The company's food and drink products are marketed as all the nutrients you need.

By Amanda MacMillan
Updated January 08, 2020
Credit: Courtesy of Soylent

The food of the future seems to have hit a bit of a roadblock. Soylent, a brand of bioengineered meal-replacement products that boasts “all of the elements of a healthy diet,” announced yesterday that its newest offering—a food bar that launched in August—is making people sick.

Consumers recently began posting concerns on the company’s forum, citing episodes of vomiting, diarrhea, and becoming “violently ill” after consuming the bars. Eater and other media sites reported the news last week, noting that similar threads had also been reported on Reddit.

Yesterday, Soylent addressed the issue in a blog post. The company instructed consumers to throw away any bars in their possession, and said that it was temporarily halting sales and shipping of the product.

“It has recently come to our attention that a small number of our customers have experienced gastrointestinal issues after consuming Soylent Bars,” the blog post states. The company said it has not yet identified a cause, and that refunds will be offered to customers via email.

Soylent’s bars were introduced as a new alternative to the company’s flagship product, Soylent Powder. The powder, which contains a patented blend of soy protein, algae oil, beet sugar, and other vitamins and nutrients, can be mixed with water “to create a nutritionally balanced meal that will satisfy you for hours,” according to the company’s website.

The company also sells a bottled, pre-mixed drink called Soylent 2.0, and a Soylent-coffee blend called Coffiest.

Since the brand’s launch in 2013, it’s received considerable attention for its unique—and somewhat controversial—marketing approach. Soylent claims to contain 100% of essential vitamins and minerals, and just the right balance of protein, fat, fiber, and other nutrients that humans need to survive and thrive.

The formula was created by four entrepreneurs working for startups and “living off a diet of frozen corn dogs and ramen” who were eager for a healthy yet convenient alternative. In a 2013 interview with Time, co-founder Rob Rhinehart said he lived exclusively off Soylent, with the exception of a few weekend meals.

Some people enjoy cooking and preparing real meals, he said—but for those who don’t, Soylent can be a nutritious, time-saving, and affordable alternative.

Many nutritionists, however, have remained less than convinced. “When it comes to meals or snacks, you really shouldn’t mess with Mother Nature,” says registered dietitian Joan Salge Blake, clinical associate professor at Boston University. “These products may have the basic nutrients listed in a textbook, but they’re likely missing other compounds that, working in conjunction, could be your ticket to longevity, disease prevention, and overall better health.”

Soylent takes its name from the 1966 science-fiction novel Make Room! Make Room!, in which a soy- and lentil-based product of the same name is used to feed a massively growing global population. (The movie Soylent Green was loosely based on this book, but with a disturbing twist: In this version, the product’s secret ingredient turned out to be people.)

The company’s new caramel-flavored bar is marketed as a lighter, more portable form of Soylent, with 250 calories and 12.5% of “everything your body needs.” In other words, a person on a 2,000-calorie diet could eat 12 bars—or a combination of bars and other Soylent products—to fulfill all of their daily calorie and nutrient requirements.

The product’s fine print notes that “while not intended to replace every meal, Soylent can replace any meal.” Because individuals’ nutritional needs vary, however, children and women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or may become pregnant are cautioned to consult their doctor before eating.

It’s unknown why the new bars are causing customers to become ill—but even without these recent problems, Salge Blake says that relying heavily on them for your dietary needs may not be the smartest choice.

“The first ingredient is soy protein and the second ingredient is corn syrup—a type of sugar,” she says. “Most Americans are eating too much added sugar, so we need to be more savvy when it comes to the food products we choose.”

A peanut butter sandwich or a snack of fruit and nuts can be just as convenient as a prepackaged bar, she says, and contains other healthful ingredients with no added sugars. It can also be less expensive than eating Soylent bars, which retail for $24 per 12-pack.

Soylent’s nutritional profile isn’t the only thing that raises concern for Salge Blake. “What we’re doing while we eat is just as important as what we’re eating,” she says. “If you really don’t have time to cook—or to even sit down and have real food—maybe it’s time to start questioning your lifestyle.”

Flavor and texture are important components of eating, she adds, and so is enjoying meals with friends and family. “Taking some time to break bread together—especially if it’s whole-grain bread—is good for you and for the people around you,” she says.