it too through systemic culinary reforms. School systems and cafeterias are slowly shifting to cost-effective compromises that value healthier dishes. Fast-casual is the largest-growing sector in the restaurant industry, and many are following the model of Chipotle, where assembly-line efficiency can combine with better quality ingredients and gourmet ethnic recipes. Food trucks have become a hot trend where portable gourmet cuisine goes anywhere. Even high-end chefs are getting into the fast-casual game and are also targeting the mission of improving less affluent neighborhoods’ eating habits in the process.

The Soylent trend seems like a menacing counterthreat to those who have rediscovered the joys of food-centered living as the rest of the world has known for eons. Soylent reminds me of the grotesque scene in The Matrix where you see reality as is, where all the humanoids are shown being bred like mass-produced fetuses and fed nameless paste through plastic tubes made of liquefied human remains (not unlike Soylent Green, the new product’s sci-fi namesake, which was famously made of people.) It reminds me of the sad feeding tubes you see in hospitals, where people have lost the ability to swallow or use their gastrointestinal tracts, with the machines quietly cranking in bags of cream-colored goo into their stomach tube. Why voluntarily give up the gift of flavor, the gift of food, the sensory appreciation of life, for a couple extra hours to finish spreadsheets?

Copyright 2014-Jean Kim MD

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, own work by Oliver Stapel. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.