'A great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.' -Saul Bellow, To Jerusalem and Back

Maybe It's Not The Soylent

by Ethan Glover, Fri, Oct 28, 2016 - (Edited) Mon, Oct 31, 2016

Soylent pulled its second product from sales after repeated complaints about the product causing illness. The complaints started with the food bar and extended into the powder. Those complaints came from <0.1% of the customer base. The powder complaints started shortly after. That recipe hasn't changed since the food bar issues, but customers are having problems anyway. Soylent has run multiple tests with some of the most reputable independent inspection companies. All tests show there is nothing wrong.

So what's the deal? From an outside view, I place the blame on the customers.

Table of Contents

Nocebo Effect

The food bars had an odd taste. It was like a dry powder tightly packed into a solid with a slight taste of caramel. The taste was good, but the texture was off. My first theory says that some customers were afraid of the product to begin with.

Regular Soylent customers are familiar with A) the disgusted looks on peoples faces when they hear about the product and, B) have probably given free samples to people with those mentalities. Or, there have certainly been a small amount of people who have consumed Soylent products as a joke, dare, or stunt. To regular customers, that's about as impressive or interesting as eating an apple. But the focus here is on the mentality surrounding Soylent.

Drugs like LSD, DMT, and marijuana do not cause paranoia or freakouts. Those side effects happen when people take them with unrealistic or immature expectations of what the drugs do. Soylent isn't a drug, but this kind of placebo effect is still a possibility.

Considering the opinions of the Soylent name and its nature, it is not a far stretch that people are making the same mistakes with it as they do with hallucinogens. They have unrealistic and incorrect interpretations of what it is and judge it harshly without full consideration.

So for the small amount of people who consume the product despite their fears, it can create a negative reaction in their bodies. A nocebo-induced food poisoning. (Nocebo is the opposite, negative version of placebo.) Don't think that's possible?

The exact same story going on with Soylent now, happened to Coca-Cola in 1999. That story is now a case study for the nocebo effect used by the American Council on Science and Health.

A wave of illness among Belgian children in June 1999 appeared to be a typical food poisoning outbreak. The culprit was contaminated Coca-Cola. Carbon dioxide used to carbonate a batch of the soda's syrup had been contaminated with some sulfur compounds. The contaminants were present at between five and seventeen parts per billion. Sulfides can cause illness, however, only at levels about a thousand times greater than these values. As Malcolm Gladwell reports, "At seventeen parts per billion, they simply leave a bad smell-like rotten eggs-which means that Belgium should have experienced nothing more than a minor epidemic of nose-wrinkling. More puzzling is the fact that, in four of the five schools where the bad Coke allegedly struck, half of the kids who got sick hadn't drunk Coke that day."

In 2009, Toyota lost tens of millions of dollars on recalls because of brakes failing to operate on vehicles. The problem even led to a few deaths. But after millions of dollars in testing, Toyota found no problem with the cars. The real problem was people panicking and pressing harder on the accelerator. They didn't realize they never hit the brake to begin with.

I think we could be seeing a similar issue with Soylent. And in fact, the perception that something is wrong, the news stories about Soylent causing illness, may be exaggerating the nocebo effect. It may be responsible for the issue expanding from the food bars to the powder.

Through its press releases, Soylent immediately took fault and assumed that there was something wrong with the product. They pulled the food bars early, media got hold of the story, and now they're pulling the powder. An attempt at transparency, and giving customers benefit of the doubt is great. But what if that is making the issue worse?

Overconsumption

As an alternative, less likely theory, I think people may be consuming too much. Considering the Soylent customer base, I have no doubt that there are plenty of people forcing themselves to consume 100% of their daily nutrition according to the Soylent label.

The thing is, it's not healthy to consume highly nutritious food in excess. You don't need 100% of "daily nutrition". Do any non-Soylent drinkers actually pay attention to numbers like that? Not doing so doesn't make them unhealthy. It doesn't mean they're malnourished.

But if those percentages aren't used, how can people know what they need and when? Your body has this cool mechanism called hunger. If you're hungry, eat. If you're not, don't. Yes, there is leeway. You can snack on something just for the pleasure.

But just as in the case with the nocebo effect, if you don't have the right perceptions of what Soylent is, it can cause problems. Consume it like a snack (probable with food bar customers), or force yourself to drink more than your body needs and the body just might see it as a poison.

Think I'm making shit up again? It's commonly known that too much Vitamin C or Zinc can cause nausea, diarrhea and stomach cramps. That's only one example. But with a single serving of Soylent containing 20% of both and 20% of everything else... overconsumption is a risk.

100% isn't everyone's number. That's not what you need. Those numbers are there to help shoppers compare products. Not to tell you how much to consume.

"These values assist consumers in interpreting information about the amount of a nutrient that is present in a food and in comparing nutritional values of food products." -FDA

100% is a rough estimate based on a 2,000 calorie diet to tell you about the food. Not to tell you about your health needs.

I only need three Soylent 2.0 bottles a day. Am I missing out because I'm only getting 60% of my daily nutrition? Nope. I've been doing that for two years. The reason is a mix of my activity levels, body type, metabolism, and a whole host of other factors.

Transparency Isn't Always Best

This whole issue with Soylent has helped me to learn why some companies are vague and mostly silent when these things happen. They can't blame the customers for fear of backlash, and they can't naively assume the issue is with their product when there is no real evidence.

That's what Soylent did in their customer emails and press releases. That's what the media did. Now the problem is getting worse and the fear of Soylent is growing. Without one bit of evidence that Soylent is the problem to begin with. Just some online anecdote and complaints from less than 0.1% of Soylent customers.

I think it was a bad move for Soylent to jump on the issue and pull products so quickly. A promise to investigate, some private interviews with the customers who got sick, and overall silence with the public would've worked better.

They allowed the story to get out of hand and if this is a mentality issue, they've made it near impossible to fix for many former and potential customers.

But there's nothing I can do about that. What do you think? Am I right or wrong? Let me know why below.