Chicago developer Zach Schneider used to drop a 5-hour Energy into an Arnold Palmer when he needed to be productive.
Now, he reaches into the fridge at work and cracks open a bottle of Soylent, a 400-calorie meal replacement beverage that has drawn broad interest for its CEO’s food-forgoing ways and science fiction-inspired name – and a recent product recall.
The thick, off-white drink has gained a cult following with drinkers who want to worry more about work and less about where they’ll pick up lunch.
“You have those days, especially Mondays, where you’re just trying to catch up after a long weekend,” Schneider said. “I’ll realize it’s 1 (p.m.) and … I haven’t had lunch yet and I have a meeting in 15 minutes.”
Schneider drinks a bottle once or twice a week. But though it can keep his hunger at bay for a few hours, he says it’s far from a gourmet experience.
“Have you ever had something that tastes like nothing? Like your great-grandma’s potato salad?” he asks. “Just bland. There’s no flavor. But it’s not supposed to.”
Los Angeles-based Soylent’s founder and CEO, Rob Rhinehart, created the product to replace the frozen corn dogs and ramen he survived on while bootstrapping a technology company. Rhinehart has said he drinks the product for most of his meals. Its nutrition label reads: “While not intended to replace every meal, Soylent can replace any meal.”
The company, which makes a variety of meal-replacement products, recently recalled a meal replacement bar that made some customers sick, and stopped selling a powder mix. Soylent is blaming the problem on algal flour.
Today, Soylent, and other meal-replacement drinks like it, have become synonymous with efficiency and the round-the-clock hustle of entrepreneurship. Some Chicagoans are jumping aboard.
“Entrepreneurs, especially in the tech space, they’re supposed to be out disrupting stuff. (Soylent) is certainly disruptive to the entire history of human food,” said Rob Wolcott, the co-founder and executive director of the Kellogg Innovation Network and a Clinical Professor of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
He said the product likely resonates with the efficiency-obsessed.
“There’s something, especially with coders, the stereotype of people staying up until 4 in the morning drinking a ton of Mountain Dew. It’s sometimes true,” he said. “Maybe there’s something to the ego aspect of, ‘I can plow through, I can work harder than you can, and I get perfect nutrition at the same time.’”
For Emilia Schobeiri, a Chicago-based wedding photographer, a caffeinated Soylent product called Coffiest lets her forgo most breakfasts. Her husband started drinking Soylent when it was first released. Now, they have a subscription forcases of Coffiest, and they buy Soylent also. Subscribers pay $32.30 monthly for a case of 12 Soylent Drink bottles, and $37.05 for 12 bottles of Coffiest – putting the price of the 400-calorie meals around $3 each.
“We both travel a lot, and produce tends to go bad in our fridge. We kind of buy the bare minimum for groceries and end up eating out a lot – which adds up quickly and often isn’t efficient timewise,” Schobeiri said. “Coffiest is my jam. I have that for breakfast almost every single day.”
On busy days, or when she’s running around for a shoot, she said the drink lets her solve the hunger problem quickly without having to worry about finding something healthy to eat. But she doesn’t envision a food-free future for herself.
“So much of my business meetings and everything else circle around food. I would be hard-pressed to want to give that up,” Schobieri said. “But, there are a lot of times when trying to eat is inconvenient.”
Drew Smith, a product manager at Moody Radio, drinks the bottled Soylent Drink and Coffiest. During big conferences or events, he said he often doesn’t have time to forage for real food.
“I find that especially during those times when I’ve got to handle so many different things during events, I don’t necessarily have time to go somewhere and eat … Soylent will become my only food for a few days,” he said.
In April, he survived for a two-week spring break on Soylent alone.
“It messes with your digestive system and everything, so it’s an adjustment to make,” he said.
But by the end, he said he felt fine physically and only bemoaned the loneliness he felt after skipping out on meals with other people.
Smith said he wasn’t too bothered by Soylent’s recent recall. Like others, he appreciates the branding and the “open source” nature of the company’s products.
“They’re functioning like a software company, but with food. The culture that they’re in … they’re immediately going to recall and then try to figure out what’s going on,” he said.
Other meal-replacement products like SlimFast and Ensure aim to help consumers lose weight or add calories and nutrients to their diet.
“I know that there are other products like Soylent, or might even be more nutritious. I will very honestly say I just like the brand Soylent … It’s honestly just as simple as, it’s a nice-looking brand in a nice-looking bottle that draws questions. When people see Soylent, they ask about it,” he said.
Those wanting another product like Soylent can look to 100%FOOD, a powder or bottled drink from Saratoga, Calif.-based Space Nutrients Station that claims 2,000 calories worth of its material meets “the requirements of 97-98% of healthy individuals in every demographic in the United States.”
Liam Heneghan, a professor and department chair of environmental science and studies at DePaul University, said he survived on beer and 100%FOOD earlier this year.
Heneghan said he did the experiment in February with his son, Oisín, a student at DePaul.
“His big thing was, ‘This is the food of the future, why don’t we get a jump start on it?’” he said.
The professor, who said the concoction was “chunky and floaty” and “like drinking chocolate vomit,” live-tweeted about the experiment, which he said made him feel hyper-alert. His dispatch on day two: “mind brighter, more controlled; I can see that folks around me are detecting mania. By the by egesta interesting.”
“I was like a raving lunatic,” Heneghan said. “I’m already a little hyper, and it just amplified all of my fundamental tics. I felt like my brain was spinning at a thousand percent.”
But he said he was able to function well at work.
“I got a lot of writing done, felt my classes were good, students found it entertaining,” he said. “But it was exhausting at the same time. You don’t need your brain running like that.”
In the end, he said he was glad to return to food. His first stop: Tacos at Allende Restaurant in Lincoln Park.
“It was really exquisite,” he said. “Two tacos al pastor. I can still remember that meal because it was so good after that.”