David Sax writes for the New Yorker about Soylent, that adult baby formula favored by tech workers, and the company’s new line of meal replacement bars and their subsequent recall. Sax writes that Soylent is an interesting product because it pushes against the way our consumer eating habits have evolved, namely away from factory farming and the industrialization of food. While Sax makes a good point, I don’t think that these two poles are mutually exclusive: while one the one hand we’re working more hours and the boundaries between work and play are increasingly more nebulously defined, we can either treat food as a.) something that we need to put in our bodies, ideally as efficiently as possible so as to not have to leave the office–this is where Soylent comes in handy, or b.) food and eating are an escape from work, a reward at the end of the day that we can use to divide our work from our leisure time. Read Sax in partial below, in full via the New Yorker.
The problem with all this food-2.0 stuff isn’t that it sometimes tastes horrible but that it misses the mark on how our eating is evolving. The tech world approaches food from the perspective of engineering: a defined problem to be solved, with the right equations, formulas, compounds, and brainpower. Soylent was developed by its creator, Rob Rhinehart, to compress all the nutrition the human body needs to live into one single, easily digestible formula, like the twenty-first-century version of manna. But that is fundamentally the opposite of the way we increasingly want to eat in America and in much of the developed world.
When you look at the recent arc of food culture, the most significant food movement is the purposeful pushback against the postwar industrial food system, a system that was the food futurism of its day. This industry brought us preservatives, Wonder Bread, Tang, and microwavable frozen TV dinners. It lowered the price of food tremendously and increased convenience in innumerable ways, but it also made us fatter and sicker, and robbed our meals of their original flavors,replacing them with addictive but unhealthy substances. As Michael Moss has written, food scientists, particularly in the realm of snack foods, figured out how to combine salt, sugar, and fat in a way to provide “maximum bliss.” In his recent book “The Dorito Effect,” the journalist Mark Schatzker details the persistent effect that progress in food processing has had on our taste buds, as we amp up artificial flavors in an attempt regain the natural flavor we have stripped from our food with technology. He argues that returning food to the most basic, unaltered form is the best solution not just for taste but health.
Starting in the nineteen-seventies, the American food movement that began in the San Francisco Bay area and its international equivalents, such as Italy’s slow-food movement, saw the harm that this technologically centered food system did to taste, culture, health, and the environment. Instead, they proposed alternatives that were seen as archaic at the time, but which we increasingly accept as commonplace: organic produce and livestock, locally sourced products, and traditionally made food from whole ingredients.
*Image of Soylent via Wikipedia