[LINK] Soylent crowdfunding

by Qiaochu_Yuan1 min read21st May 2013170 comments


Personal Blog

Rob Rhinehart's food replacement Soylent now has a crowdfunding campaign.

Soylent frees you from the time and money spent shopping, cooking and cleaning, puts you in excellent health, and vastly reduces your environmental impact by eliminating much of the waste and harm coming from agriculture, livestock, and food-related trash.

If you're interested in one or more of these benefits, send in some money! There is also a new blog post.

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To copy over my earlier G+ comment:

ಠ_ಠ I completely disapprove of this. Soylent is a fun idea, sure, but Rhinehart's asking for $100k to launch a Soylent manufacturing company?! He hasn't even done even the minimal crappy self-experiments he could've done very easily, like randomize weeks on and off Soylent! Nor, AFAIK, has he published any of the results from the early volunteers or anything, really. This is ridiculous.

See also Hacker News

Build a better one yourself? I'm tired of eating.

Factors why I have not and probably will not:

  1. Soylent costs more than my current diet, limiting gains
  2. it is a priori highly likely to fail since we know for a fact that severe nutrition deficiencies can be due to subtle & misunderstood factors (see: the forgetting of scurvy cures) and that nutrition is one of the least reliable scientific areas
  3. his work is even more likely than that to have problems because he hasn't consulted the existing work on food replacements (yes, it's a thing; how exactly do you think people in comas or with broken jaws get fed?)
  4. given #2, the negative effects are likely to be subtle and long-term means that on basic statistical power grounds, you'll want long and well-powered self-experiments to go from 'crappy self-experiment' to 'good self-experiment'*
  5. given the low odds of success (#2-3), the expensive powerful self-experiments necessary to shift our original expectations substantially due to long-term effects and subtlety (#4), and the small benefits (#1), the VoI is low here
  6. my other self-experiments, in progress and planned, suffer from many fewer of Soylent's defects, hence have reasonable VoIs (Specifically: I am or will be investigating Noope
... (read more)
8jimrandomh8yI think you're wrong about that. We have modern chemistry and we have animal experimentation at scale, which means that we can feed animals highly-refined diets to determine whether any essential nutrients are missing from our models. It would be extremely surprising if there were a vital nutrient we didn't know about. On the other hand, there are other failure modes besides forgetting a nutrient, like using an inactive or degraded input, contamination, or for that matter, making half the calories sugar. (Which they, um, did.) I really want a correctly-executed version of Soylent, but I won't be eating anything from the first batches, because these guys really don't fill me with confidence.
2gwern8yI agree food-replacements should be doable in theory and that the existing products shouldn't be too terrible, but Soylent does not seem to be drawing well on the existing knowledge. Personally, I'd like a good Soylent too. It'd be useful for my self-experiments, since it'd help tamp down variability from my diet and increase the statistical power. But Rhinehart is doing it all wrong.
7Kaj_Sotala8yWhile this is true, I would expect that for many people, the main risk in Soylent would be one of overdosing on something rather than acquiring a deficiency. Soylent at least tries to provide everything that you need, while many people (me included) optimize their normal diet mainly based on criteria like cost and ease of preparation rather than healthiness. And even if we did optimize it for healthiness, your argument is essentially saying that we might very well screw up and acquire deficiencies even if we tried to ensure that we got everything that we needed.... and that argument can be applied to normal diets just as well as Soylent. So anyone who uses the "there are lots of subtle ways of acquiring nutrition deficiencies and we might not know everything that one needs" argument against Soylent would first need to show why normal diets would avoid that argument any better.

And even if we did optimize it for healthiness, your argument is essentially saying that we might very well screw up and acquire deficiencies even if we tried to ensure that we got everything that we needed.... and that argument can be applied to normal diets just as well as Soylent.

I disagree. A random basket of foods, while likely deficient in something or other, will also likely change what it's deficient in over time, while Soylent by definition will be consistently deficient. Even if regular food vs Soylent were both equally harmful, the harm from the regular food may be less due to the variability of it. Statistics analogy borrowing from Jaynes: total error in an sampling estimate can be broken down as random error vs systematic error/bias - but random errors gradually cancel out as the sample size increases, while systematic errors remain the same. Soylent is all systematic error.

4Kaj_Sotala8yHmm. I'll grant that.
7Qiaochu_Yuan8yI sympathize with this argument, but the obvious counter-argument is that lots of people have eaten normal diets and have been observed not to, for example, die of scurvy. (On the other hand, they have been observed to, for example, get heart disease.)

I sympathize with this argument, but the obvious counter-argument is that lots of people have eaten normal diets and have been observed not to, for example, die of scurvy. (On the other hand, they have been observed to, for example, get heart disease.)

That's true. But then again, once you consider that "normal diets" is really composed of countless of different combinations of foods ranging from "fast food only" to "making a constant effort to be trying out new foods all the time", you could also use this as an argument for Soylent being probably safe. As in, "out of all the countless possible combinations of nutritional intakes that people live on, most don't lead to anybody dying of scurvy, so if we specifically construct one new diet for the express purpose of providing everything that one needs, it doesn't seem like it should kill you if all those diets that weren't constructed with that in mind don't kill you".

5Petruchio8yNot to mention, worst case scenario, if you experience a deficiency, you are still in civilization and may switch back to a normal diet.

Only if you are able to track the deficiency back to its cause. To reuse scurvy, how many realized that their deficiency was of fresh fruits and vegetables? As opposed to bad air or bacterial poisoning or whatever... If you felt the symptoms of rabbit starvation but had never heard of it or been told about it, would you realize what the problem was in your diet before you happened to eat something fatty and noticed your vague hunger was finally satisfied?

5Pablo8yThe wisdom of nature [http://www.nickbostrom.com/evolution.pdf]
-1Kaj_Sotala8yNot sure how that applies here, even if we disregard the processed foods that many people live on also being quite unnatural.
2Pablo8yWe are adapted to obtain nutrients from food. Since we currently lack a good understanding of exactly what properties of food are nutritionally relevant, it seems unwise to replace natural food with artificial food. Yes, processed foods are quite unnatural. But Soylent is even less natural than processed foods, so this is irrelevant in the present context.
0someonewrongonthenet8yFrom an evolutionary standpoint, legumes, milk, and grains are "artificial" food, at least for humans. Agriculture is a recent thing. Would you also endorse the Paleolithic diet movement? (I do actually endorse the paleolithic diet as probably optimal at the moment and I agree with your central point - I just want to point out that even unprocessed modern diets are already rather unnatural.)
0Prismattic8yAlthough agriculture is only about 10,000 years old, humans have been gathering and eating wild grains for 30,000.
2someonewrongonthenet8yWhich is an order of magnitude less than the 200,000 years that we've been anatomically modern - although who is to say that they didn't gather wild grains back then, too. Of course, even 10,000 years is more than enough time for evolution to change us.
7shminux8yI agree with most of what you are saying, however #2 is likely to be mitigated by his not going on a soylent-only diet. Thus there is a fair chance that many subtle overlooked deficiencies in the product will be masked by the "normal" meals he still eats fairly regularly. In your scurvy example, the minimum level of Vit C required (8-10 mg per day) is far lower than what you get from a typical diet (some 10 times that, apparently), so even if he completely removed it from his product, he'd probably get enough of it from his infrequent non-soylent meals. Though his example of forgetting sulfur is a bit worrying and is evidence against this.
7gwern8ySure. But I'd point out that this observation (that you can hedge your bets) cuts against Soylent as well: while consuming regular food to limit your downside from deficiencies in Soylent should work for overprovisioned substances, you're also limiting your upside since the more regular food you consume the less Soylent you must be consuming.
2Eliezer Yudkowsky8yGuess we're all stuck with Soylent then! In for $65. See also: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5746844 [http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5746844]

I look forward to your self-experiments...

0[anonymous]8yI'm curious why you're apparently optimistic that this will work for you, when nothing else has.
5Qiaochu_Yuan8yDepends on what you mean by "optimistic that this will work." Presumably Eliezer at least thinks this is positive expected value (and so do I). That doesn't have to be because he assigns a high probability to it having positive value, it could be because he assigns a moderate probability to it having moderately high positive value or because he assigns a low probability to it having extremely high positive value, etc. When computing the expected value, keep in mind that Soylent displaces other food, so the actual cost (assuming the project meets its funding goals) is not $65 but $65 minus however much Eliezer would otherwise have spent on food in a week. For me, and I suspect for Eliezer as well, this number is more than $65, so Eliezer can think that the expected value of replacing his food with Soylent is somewhat negative and still think it's a good idea to try it for a week. Soylent instead of other food also saves food preparation time in addition to saving money.
0[anonymous]8yI mean buying in at the $65 for a week level. I'm trying to understand the "moderate probability" part. EY's been on so many non-working diets [https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=5747119]; this is evidence against a dietary solution working, unless there's a reason why Soylent isn't in that reference class. Obviously.
3Qiaochu_Yuan8yAll of the other diets involve food?
-1Eliezer Yudkowsky8yYep.
6Wei_Dai8yHave you not come across "meal replacement diet" (which may be partial or total) until now? There is a bunch of articles about it [http://scholar.google.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/scholar?hl=en&q=meal+replacement+diet&btnG=&as_sdt=1%2C48&as_sdtp=] in Google Scholars, not to mention the popular media.
-1[anonymous]8yThe meal replacements I've seen look a lot more like regular food than Soylent does.
7Wei_Dai8yI don't understand. Soylent contains maltodextrin, oat powder, whey protein from milk, olive oil, various vitamins and minerals, whereas, Slim-Fast, for example, contains milk, milk protein concentrate, sugar, maltodextrin, canola oil, various vitamins and minerals, etc. How is one more like regular food than the other?
0KnaveOfAllTrades8yConsidering the amount of time, effort, money, and pain you have been or are willing to put in to decrease your fatness, I want to make sure that you've actually considered what your evidence is for whatever benefits and costs you perceive in decreasing your fatness. I haven't looked into studies in detail, but I think even reflecting on the discourse surrounding fat has a large effect on one's probability estimate for 'fat is evil'. By a noticeable (though not necessarily decisive) margin, I find the most plausible explanation for what little I know about fat to be that the world is crazy, people are mad and bigoted, fatness in itself does not on average cause any actionable (i.e. calling for large intervention) significant net loss of health, the medical community has failed to convincingly demonstrate such massive ill effects after controlling for other more plausible causes despite trying extremely hard to because it is privileging a false hypothesis, and that this research agenda is both motivated by and feeds into the aforementioned societal craziness. (I claim that I'm not counter-other-optimizing-Eliezer_Yudkowsky / epistemic other-optimizing, but I suspect it'd be epistemic other-optimizing to insist you believe that.)
0[anonymous]8yThis [http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21121834] did control for lots of stuff.
1wbaybat8y1 is based on assigning what value to your time?
7gwern8yLow, since I do my cooking and cleaning in downtime when I can't bear to read any more or do something productive; and I also favor recipes like giant crockpots of soup which are both dead-easy to make and consume.
0RomeoStevens8yDo you have any pointers for finding info on #3? Searching around for various related terminology isn't coming up with much.
2huh8yPossible starting point: Parenteral nutrition [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parenteral_nutrition]
0RomeoStevens8yInteresting, googling around a bit it looks like it is basically soybean oil, whey, and dextrose with vitamin powders. So pretty much the same as Soylent. I guess worries about bioavailability are overblown given that coma patients survive indefinitely, but then again, their mixture is adjusted daily based on blood work.
6Vaniver8yMy current diet runs me around $2-4 a day; Soylent is ~$10 a day, which is a significant increase. I expect gwern's numbers are similar.
0[anonymous]8y(I was about to ask about the value of the time spent cooking, but it turns out he's already answered that [http://lesswrong.com/lw/hht/link_soylent_crowdfunding/914o].)
0Vaniver8yHe has; for me, cooking is about three minutes of effort spread out over the course of fifteen minutes each day. The main benefit to a Soylent-style diet is that you get all the micronutrients and so on that are normally locked away inside vegetables, which take an inordinate amount of time to prepare and consume, in one quick drinkable source, without any concerns about pesticides or fungi or so on.
5gwern7yUse frozen pre-sliced vegetables. They're usually competitive with, if not cheaper than, fresh produce; you save a lot of time preparing them; they taste just as good to me (and better, in instances where it takes a long time to eat your way through a purchase and the fresh vegetables are, shall we say, less than fresh by the time you eat them). You can easily dump them into crockpot recipes, or you can just put them in a bowl, microwave with some herbs/spices and butter, and reheat as necessary.
0Vaniver7yAgreed. I use frozen vegetables for anything I cook that has vegetables in it, but that's pretty rare. Mostly I eat raw sliced sweet potatoes (where the time is in the peeling and slicing) and microwaved kale (which has gotten much less time consuming now that I buy the precut and prewashed version, rather than bunches).
0gwern7yI dislike kale, so no comments there, but why would you peel sweet potatoes? The skin tastes fine and I assume like regular potatoes has a lot of the nutrients in it. When I harvest my sweet potatoes, I just slice them.

The stuff you want is called Jevity. It's a complete liquid diet that's used for feeding tube patients (Ebert after cancer being one of the most famous). It can be consumed orally, and you can buy it in bulk from Amazon. It's been designed by people who are experts in nutrition and has been used for years by patients as a sole food source.

Of course, Jevity only claims to keep you alive and healthy as your only food source, not to trim your fat, sharpen your brain, etc. But I'm fairly sure that has more to do with ethics, a basic knowledge of the subject, and an understanding of the necessity of double blind studies for medical claims than someone finding out the secrets to perfect health who forgot iron and sulfur in their supplement.

0RomeoStevens8yLooks like it is 1c/cal. $20/day is not reasonable.
5fubarobfusco8y... for a product that's actually clinically tested and pretty well known to work?
6Kaj_Sotala8yIf a person is interested in Soylent for sake of saving money, then a similar product that costs more than ordinary food is automatically known not to work.
1Petruchio8yHopefully, mass producing Soylent will drive down the price. As of now, it is close, but not cutting it as a total replacement for me. Temporay adoption on the other hand...
2RomeoStevens8yIf convenience is the primary driver it is running into "I can eat out every meal every day" at those prices.
7sanddbox8yI would strongly recommend against doing this; a meal replacement shake designed by one guy simply won't cover every possible nutrient/compound you'd need from food. It'll be healthier and more enjoyable just to eat actual food. Our understanding of nutrition is growing, but we're not at the point where we can apply reductionism to food. Supplements are extremely effective as part of a diet, but we don't know enough to make a diet completely based upon supplements. If you're going to go for meal replacement anyway, don't choose soylent. His understanding of nutrition is mediocre at best; as an example, he put no cholesterol at all in his original formula (I have no idea if he's updated it or not).
2Petruchio8yFood is good, but not that good. For instance, 95% of the time, I settle for eating something unhealthy and not particularly appetizing, because it is easy and quick to make. If I were cooking for someone else, this may be a different story. When I first read the Odyssey by Homer, my professor told me the Greek behaved as though sharing a meal was a spiritual experience, which is reflected in our culture (dinner dates, family meals, holidays etc.) But as I currently do not eat with others on a regular basis, I think it would be of greater utility to go with whole food replacement, and eat with others on rare occasions, provided the cost for food replacement is low enough. Or I can explore new post-food psycho-social opportunities, which should be interesting in of itself.
2sanddbox8yYes, it's better than a shit diet. Pretty much anything is better than shitty diet, though. My point is that Soylent will be suboptimal. Also, most of the claims they make can't be substantiated.
-2MugaSofer8ySo ... what other options are you including in "anything", exactly?
2sanddbox8yI think it goes without saying what I mean. Healthy diet > soylent > shit diet
2Eliezer Yudkowsky8yI tried that. It didn't work. If you have something specific to recommend that can replace meals instead of Soylent, speak up.

Go to a pharmacy and ask about a complete liquid diet for someone who had jaw surgery? They should have stuff that's pretty much Soylent, but more expensive and designed and tested by experts.

Yup, and the magic search keywords here seem to be "total diet replacement".

A quick & dirty Google search returns a recent paper, which lists Optifast, KicStart, and Optislim as brands "packaged and marketed as very-low-energy diets (VLED), defined as total dietary replacement with FMR [formulated meal replacements]". The "Price per serve" of those brands, incidentally, is given as 1.87 to 2.99 AUD in table 1.

They also seem to be intended for weight loss, so you might want to augment your calories with normal, high-energy foods. Or maybe you can double up on servings, I dunno.

Edit: amusingly, all of these mixtures made by the pros also seem to be deficient in various nutrients. Most of the VLED brands don't meet a "recommended dietary intake" or "adequate intake" baseline for protein, calcium, phosphorus, potassium or magnesium. Maybe you should nosh on some chicken, bananas, and a daily mineral supplement too?

7NancyLebovitz8yI'm going to recommend something less specific-- researching what's going on with your metabolism, instead of trying things that seem to work for some fraction of other people.
0RichardKennaway8yCan you be more specific? How does one do that? Daily blood tests or something, and acquiring the knowledge to know what to measure and what it means?
4NancyLebovitz8yThese are some fast guesses-- my impression is that it can take years [1] to track down this sort of thing. Also, I don't know how much of this has already been done. Start with five minutes thought. What does Eliezer know about his symptoms? Can anything be deduced by mulling over them? I'd start with poking around to find out whether other people have the same pattern of symptoms. Does it have a medical name? What does medical research say about what works? What do people say about what works? Do the symptoms ever become better or worse? Does this correlate with something that could be experimented with? Hire MetaMed [http://www.metamed.com/], but also look for anecdotal information. Exercise might be bad for some people. [http://gizmodo.com/5914524/can-exercise-actually-be-bad-for-you] I'm going to recommend some caution about experiments-- so far as I know, Eliezer has fairly good health. He's got some energy problems, an inability to lose weight, reacts very badly to missing a meal, and doesn't get any good from exercise. There's a lot of room for making things worse. I'm in substantial agreement with this [http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/hht/link_soylent_crowdfunding/916d], but I do think the bad reaction to missing a meal is enough to be of at least a little concern. On the other hand, the cultural issues around fat are weird and extreme enough that it could explain the lack of thought that's gone into Eliezer's efforts to lose weight. [1] Something in the neighborhood of 2 years or more for people who report success. Original research takes time.
0[anonymous]8yTestosterone supplements should help with most of these issues.
0NancyLebovitz8yMaybe. Blood tests first. And possibly research second.
2sanddbox8yTotal meal replacement shakes exist, although I have no idea about pricing. However, going down this route is basically ensuring sub-optimal nutrition. We know a ton about nutrition, but not enough to have an optimal diet without food.
3wedrifid8yVery nearly every other diet is also sub-optimal. Most of them are quite probably worse than what we can do via supplementation.
1Risto_Saarelma8yI looked at what's available in Finnish pharmacies, and they seem to be in the $20 a day ballpark mentioned elsewhere in the thread if you aren't going to eat anything else.
2Halfwit8yI believe you can live off Boost for an indefinite period of time.
1jimrandomh8yCould you be more speciifc? (In particular with respect to macronutrient ratios, and whether you've ever been in ketosis and confirmed it with a blood or urine test.) I have a strong prior against people having tried all the things, even if they've tried to try them, since some of the strategies are easy to do incorrectly without realizing it.
0Vaniver8yThis is actually a bad example; humans can produce cholesterol, and so the FDA does not recommend intake.
0sanddbox8y"Can produce" doesn't mean optimal intake is 0.
0Vaniver8yAgreed; this is particularly true for things like creatine. But most Americans have cholesterol higher than recommended, and most of the health risks I'm seeing associated with low cholesterol are "if your cholesterol suddenly drops without a known cause, this is a warning sign for disease." Is there something else I should be aware of? [edit] Thought I should quote the relevant section of the DRIs:
0sanddbox8yDietary cholesterol and lipid cholesterol aren't the same thing either, and just as your body can compensate for an intake of 0 cholesterol, it can likewise compensate for an intake of excess cholesterol.
0Vaniver8yIt's not clear to me yet why I should expect a cholesterol intake above 0 to have superior health outcomes to a cholesterol intake of 0. You don't need to argue that the body can compensate for excess cholesterol; even perfect compensation would just mean that small intake is just as good as 0 intake. You need to argue that without intake, the body will produce a suboptimal amount of cholesterol. Is there any evidence of that?
6Petruchio8yI'm tired of eating, preparing food and cleaing up afterwards. And pooping. After saving time and money, this is my biggest hope from soylent.
3Vaniver8yI am tired of eating too, and have looked seriously into building it myself. It's not clear yet whether doing it myself is worth the additional costs over outsourcing it to him; I think I can do significantly better, but doing it right is a significant amount of work.
-1Eliezer Yudkowsky8yPost your superior recipe to /r/soylent?
0Vaniver8yWhat information do you expect me to get from doing so that would help in making that decision?
0bogdanb8yI think he meant that someone else might use it even if it's not worth it to you personally. Though if I'm reading your earlier comment right, the "work" referred to the recipe rather than the mixing and measuring, so that wouldn't apply.
3Vaniver8yIf I decide to not do it myself, then of course I'll post the ideas and send friendly emails to the guys at Soylent. But that doesn't seem like a good move while uncertain about whether or not to compete with them. The recipe is part of the work, but the larger part of the work in doing it right would be replacing "the" recipe with a system for generating recipes and determining the quality of recipes.
4bogdanb8yYou can go as meta as you want, as long as the result is still a better recipe I still call it "work for the recipe" ;-)
0Vaniver8yFair! (Though I do want to make clear that part of my point is ensuring customization support is the backbone, rather than a feature added later.)
0Lumifer8yI don't think our knowledge of human physiology is sufficient to construct a complete food replacement from scratch. It will have to be personalized, anyway, and we need a lot more of basic research to get there.

I suspect most people considering Soylent aren't exactly eating like Michael Pollan in the first place. Anecdotally, I know several people who subsist on diets of fast-food takeout washed down by multiple liters of soda. It seems credible that Soylent might at least provide better nutrition than that. The scorn directed at Soylent by many of the Hacker News commenters strikes me as misdirected given the relatively poor quality diet of many Americans.

I have used other commercially available meal replacement shakes in the past - most don't even attempt to deliver complete nutrition beyond covering each of the major macronutrients (protein, carbohydrate, fat). There seems to be room for improvement and innovation in this market.

The guinea pigs for Soylent aren't going to be on a multi-month voyage across the ocean or the antarctic tundra without access to other food. If they do encounter deficiency issues, they can simply reintroduce other foods without suffering catastrophic effects. It takes a special kind of stubborn to really deprive yourself to the point of serious deficiency.

2Lumifer8yAnd how would they know? Let's say a child develops a iodine deficiency -- a common consequence is the drop in IQ, 10-15 points on the average. You think this will be detected in time to fix this? Let's imagine -- not an improbable scenario at all -- that a deficiency of micronutrient X doubles or triples your risk of some old-age disease Y. By the time you're diagnosed with Y it's way too late to do anything.
7gwern8yI'd point out that iodine deficiency's effect on IQ seems to be entirely prenatal [http://www.gwern.net/Iodine] - that is, there is a window of vulnerability during a human's development, and once they're past that, iodine deficiency no longer operates on IQ (for better or worse) and all that's left are more minor effects like reducing goiters. Seems possible that a lot of nutrients are like that: main effects of deficiency are in childhood/infancy/prenatal.
1OrphanWilde8yWhen my iodine levels get low I develop symptoms of diabetes. Sushi can induce insulin shock/hypoglycemia in me. It screws with my hunger and thirst levels as well. Apparently I'm not alone, either; there seems to be some evidence that there's a link between iodine and diabetes more generally.
1J_Taylor8yCould you please post or link to it?
2OrphanWilde8ySee for example https://www.mja.com.au/journal/1999/171/9/iodine-deficiency-ambulatory-participants-sydney-teaching-hospital-australia [https://www.mja.com.au/journal/1999/171/9/iodine-deficiency-ambulatory-participants-sydney-teaching-hospital-australia] and http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00257427 [http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00257427] and http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1262363607702860 [http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1262363607702860] Severe iodine deficiency tends to be much more common in diabetic patients, and hypothyroidism (most commonly caused by iodine deficiency or hashimoto's thyroiditis) tends to be comorbid with diabetes.
2huh8yOK, that's probably true. It is also true in the case of deficiencies arising from a more conventional diet however. How frequently do micronutrient deficiencies occur under regular diets? How is the chance of timely detection and intervention affected by controlled intake in conjunction with deliberate ongoing monitoring versus an unmonitored ad libitum diet? Let's consider two contrasting propositions regarding diet and nutrition: A) Consuming a varied diet of naturally occurring, unprocessed foods prevents micronutrient deficiencies. B) Deliberately engineered supplementation prevents micronutrient deficiencies. Before reading on, take a moment to consider how much confidence you have in proposition A versus B. Since you introduced the example of iodine deficiency, let's consider it in more depth. The Wikipedia page on iodine deficiency [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iodine_deficiency] indicates: "According to World Health Organization, in 2007, nearly 2 billion individuals had insufficient iodine intake ..." Furthermore, this deficiency appears to be common even in wealthy industrialized countries where a wide variety of food is readily available: "In a study of the United Kingdom published in 2011, almost 70% of test subjects were found to be iodine deficient." The article proceeds to explain that iodine deficiency is addressed by deliberately and artificially introducing supplemental iodine into the food supply. I'm shocked to learn just how widespread iodine deficiency is among people eating a "normal" diet (I would have guessed less than 10% prevalence). It seems like traditional diets do a startlingly poor job of avoiding this particular deficiency. I'm updating my beliefs in favor of proposition B over A in light of this data.
4gwern8yThe worst part is, a lot of that decline is from people trying to eat 'healthy' - and cut out as much salt as possible. Guess what the main source of iodine for people who can't afford seafood for every meal is? Iodized salt. (If you want US figures for deficiency, you can find some cites in my iodine page, or simply search for papers related to the long-running NHANES survey which is the main source of evidence.)
1OrphanWilde8yI got chewed out constantly growing up by -everybody- because of my salt intake. Guess what happened to my salt cravings when I added an iodine supplement as an adult? People don't just screw themselves up on that one.
2Zaine8yIf you're willing to guinea pig, please try th [http://www.naturalhealthyconcepts.com/raw-meal-GL-p-garden-of-life.html?gclid=CK_Uo9C7qLcCFYKd4AodGWUAZQ] is [http://www.vitacost.com/garden-of-life-organic-raw-meal-vanilla-2-5-lbs?csrc=GPF-PA-658010116022&ci_gpa=pla&ci_kw=&ci_src=17588969&ci_sku=658010116022&gclid=CKapmdK7qLcCFcud4AodLUUAaw] if you haven't already. It's short on macro-nutrients, but perhaps it would pair nicely with macro-nutrient focussed substitutes. I'm interested in comparisons between how these products compare to the actual constituent ingredients consumed normally, but don't value the information enough to try it myself.
-2drethelin8yseems like way too little fat
7[anonymous]8yHe plans to use some of the money to run formal clinical trials. See this video [http://youtu.be/jTkuvppi334]. As a matter of fact, Rob says in the same video that completely replacing food with Soylent is "not the intended use", and also states that "I wasn't trying to create something ideal; I was trying to create something better." And, for me, and for a visible fraction of the world population, it probably succeeds in that goal. I hate eating lunch and I never eat anything nutritious, then, anyways. It probably would be a net improvement for me to replace breakfast with Soylent, too. "Ridiculous" is the wrong word to use here. Rob got $200k in less than 24 hours after asking for $100k in one month, so the request wasn't absurd (I'm aware of hindsight bias, here; I just noticed that the underestimation was vast). I think we should be taking a close look at what Rob is doing right, at this point. If you think his experiment is a waste of your time and you refuse to contribute to it, that is clearly completely fine. However, if you intend to condemn everyone who does not eat as well as you and who is more interested in self-experimentation, then that is ridiculous. Well, let's fix this. I bought a month's supply of Soylent. What self-experimentation would you like me to do, that you don't have the time/money/willingness to do yourself? Even with such a small amount, could you specify an experimental method I could follow that would at least be at your "crappy" level? I'd sincerely appreciate that, and I'd be happy to follow it. (A major reorganization edit was made to the original comment.)

He plans to use some of the money to run formal clinical trials.

Promissory notes and jam tomorrow. He didn't bother to run the most trivial experiments on himself, he hasn't released information on the existing volunteers he mailed Soylent off to a while ago, and so I'm not optimistic about what clinical trials he'll fund - especially considering that costs are always higher than one expects so he'll have pressing demands on his funds (and why should he fund trials, when he already has so many geeks pressing funds on him already?)

I think "ridiculous" is the wrong word to use, here. The fact is, he got over $200k in less than 24 hours, so I think "rational" might be more appropriate.

Instrumentally rational, perhaps, but still ridiculous. It may not be too harmful snake oil, it may improve over time, but investment in it is still a bad idea and the evidence for its efficacy is non-existent. People giving him >$200k for this is ridiculous.

However, if you intend to condemn everyone who does not eat as well as you and who is more interested in self-experimentation, then that is ridiculous.

Who are these people even more interested in self-experimentatio... (read more)

8gwern6yAs of 2015, even the vague pious hope of trials seems to have been long abandoned; apparently Rhinehart & Soylent are quite busy merely shipping and keeping things running...
0[anonymous]8yThanks for the reply. I had just finished editing my comment right as you were replying, and it's much cleaner now. I'd really appreciate it if you looked at it again (even if everything you said still applies).
9[anonymous]8yWinning a popularity contest does not make one rational [http://lesswrong.com/lw/coo/avoid_inflationary_use_of_terms/].
3Lumifer8yFormal clinical trials are hugely expensive (consider the price of bringing a new drug to the market -- a large part of that cost is clinical trials).
6Qiaochu_Yuan8yRandomizing weeks on and off might not have captured the full effects of prolonged Soylent use (e.g. side-effects involving gut bacteria).

Of course blocking on weeks wouldn't rule out long-term side-effects. (Nothing would, short of a multi-decade RCT to investigate all-cause mortality.)

My point was that he hasn't even done that much. Yet, he is happy to blog about the 1 week he took off Soylent to fly to LA and how crappy he felt wandering around a strange city and how this proves normal food sucks...

2OrphanWilde8yJust because he hasn't personally done much in the way of personal experimentation doesn't mean he's not riding on a large volume of experimental evidence. Just using RDA values and all known micronutrients (not that his history has exactly been stellar in actually doing so) should get him almost all the way to where he wants his product to be. (I'm really dubious of the carbohydrate he uses, though.) And provided people are willing to eat a meal or two outside the system, their cravings should guide them to whatever nutrients it is they're lacking in. So... I'm not sure I approve of the level of enthusiasm for the project that exists. But by the same token, I don't think the extreme pessimism is warranted, either.
3bartimaeus8yThe concept is good, but the methodology could have been significantly better. It has lots of potential, and the real danger is limited to those that will be consuming ONLY Soylent for extended periods. Using it to replace a meal or two a day, and having a complete meal every day, shouldn't be dangerous (I think). What confuses me about the negativity is, what's so bad about the current situation? The earliest of adopters will serve as a giant trial, and if there are problems they'll come up there. Also: people who intend to switch to JUST soylent should be monitored by a doctor or a nutritionist, at least for the first while. And post it either here or on the Solyent board. I am very interested to hear some anecdata.

What confuses me about the negativity is, what's so bad about the current situation? The earliest of adopters will serve as a giant trial, and if there are problems they'll come up there.

No, they won't. Or, if they are interpretable as a trial, it'll be as the worst epidemiological survey ever run - no blinding, no followup, response bias out the wazoo, attrition, expectancy and Hawthorne effects already built in etc etc. You name a bias, this ('hand out goodies and hope someone will report problems') will have it. You ever wonder why we have things like 'evidence-based medicine'? It's because when we hand out goodies and hope people will tell us how well it works, we get people grinding up tiger penises because nothing works better for fixing your virility problems! Everyone says so! And how could they be wrong, right?

To quote myself again from my G+ thread:

For [How many people will get sick/die?], there's no way to tell. People get sick and die all the time. No one will be reporting systematically, which means that no matter how many datapoints you collect, your results will still be worthless because increased sample size only reduces random error, it doesn't reduce systema

... (read more)
0bartimaeus8yWhat do you expect will happen? Do you think lots of people are going to get very sick by going on a Soylent-only diet immediately, not monitoring their health closely, and ending up with serious nutritional deficiencies? That's one of the more negative scenario, but I honestly don't know how likely that is. I think people are likely to do at least one of three things: * Monitor their health more closely (especially on a soylent-only diet), * Only replace a few meals with Soylent (not more than, say, 75%), * Return to normal food or see a doctor if a serious deficiency occurs. Then again, I may have too much confidence in people's common sense. Rob is definitely marketing it as a finished product and a miracle solution.
8gwern8yI think there will be a range of issues from a few diehards hitting serious issues to people just having low-grade issues which they don't notice because they won't be randomizing blocks, effects similar to the hedonic treadmill will make it hard to compare over time, they'll get initial benefits from the usual placebo/Hawthorne/overjustification effects, and subjective self-rating has many known loopholes where you can think you're getting better even as you're actually getting worse - but regardless of the exact distribution or what the worst-cases look like, we won't know for the reasons I list above. Instead, we'll get another internet circle-jerk about how Soylent is awesome and the critics are wrong.
0bartimaeus8yWhat would you like to see done differently? You mentioned the more thorough self-experimentation he could have done (really should have done), but there's still someone else who could step up to the plate and do some self-testing. Thorough studies? Those might also be done some time in the future, whether or not they're funded by Rob (not sure about this point, there might not be an incentive to do so once it's being sold). Sure, Rob jumped the gun and hyped it up. But most of the internet is already a giant circle-jerk. Doesn't stop people from generating real information, right?
4gwern8yThat's the damnable thing about these sorts of biases, it's not clear to me whether one can compensate for the biases. If you pay attention to the 'real information', you may wind up learning what we might call anti-information - information that predictably and systematically makes your beliefs worse than your defaults. This is the problem of the clever arguer [http://lesswrong.com/lw/jt/what_evidence_filtered_evidence/]: how do you, and can you, adjust for the fact that all the reports coming out about Soylent are so deeply error-prone (and now with the kickstarter, we get a delicious cherry on top of conflicts of interest)? I would much rather have a handful of randomized self-experiments from some obscure blogger interested in a weird recipe he came up with than a forum of Soylent enthusiasts raving to each other that the latest formulation on sale is the greatest ever and telling each other that if you feel bad you should be eating your Soylent twice a day and not three times a day, don't you know about intermittent fasting?, and also I ran 20 seconds faster today, so Soylent must be working for me!
0bartimaeus8yOk, I see what your concern is, with the hype around Soylent everyone's opinion is skewed (even if they're not among the fanboys). You decided above that it wasn't worth your time to try your own self-experiments with it. What if someone else were to take the time to do it? I like the concept but agree with the major troubles you listed above, and I have no experience with designing self-experiments. But maybe I'll take the time to try and do it properly, long-term, with regular blood tests, noting what I've been eating for a couple months before starting, taking data about my fitness levels, etc. Of course, I would need to analyze the risk to myself beforehand.
4gwern8yIf they actually go through with it and write it up, that's better than the status quo, yes. But if they don't determine to go through with it and may give up, it's another selection bias, specifically, publication bias (person A does a self-experiment but halfway through runs out of spare effort and abandons it; person B, by chance, gets better results and blogs about it etc).

I'm surprised by the strongly negative reactions to this. Yes, the claims being made about Soylent are ridiculously overstated and undoubtedly will be softened with time. And yes, I suspect that some ill effects on health will result for some who subsist entirely on Soylent, especially in this first public version.

But I also suspect that very few people (and only those prepared to accept the consequences) will attempt to subsist entirely on Soylent for long periods of time. What I think interests most people is a way to recover most of the time they spend eating and thinking about food, while enjoying regular meals when it is convenient to do so (perhaps once daily before leaving the house or during lunch with coworkers, or a few times a week when eating socially with friends).

Diets that are mostly made up of a few ingredients aren't news; they're the way most of the world eats (see, e.g., staple foods). Soylent attempts to reorder the diet to include long periods where eating has low prep cost and relatively high nutritional value, instead of the status quo which has lots of meals with moderate prep cost, moderate nutritional value, and the unfortunate side effect of breaking up n... (read more)

2Dias8yYes there is; my continued survival, my avoidance of hospital, my ability to heal wounds and recover from illness...
3wbaybat8yYou're right, of course, that there is evidence from experience, and other comments discuss the extrapolation of such evidence to Soylent, both for and against its risk to health. I mean rather to address the calls for randomized, controlled experiments. Indeed, I would like to see a rigorous clinical study of Soylent, and I would not believe any specific claim about the health benefits of Soylent without at least that much evidence. But the standard employed by most people for making dietary changes, even major ones (e.g., any fad diet), is basically whim and fancy, and perhaps that is not unreasonable given the low cost of making these changes and the difficulty of obtaining clear scientific results about diet (exacerbated by large interpersonal variation).

Might I reiterate the suggestion of my whole food version for people who don't wish to trust powders mixed by a stranger with a spotty track record of not-poisoning-himself?

I seriously don't think I can go back to not using this almost daily. Worrying about only 1 meal a day has been a huge stress gone from my life.

Edit: I've been googling round, looking at existing liquid meal replacements and I found this. This seems to basically be a multivitamin/multimineral + some whey and gelatin. it notably does not include things that are required but not generally listed as essential nutrients due to their ubiquity and some trace minerals are missing (sulfur for instance, Soylent ran into this issue as well). This is notably not a dietary replacement as it is only 110 calories. It is nonetheless interesting as an ingredient for attempts at homemade Soylent as it is quite cheap($1/serving). Whether the ingredients are bioavailable is of course a different matter, but Soylent has this issue as well.

1tadrinth8yAny chance you can refactor your recipe to replace bananas with something that keeps better? Otherwise, I was pretty pleased with it.
1OrphanWilde8yThere are also a substantial number of people (read: anyone with a natural latex allergy) who could have an allergic reaction to bananas...
1RomeoStevens8ythe main point of the banana is that for whatever reason it suspends the oat and seed particulates in the solution so they don't all sink. You might get the same effect if you use sunflower butter instead of seeds. Oh and it's also really hard to add marmite without something to smear it on. You can replace the potassium from the banana with more KCl but at some point it starts to affect taste. Edit: you can also try prunes for the potassium content, but I have no idea how well that will work. They keep very very well, to the extent that powdered prunes are sprinkled on other foods to make them last longer.

The blog post is full of great one-liners, like "Surely our minds can find more enjoyable activities than chewing." The guy comes across as very earnest and attempting to be rational about his invention, which is a welcome departure from your usual fad diet pusher.

That said, the OP is unduly optimistic and uncritical. The odds of a dietary breakthrough of this magnitude being missed by the meal-replacement manufacturers are not high, though it is, of course possible.

That said, the OP is unduly optimistic and uncritical. The odds of a dietary breakthrough of this magnitude being missed by the meal-replacement manufacturers are not high, though it is, of course possible.

As far as I can tell, the big insight behind Soylent is "there are people willing to eat this stuff all the time," rather than "it's possible to build food from the molecules up." The odds of a marketing insight like that being missed seem relatively high.

7[anonymous]8yNot necessarily even 'all the time'. Just substituting for any meal that wasn't above average in terms of quality would be nice (health benefits, saved time, probably additional second-order effects). The benefit versus traditional dietary supplements is explicit design for consumption in isolation. (That's ignoring all of the unfortunate experimental errors observed here, of course.) There are medical products that fit that bill, but they aren't marketed towards consumers and are therefore much more expensive (if purchasable at all).
6bbleeker8yI like chewing. I would like something like soylent, but in a form I can actually eat.
4shminux8yChewing is like sex, you enjoy it more when shared, so leave it for social occasions.
0Nornagest8yI tried lifeboat rations once. They're supposed to be nutritionally complete at least in the medium term, but I wouldn't recommend them -- I can best describe the taste as yeast-flavored Powerbar.
5Qiaochu_Yuan8yI have a lot of things to say about this attitude, but in brief: the reason we can't cooperate [http://lesswrong.com/lw/3h/why_our_kind_cant_cooperate/] is because it's really easy to criticize things and we feel like we ought to. Otherwise we risk looking gullible and stupid. But looking gullible and stupid is actually not that bad, and in many domains the negative consequences of being wrong are not nearly as bad as, say, in friendly AI. Do you really want rationalists to be a group of people who aren't allowed to be optimistic?
[-][anonymous]8y 25

Do you really want rationalists to be a group of people who aren't allowed to be optimistic?

I want rationalists to be a group of people who are as optimistic as the situation warrants.

9Qiaochu_Yuan8ySure, and of course the problem in practice is figuring out what level of optimism the situation warrants. Sometimes you're not going to be optimistic enough and sometimes you're going to be too optimistic. If you're afraid of being too optimistic because you think it will make you look gullible and stupid, then you'll probably end up being too pessimistic instead, and that is also bad.
0Petruchio8yAnd right now, this product is in its pre-early adoption stage. There is little need to criticize the product, since the formula will most probably be tweaked and updated after its first public release. Unless there is some question about the utility of the idea, or the capability of the inventor, I think optimism is warranted.

in brief: the reason we can't cooperate is because it's really easy to criticize things and we feel like we ought to.

As someone who is also very interested in food replacements, this is a bad reason to not criticize Soylent. When someone is taking a sloppy approach, they should get called on it- and Rhinehart has been pretty dang sloppy. He forgot iron! I'm skeptical of the quality of his system if it produced that output. Yes, his system is learning from feedback, and so iron is in, as is sulfur. But I hope he doesn't include the 'optionals' that he's listed in his earlier recipe- among other things, he's using Ginseng and Gingko Biloba, which suggests to me he hasn't seen or thought to check this easy summary of the literature, let alone the literature itself. (His reasons for including them seem out of place, given the goal.)

0Morendil8y"How does it compare to Slim-Fast" seems a relevant question here.
0[anonymous]8yYou can't drink only Slim-Fast indefinitely. The jury's still out as to whether the same is true of Soylent.

What surprises me most about this whole thing is that there is such a large demographic of people who take no net pleasure from food. Typical mind fallacy dance

8Qiaochu_Yuan8yI mean, I like food. I like ice cream too, but if my body stopped running if I didn't give it ice cream 2 or 3 times a day I'd start to resent ice cream a little. I expect that one of the effects of not being dependent on food is enjoying it more when I do eat it.
2drethelin8yI actually fucking love food, but I already don't eat carbs on days that aren't saturday, so it would be fairly natural for me to take a bit of reduced pleasure on most meals to let me seriously enjoy the times when I'll enjoy food.

"Move fast and break things" is not a good mantra when dealing with nutrition.

4Qiaochu_Yuan8yWhy not?

Because if something goes wrong, the things you are breaking will be people's well-being. There were two instances where Rob noticed that he was feeling ill and had to correct a nutritional deficiency on the fly. It's less likely that this will happen during large-scale production, but if it does, the people consuming exclusively Soylent will not have all the knowledge Rob did wrt the formula or the symptoms of nutritional deficiency.

I think Soylent is a good idea, and ordered a week's supply, but I'm going to try it slowly; I think the chance that they screw up the production is large enough to merit caution.

I agree that nutritional deficiencies are a problem to watch out for but disagree that consuming Soylent would vastly increase my risk of nutritional deficiencies relative to my current diet. I don't think you're taking into account how bad many people's current diets are / could be. The question is not whether eating Soylent is dangerous but whether it's substantially more dangerous than whatever people are already eating.

Anecdotally, I know nobody who has suffered a nutritional deficiency as lethal as zero iron, and the diets in my circle of college students are not very good. I think Soylent will be healthier than my current diet, but I also think the chance of serious nutritional deficiencies is higher.

Edit: To be clear, I'm talking about nutritional deficiencies where one's metabolism starts to fail for want of a crucial element, not deficiencies where someone is consuming marginally less of a nutrient than the optimal amount. I think Soylent will be better than my current diet in the latter category.

3Qiaochu_Yuan8yFair point.

Even if it's good for him, he hasn't done the testing to find out what proportion of people it's good for.

I ran a comparison of my own nutrients a couple weeks back, composed of "Alive" brand multivitamin (at the time I started buying it, the only multivitamin I could buy in local stores with both iodine and... some other thing I thought important at the time), potassium supplements (added to my supplement list after my argument with several people here on the dangers of potassium - hey guys, you changed my mind!), a calcium supplement, a biotin supplement, a choline/inositol supplement (for the piracetam I also take daily), and a flaxseed supplement... (read more)

It's clear that there's enough interest in this and enough people think this is a good idea that there will at least be some small market of products like this long term. I think that's not really a debate.

However, what I am incredibly interested in is why this is so polarizing? It seems like people either go "hmm, yeah, okay, yes" or "OMG NO". Why?

8TheOtherDave8yWhile I probably would not have predicted it a priori, it is in-retrospect-not-surprising that people have more visceral reactions to food than to many other things.
3drethelin8ystrong status quo bias, as well as cultural inhibitions. Same reason people are all like EW you eat BUGS?!
3MrMind8yI LOLed because European Union has invested some million euros on research programs about insects as protein source...

I have very strong priors against this idea. The priors are based on the following:

  • Our knowledge of human biochemistry is very incomplete. We have only a vague idea of how a huge variety of substances that we normally eat on a day-to-day basis affects us. Studies showing effects of various compounds on human health pop up (and are shot down) all the time. I am not willing to accept that we know enough to construct a complete diet from molecular building blocks.
  • The goal of choosing food (besides sensory considerations which are clearly not important here
... (read more)
8Qiaochu_Yuan8yThis argument "proves too much," as they say. Many of these are also reasons to be afraid of my current diet (especially the fourth; I really don't understand how that's an argument against Soylent instead of for it).
0Lumifer8yBut then you're not asking for money to commercialize your current diet and sell it to the general population with the explicit or implicit assurance that it's all they need to stay healthy, are you? Besides, we do have a bunch of empirical data (admittedly, much of it confusing and incomplete) on the effect of various foods on human health. I don't think it suggests that something like Soylent is going to be good for you.
5MugaSofer8yDon't these sort of ... cancel each other out? EDIT: I mean, if we don't know the effects of everything that's in our food right now, how is Soylent any worse?
0Lumifer8yOnly if you think solely in terms of black and white. We certainly have some idea about what different foods and food components do to us. Sometimes there's a bit more clarity, sometimes much less. Soylent is worse (in this context) primarily because of lack of diversification. While we don't know the exact details of human nutrition, we know that eating a variety of natural foods is generally OK. That's what humans have evolved to eat, at least. You don't need to know each necessary ingredient as long as you have reason to believe there's some in that diverse pile of stuff. But Soylent makes a strong assumption: that we know ALL that's necessary for a human to thrive. To flip this statement around, it says that everything that's not in Soylent is not necessary for optimal human nutrition. That smells of major hubris to me and I'm not going to believe that.
1MugaSofer8yTaboo "natural foods" for me, would you?
-2Eugine_Nier8yFoods that have been around long enough that we some idea, possibly simply hermeneuticly [http://szabo.best.vwh.net/tradition.html], about their effects.
0MugaSofer8yShouldn't the unit here be the "diet", not the "food"? I mean, physically, what matters is what the body gets out of the whole collection, right?
0Watercressed8yLet's say someone is eating pizza for 20% of their meals. Do you think that replacing pizza with Soylent would result in a worse diet?
0Lumifer8ySoylent as a supplement and Soylent as a total food replacement are very different things.
-2OrphanWilde8yEvidence suggests that if you're the average person, you've already screwed up your gut flora with antibiotics. Possibly irreversibly.

If nothing else, it's progress towards a permanent manned presence in space. Some people are going to eat it all the time, which will give us training information about what is really necessary to survive. It simplifies the grow-food-in-space problem down to generate-these-chemicals-in-space, which is a much easier problem.

5gwern8yHow so? Space food [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Space_food] is >52 years old, and we even have subjects who have spent at least as long as 2.2 years subsisting on it (the current record holder for time in space, Sergei Krikalev [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sergei_Krikalev]). What does Soylent add?
4ThrustVectoring8yErr, I may not have been explicit enough about independence from Earth's food supply. Soylent is more of a marketing thing than a space food thing, but the approach (don't make food, make chemicals) seems at first glance to be a more promising route.

The blog referenced is down at this time.

0MugaSofer8yIt seems to be back up now.