We are a culture obsessed with food. As The Bookish Banquet has taught us, we crave the real-life experience of breaking bread with our fellow humans. And those experiences are getting increasingly multi-sensory, what with the rise of sonically-enhanced snacks and scented dining.
So what, exactly, are we to make of Soylent, the powdered food substitute developed by tech entrepreneur Rob Rhinehart? The idea of downing a liquidised lunch while bashing out emails doesn’t really inspire feelings of warmth and homeliness. The name doesn’t help either: a reference to cannibalistic sci-fi novel Soylent Green.
But someone out there is keen. Soylent’s crowd-funding campaign was remarkably successful; they began with a fundraising goal of $100,000, which they achieved in just two hours. The press is hailing it as ‘The End Of Food.’ It probably isn’t. But it is interesting.
Fuel for the machine
A meal in a glass is a nice lifehack: a shortcut from hungry to full which gets rid of all the time-consuming practicalities like chopping up veg and washing up cutlery.
But we’re also extremely wary of the synthetic, regardless of how much time it saves. Test-tube meat is on its way, but according to a recent Pew survey, 80% of Americans say they wouldn’t eat it. In fact, there’s a perceptible desire to seek out non-altered, ‘Caveman Diet’-style-food instead. So how can we reconcile these seemingly opposing shifts?
‘The opposite trend always exists’, food futurologist Morgaine Gaye told us. Soylent is a response to technological advancement: ‘what we’re looking at here is the big rise of science, and how we can make almost anything from chemical compositions – which is possibly true.”
While Rhinehart claims that his mixture has ‘all the nutrients required to fuel the body’, many are skeptical. Walter Willett, the chair of the nutrition department at the Harvard School of Public Health, told The New Yorker: “We’re concerned about much more than just surviving.’ Morgaine also doubts about the product’s efficacy. “As far as I can understand from everything I’ve looked at, what they’re producing isn’t healthy’, she says.
You are what you eat
And health is something that we seem to be prioritising when it comes to our food choices. Whether or not we’re actually getting any healthier is a complex issue: developments in medical technologies are increasing our life expectancy and making us safer, but as obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease continue to rise, living longer doesn’t necessarily make us healthier. But we’re at least becoming more conscious about what we’re eating.
Events such as the 2013 Horsemeat scandal have taught us to be wary; consumers lost confidence in supermarket products, and frozen burger sales dropped by 41%. Morgaine relates this to a wider culture of mistrust, citing the Jimmy Savile case and the successive sexual abuse trials that have recently come to light as instilling a desire for greater transparency.
“We’ve started to realize that we can’t entirely trust somebody else with our wellness’, she says. ‘22-year-olds are probably the first generation to really read the ingredients on packaging. I don’t think we ever did that.” London farmer’s markets are becoming more popular, and Morgaine expects to see fewer additives in food, along with less – as well as edible – packaging in the future.
The rise of synthetic food also responds to the growing panic over sustainability. You might have read about 3D-printed food, which has been heralded as a panacea for world hunger. However, making food isn’t the only solution.
“It’s really about distribution’, Morgaine says. ‘In the last 30 years we’ve never had so much abundance, we’ve never wasted so much food.” Morgaine predicts a greater sense of community: we’re going to see more things like Urban Orchard, a collective of over 200 households across Melbourne that swap and share excess produce from their backyard gardens.
It sounds rather utopian, doesn’t it? Communities distributing leftover apples to their fellow neighbours, obviating the need for artificial foods. But the changing nature of our gastronomical landscape isn’t simply spurred on by ethical incentives. We in the UK are, apparently, the most trend-driven bunch in the world: and it’s because we’re obsessed with showing off.
We’ve got a long history of using food as a social indicator: see, for example, the painting of King Charles II receiving the first pineapple grown in England (the exotic fruit was all the rage in the 1600s). “We’re very discerning about what the brand says to us’, Morgaine tells me. “European brands aren’t as switched on to the nuances of the UK, and it can be very hard for them to sell their products.”
It must be our exceptionally open-minded and tolerant outlook that makes us so progressive when it comes to food, right? Well, not quite. ‘We just want to be cool’, Morgaine says. “Will we eat pig brains? Sure, if it’s in. We’re quite rebellious, and while other countries fly their flag, we’re the only country that thinks that if we do the same, we’ll look like the National Front. It’s just how we are – and it’s unique.”
So in debating Soylent’s future, we might need to take into account not only how good for us it might be – but also whether or not it’s trendy enough to survive the fickle tastes of the UK.