Mark Palko quotes Justin Fox:
On Monday, software engineer Rob Rhinehart published an account of his new life without alternating electrical current — which he has undertaken because generating that current “produces 32 percent of all greenhouse gases, more than any other economic sector.” Connection to the power grid isn’t all Rhinehart has given up. He also doesn’t drive, wash his clothes (or hire anyone else to wash them) or cook anything but coffee and tea. But he still lives in a big city (Los Angeles) and is chief executive officer of a corporation with $21.5 million in venture capital funding.
That corporation is Rosa Labs, the maker of Soylent, a “macronutritious food beverage” designed to free its buyers from the drudgery of shopping, cooking and chewing. In the 2,900-word post on his personal blog, Rhinehart worked in an extended testimonial for Soylent 2.0, a new, improved version of the drink — algae and soy seem to be the two most important ingredients — that will begin shipping in October.
Fox’s piece is headlined, “Soylent Is Weird, But It’s Good Weird.”
But is it really “good weird”? Or, if so, what kind of “good” is it?
According to Palko, Soylent is not so nutritious.
Here’s the comparison of 115 grams of Solyent:
to comparable servings of black beans:
and nonfat Greek yoghurt:
And I think it’s safe to say it’s not so delicious.
Nor is it so amazingly convenient. Palko writes:
Nor do you have to cook to do better than Soylent. I did a quick check at the grocery store last night and I found lots of frozen entrees that gave you more nutrition for less calories than Rosa Lab’s product.
Basically, when you cut through all of the pseudo science and buzzwords and LOOKATME antics, Rhinehart is simply peddling a mediocre protein shake with the same tired miracle food claims that marketers have been using since John Harvey Kellogg gave C.W. Post his first enema.
The paradox . . . or is it?
At first this seems like a paradox . . . Silicon Valley genius, $21 million in venture capital funding . . . how could it be just a scam?
But then you realize that nutrition has nothing to do with it (other than as a marketing concept).
Recall that the goal of the people who invested 21 million dollars in this product, is not to give people healthy and satisfying meals, it’s to have the image of something healthy and satisfying.
Is Soylent a scam? Yes and no. It’s a scam to the people who are being sold the product, but maybe not to the investors.
Perhaps the whole Silicon Valley thing is a distraction, and the right analogy is to something like the movie Battleship, which was universally agreed to be crap but still sold jillions of dollars worth of tickets.
So, when business writer Justin Fox writes that Soylent is “good” and that it is “an interesting product,” this would be like a movie reviewer saying that Battleship is a good movie. It was good to its investors, I assume!
And for a business writer to credulously take Rinehart’s word on the health benefits of “macronutrient balance” and “glycemic index” of the products he’s selling, without just going to the supermarket and comparing to the label on a can of black beans and a tub of yoghurt.
But is Solyent a good model for a business? I guess that depends on whether potential consumers view it as a sugary, fatty, bad-tasting alternative to beans and yoghurt; or as a healthy processed-food alternative to a breakfast of cornflakes and Coca-cola.
And that in turn must depend on part on press coverage. As Palko has written elsewhere on his blog, A Statistician Walks into a Grocery Store, journalists typically don’t seem to have a good framework for writing about food and nutrition, especially when it comes to low budgets.
So, in that sense, the credulous news reports on Soylent (and it’s not just Justin Fox; see, for example, this gee-whiz article by Lizzie Widdicombe in the New Yorker, subtitled, “Has a tech entrepreneur come up with a product to replace our meals?”) are just part of the larger picture.
Food and nutrition reporting have little context. Imagine if entertainment reporting were the same way:
Battleship: The Hamlet for the 21st Century