Eating Optional – The Future of Food

New options are becoming available that will allow you to replace traditional food. What could the impacts of alternative food be on our lives and our economy?

By: Simon Anderson

Have you ever felt tired of eating? Not just that last bit of lasagna you’re trying to finish, but eating in general? Meals are expensive, time-consuming… even dangerous if you consider all of the diet-related illnesses today. Over the last few months, I’ve really become tired of eating. Unfortunately, we need to eat to survive. Changing our diets is one of the most difficult and necessary improvements for many of us in America today.

We don’t often think of how much eating regular meals costs us, because our current alternative – not eating, has dire consequences. But consider for a moment how incredibly costly having to eat is to us in so many different ways:
• Expense – Food is expensive; food that’s actually good for us is really expensive, and unfortunately out of reach for millions of Americans. This expense can be lessened by cooking at home – the cost benefits of cooking dinner for a family of five versus everyone going out to dinner each night are clear – but for couples or people living alone, not so much simply because they lack the economies of scale needed to reduce per-person costs.
 Starvation – Billions of people have starved to death in the history of humankind. Today, thanks to advances in technology, we don’t have a food production problem anymore – globally we produce twice about as much food as we consume – we have a distribution problem. Healthy food is hard to transport without making it expensive and many areas of the world are not conducive to growing everything that’s needed to feed the local population.
• Time – Food takes a tremendous amount of time to purchase, prepare, eat, and cleanup after. Even if you go out for a meal, you still need to consider the travel time and the time waiting for service and the check. Calculating the lost productivity in just one day due to lunch breaks in the U.S. would be staggering, especially when you factor in the effects of the common “2:30 feeling” caused by the post-lunch crash that companies such as Five-Hour Energy have been cashing in on.
• Health – We make bad eating choices, often because of the expense and time needed to make good eating choices. We are what we eat – literally – and evidence is all around us that these repetitive bad choices prove for many to actually have been thousands of life or death decisions.
• Environment – Food production is a beast on the environment. The pesticides, fungicides, fertilizers, and often grossly inefficient land use are taking a brutal toll on the environment. There is only so much rain forest that can be razed to graze cattle and even without land use problems, most meat production is the awful on the environment. Beef takes 100 times more water per calorie to produce than grain. 2500 gallons of water is needed just to produce one pound of beef and the growing number of cattle necessary to feed the global appetite for beef is having a devastating effect on ecosystems around the world. Everything about raising cattle is taxing on the environment – from methane-laden cow farts to deforestation, beef consumption is a bad way to feed the planet. Killing billions of animals each year certainly has other downsides as well.

This is all old news, and I had resolved to wait for the pill-based meals from science fiction to eventually be available until I read about “Soylent.”  A guy in California had created a way to provide all of your needed nourishment in a “shake” and had been living almost exclusively on his concoction for the last three months to prove its viability.  This makes sense when you think about it. Most of what we eat, even really healthy stuff like kale, is just a vehicle for the small amount of vitamins, minerals, and other components that our bodies actually use and don’t just send “downstream.” Consider how much you eat versus how much you expel and you quickly realize that eating is not exactly efficient – we just didn’t have another option. Until now.

Last month, Soylent raised nearly $800,000 in a crowdfunding campaign and they’ll start shipping in a few months. This has certainly attracted the attention of some of the big players in food and drink and Soylent can expect some healthy competition in the coming months.

Salubrious, drinkable, and nutritionally complete meals are the best idea I’ve heard in years, and here’s why. There are tremendous benefits to an inexpensive meal that’s healthy and that you can prepare and consume in less than two minutes. Let’s take a look at what happens to the problems associated with traditional eating when you switch to a drinkable meal instead:

• Expense – since the actual amount of pure nutrients you need per meal is so small and easy to transport and store, the cost of drinkable meals will ultimately approach zero (not free, but likely just a few cents per meal) as some of the bigger players, with their massive economies of scale, get involved in this new industry and begin competing with each other.
• Starvation – Once nutritious sustenance becomes affordable and easily accessible, America’s poor will no longer be forced to buy unhealthy food and the world’s poor will stop starving to death as soon as there is a way to get these supplies to them. The global impact of halting widespread starvation is obviously incalculable, and it should be far less difficult this way than trying to distribute rice and other natural foods.
• Time – I can’t wait until I can replace meals with drinks. Just breakfast and lunch alone would free up almost two hours of my day. We would no longer be constrained by when and where we need to eat. Refueling can be completely on our time. A shake easily fits in a purse or a cup holder and can be taken just about anywhere.
• Health and well-being – If we are only eating the literal definition of a balanced diet it should dramatically improve our overall health. Becoming (or staying) obese will be difficult and weight and diet-related illnesses should decrease significantly. Our productivity will increase because we won’t crash after eating a meal packed with sugars and carbohydrates. We’ll take fewer sick days and feel much better in general since our bodies will have the exact nutrients they need for us to be at our best, all the time.
• Environment – the reduction of dependence on meat alone will have a significant impact, as will the reduced need for arable land, the decreased amount of foods being transported long distances and even a few million less toilet flushes everyday as we begin to create less personal waste.

What about the negative impacts – won’t there be downsides?
First of all, I’m not suggesting that all meals be replaced with drinkable nutrient mixes – just the meals that don’t need to be “meals.” For me, that would mean replacing breakfast and lunch most days. For now at least, I would still like to enjoy the flavors and socialization of a traditionally prepared meal, either at home, at a restaurant, or a friend’s house. Many meals, especially dinners, are as much about being with others as they are about providing nutrition for our bodies.

Transitioning to a world where we don’t need to ‘eat’ two to four times a day won’t be easy, especially in the beginning. This shift will also have significant economic impacts – fewer farms, fewer restaurants and grocery stores, fewer gyms. Health insurance premiums will need to change to reflect the increasing healthiness of the insured, and the whole work day can be re-imagined as there will no longer be a need for a lunch break at a specific time each day. We will certainly still take breaks, but no longer dependent on our need to eat, they will be much more flexible.

What about future implications?
Everyone’s body is different, and there will likely be highly customized options available via sites such as Amazon. There will be simple tests that we could take that will tell us exactly what mixture will be best for our body. We can then order our personalized mix just like we order contacts today. 3D printed food has been talked about a lot lately, but this would be the ultimate machine-made meal. Since most drinks will only have varying amounts of the same core components, ordering a drink made just for you should be easy, only requiring simple software that tells the machine how much of each ingredient should be included.

Ironically, in the future it may be only the wealthy who are obese. It could become a symbol of wealth like it was in the 1500’s. An overweight person would be saying to the world “I can afford to eat traditional food for every meal.”

Soylent is just the first step in a food revolution. I, for one, can’t wait to stop eating.