In truth, yesterday’s post on the power of default selection was also a preamble for my thoughts on Soylent. In a prior blog post, I hinted that I would further share my experiences with Soylent. That I will certainly do, but for this post I’d like to build off of the idea of defaults: Soylent as the new default.
It helps to know the context of Soylent’s genesis to understand its appeal to some (myself included). To put it bluntly, Soylent was designed and created by software engineer Rob Rhinehart who was too lazy/busy to cook healthy meals. If you love cooking and eating healthy food already, Soylent will have little appeal. (Or if you really enjoy delicious-tasting food at all times, to be be perfectly honest.) But for those without the time and/or interest in preparing healthy food choices, Soylent is arguably a bland-tasting but nutritionally-complete substitute. (The argument for or against nutritional completeness is a giant topic by itself that I’m not going to delve into here).
The convenience factor was the most appealing aspect of Soylent to me. (Ok, I admit it. There is totally a nerdy sci-fi aspect to consuming all your nutrition through a space-age powder). In the past, I’ve had the motivation to stock up on fruits and veggies to maintain a healthier diet only to have those ambitions trampled by the hectic schedule of daily life and propensity for food to spoil. I also did try a “juice fast” for several days. The experience was interesting to say the least, but unsustainable in the long run (and very expensive).
The ability to truly maintain a healthy diet over the course of more than a couple weeks has so far eluded me. It was always more convenient to eat processed or prepared foods rather than cooking healthy meals. But Soylent tipped the balance much closer in its favor as the more convenient option. “Normal” prepared and processed foods are still more convenient, but not by as large of a margin. Two minutes of prep-work is about all it takes to prepare an entire day’s worth of Soylent.
With this understanding of Soylent as more convenient than traditional cooking and preparing of healthy foods, let’s return to the idea of defaults. What happens when we are able to substitute the processed and prepared foods of a standard, unhealthy American diet with a processed and prepared healthier diet of Soylent? It’s not a panacea for poor eating habits, of course. But by changing the default (if such a thing can be accomplished and sustained), it can have a measurable impact on overall quality of eating.
Consider this: if the current challenges of delivery method (powder that must be mixed with water in a pitcher) and flavor (Soylent has a nondescript, bland taste) can be overcome, Soylent could be a viable default. Didn’t have time to bake that loaf of bread or prepare a salad from the fresh produce in your fridge? Grab a Soylent bar (such a think does not exist yet, sadly). It may not be as ideal or complex of a nutritional source that traditional food provides, but it sure beats McDonald’s.
The best argument I can make for Soylent borrows from Thaler and Sunstein’s concept that we can “Nudge” ourselves to a better outcome in terms of eating. There are many arguments against Soylent (ranging from skeptical nutritionalists to outraged foodies). But I would urge caution in holding Soylent to a perfect standard (something of which Rhinehart himself seems guilty). In Voltaire’s words: “Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien,” roughly translated as “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Soylent is still very much a curiosity for most people and has a long way to go for widespread acceptance, but I think it has the potential to become the convenient default for healthier eating (get working on those Soylent bars, Rhinehart!). In scenarios where the default selection maintains substantial inertia (my own eating habits, for one), replacing the default can nudge us in the right direction.