We finally know why Soylent Food Bars were making people sick.
The food startup believes an algae-based ingredient unique to two new products was to blame for the nausea and diarrhea outbreak among its customers, according to a new Bloomberg report. Gizmodo also previously reported that an algae-based ingredient could be the culprit because the new products contain more than older products. Now, our best guess has been confirmed by Soylent.
In addition to identifying the offending ingredient, the company announced plans to release brand new meal replacement bars early next year. Soylent co-founder and CEO Rob Rhinehart told Bloomberg, “Our new formulations will no longer contain algal flour.”
The screwup began all the way back in August, when Soylent’s released a product called Food Bars it claimed offered “the same complete nutrition” as its previous products but in a “lighter, more portable form.” There were only two major hangups with the company’s claim. One, scientists agreed that Soylent didn’t offer complete nutrition, and two, Food Bars were making people vomit and giving them uncontrollable diarrhea. The company halted sales of its Food Bars with a specific ingredient it believed was making customers sick.
Ahead of the algae announcement, Soylent had already confirmed that its products were making people sick. In a blog post two months after the Food Bars launched, the company said it “noticed that a handful of consumers (less than 0.1 percent) who consumed Powder 1.6 over the past several months reported stomach-related symptoms that are consistent with what our Bar customers described.” Now, the company is blaming the entire ordeal on an algal ingredients used in the bars.
The algae-based ingredients were provided by a company called TerrVia, which also supplies ingredients to companies like Unilever for lotions and soaps. TerraVia told Bloomberg that the algal flour is safe—denying allegations made by Solyent—and also said Soylent products contain other irritants like soy protein isolate and glycerin that can cause similar symptoms.
“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,” TerraVia senior vice president Mark Brooks told Bloomberg.
The algal powder sold by TerrVia is commonly used as a vegan replacement for butter and eggs and has been featured in protein bars before such as Honey Stinger bars, which also caused nausea and vomiting for some customers. The algal powder is derived from algae that is grown in a tank, then dried so it turns into a powdery substance that can be used as an alternative to soy in food products. It’s an easy way for companies to use plant-based protein rather than something more costly like meat.
If you’ve experienced sickness after eating or drinking a Soylent product, you can still report it to the FDA here. But even if you haven’t experienced any issues, you still have to ask yourself whether you trust the food. In a pinch, Soylent might be good enough to tide you over, but we’d be skeptical of any claims about providing “complete nutrition” in the future.
We reached out to Soylent for comment and will update this post if or when we hear back from the company.