As a society, we have always had a tricky relationship with food and food supplements.

Starting in the 1920s, the all-in-one meal pill showed up in popular media and works of science fiction as an inevitable evolution of dieting and nutrition.

In the 21st century, we have yet to give up delicious food for nutritional pills. However, “healthy” high-protein powders, weight loss supplements and skinny tea detoxes continue to be heavily advertised on social media platforms.

It was at the height of this digital obsession with meal alternatives that Soylent, a crowdfunded-funded food start-up, appeared online selling a meal replacement powder claiming to contain all necessary ingredients to provide a balanced and healthy meal.

Soylent: a revolutionary idea

In 2013, Rob Rhinehart experimented with several ingredients—including vegetable oil, soy protein isolate, and maltodextrin—to streamline food consumption by providing all necessary nutrients in a single product. Eventually, Rhinehart named his creation Soylent powder after the food in the 1966 dystopian science fiction novel Make Room! Make Room! The creation gained reasonable notoriety online, leading to a crowdfunding campaign that raised over $1.5 million in pre-orders. Building on the momentum generated from the initial crowdfunding campaign, Soylent quickly gained popularity as more people were introduced to the concept. Rhinehart and his co-founders, Matt Cauble and Julio Miles, did not hesitate to highlight the apparent nutritional value and the time-saving, convenience, low cost and environmentally friendly benefits of the Soylent powder. The company became so popular among tech-savvy individuals that it raised over $133 million in venture financing from firms such as Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz.

The success of Soylent led to a wave of innovation in how companies approached meal preparation and consumption. More start-ups emerged, most notably brands such as Huel and Ka’Chava, each offering their unique take on the concept of nutritionally complete meals.

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Troubled times

But the good times did not last for Soylent. In 2016, a number of health-related complaints from customers forced the company to recall its powder and snack bar products. Later on, it found that algae flour had been the cause of several gastrointestinal problems among customers. In April 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also recalled 890 boxes of Soylent powder as it was found the product may have contained undeclared milk.

Simultaneously, meal replacement products began to receive criticism over their lacklustre taste, strange texture and dubious health claims. Reputational damage and slow growth led to the company reportedly undergoing several rounds of staff layoffs and financial restructuring in 2019.

Soon afterwards, Soylent rebranded its image, dropping its ultra-minimalist medical product appearance for an aesthetic look resembling that of premium high-protein fitness powders and shakes. Soylent and other meal replacement companies also began diversifying their product lines to promote the convenience aspect of the products rather than any health benefits the products may provide.

A comeback?

In February 2023, Soylent was acquired by Starco Brands after financially recovering over the past few years, and almost achieving its run rate goal of $100 million for 2022.

However, it is unlikely that Soylent will ever return to the peak of its hype. Meal replacement products are and will remain a very limited market. Soylent’s journey has proven that as much as we enjoy convenience, we are not ready to retire our food habits for all-in-one meal pills.

The packaged food industry is too full of convenience-focused options, from meal kits to meal-prepping services, for the public to actively choose a mediocre-tasting drink as a regular meal.