Rob Reinhart caught my eye in Sunday’s Hindustan Times. It hit me particularly because I have been reading “Fast Food Nation”, “Food Rules”, and “In Defense of Food”, lately – a tragic story of the rise of “American Cuisine”, yes I mean the inverted commas, and its spread across the world.
Apparently this 26-year-old software engineer-turned-“nutrition formula maker” was invited to the HT Summit. Some 2,000 words are dedicated to him in an article headlined “No more cooking, No more food?” Link here where he gives a lowdown on his new “formula” food called “soylent”, which he says “is healthy and spares you the trouble of planning what to cook for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and cleaning dishes every single day, something that most people would like to avoid due to their superhectic schedule”. Guess how did he engineer this “super food” as HT chose to label this formula of his – a note of journalistic discretion I must say, well, he “searched the internet and came up with a list of nutrients and micronutrients the body cannot do without, bulk ordered them and mixed them in proportions of daily recommended allowance”, as reads the HT article. I think, how typically yuppie!
The 21st century world we live in, we’ve got so much going on – our virtual personas need so much commitment, so much work and energy that obviously we have no time to tend to our real personas. So, why not just “compress” all our hunger and need for food, need for the warmth we derive from shared mealtimes, the feeling of satiety, into the MP3 file of “nutrition” and just plug it in and press play!! Problem solved!
Reinhart’s story is that his hardware developing company in the Silicon Valley did not do well and therefore, he started to look for other innovations to bring him fame and fortune. Worthy goal, I say. of course, he did a lot of thinking and that made him realize that his immediate problem was that “I was eating a lot of junk because that was easily available, cheap, and convenient. My thoughts were focused on how to make food healthy and convenient to eat.” Interestingly, he doesn’t think about doing away with junk and replacing it with whole foods. No, where’s the opportunity to make fame and fortune with that sort of an attitude? He decided to do away with the “chore” of cooking and eating and cleaning, whatsoever.
And, lo and behold, it took this guy a little over a month to collect different nutrients such as carbohydrates, protein, sodium, calcium, etcetera and mixed them in the right quantity, says the article, no mention of what these right quantities are – again a matter of journalistic discretion – and created this powder which “has a lot of micronutrients but no extra calories“. It’s the “no extra calories” in this day and age of calorie-phobia that is sure to serve as its USP.
Reinhart also feels that the “product” is right for India, with its burgeoning middle class that has the capacity to pay but not enough time to cook (Smells like opportunity, does it not?) By the way, this is the same Rob Reinhart who, on his blog named “mostly harmless” – note ‘mostly’ – calls water a perfect “product”.
He is certainly a good sport, accepting challenges to live on just four litres of water a day, experimenting his “soylent” superfood on himself for the last two years… yes, a jolly good fellow. He’ll do anything but eat right, drink right. A special site dedicated to “Soylent” goes with a tagline – Free your body. I thought this would be at best about the latest in a scientifically designed bra or at worst about contraception. It’s about food! Who wants to hear that stomach rumble, the aroma of food wafting through the house, those infernal meal times, those tedious food breaks at work, a mouth that salivates at the thought of a fav bite, all that chewing and feeling full, ugh, no! There’s an Alchemist here to free us. Also from that morning constitutional to the loo. Yes, that one too.
In all of it though, there’s a consolation when Reinhart says, “I still accept the social and pleasurable aspects of traditional food. In fact, my own food pattern depends 80% on Soylent and 20% on the traditional meal that I enjoy with family and friends occasionally.” Mr. Reinhart, you sound like you’re still some percentage of human. I hope you know that and are happy with it. While you still are stuck in your being human avatar, I suggest you bump into this fabulous Indian lady Rujuta Diwekar. She’s a nutritionist and dietician but one who is as real as they come. She too experiments her diet of whole, real foods on herself and there’s absolutely no denying the ecologically sustainable effects of her diet on our beloved planet Earth. We’ve come so far along on this diet – in fact your bragging rights are in many way thanks to this traditional diet – only to suddenly turn the tables on it so we can benefit a handful of corporations and companies that try to “maximise” nutrition while their own knowledge is based on scientific claims that change more often than does the weather in Boston.
Not to scrap your product or claims altogether – I think a certain Mr. Pi Patel of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi may have had a lot to benefit from had his boat a few containers of soylent instead of a few cookies, but frankly, excepting these and such circumstances, I personally find the concept of soylent distasteful and quite revolting. It’s a product of a culture that thrives on food fearmongering where calories are the ultimate demon and health a scalable statistic. Yes, America continues to fall prey to lifestyle diseases exactly because such charlatan projects receive crowdfunding through unstable strategies.
The sad fact is that people like Rob Reinhart are invited to such events as the HT Summit overlooking people such as Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, who have tried hard to bring awareness back to the traditional way we eat and enjoy food. Also people such as Rujuta Diwekar, so many yogis and ayurvedic experts, even present-day doctors who are studying naturopathic concepts, entrepreneurs who are at the head of organic food movements. But most of all, such ideas are failing people like your grandmother and mine, who knew what to do when it came to food and very rightly so. They, of a gritty constitution, healthy body and mind, and above all, an unbelievably hardworking generation. My grandmother wins over you any day. “You know when not to eat something? When you see it being advertised”, she used to say.
Mr. Reinhart, while you are in India (if you still are that is), go out and have a pani puri.