Friday, May 30, 2014

Thoughts on Soylent, the new food substitute

Before I get going, full disclosure: I have not been able to try the stuff, on account of money.

There was a good article at Ars Technica recently about a new product called Soylent, and it made a lot of good points. Soylent, if you're not aware, is a meal replacement product that got it's start on Kickstarter, where it rapidly blew past it's funding goal, and eventually attracted other investors as well. It's supposed to be so nutritionally complete that three shakes per day would give you all the nutrition you need in a single day. And judging by it's FDA approved nutrition label, it can do just that.

But apparently some people hate the very idea of such a product, a product that could, in theory, let you avoid regular food altogether and be perfectly healthy. Yet some object, not in a "not for me, but ok" kind of way, but in a visceral, "it shouldn't be allowed" kind of way. It's that second reaction I have a hard time understanding.

One of the things mentioned in the article is that some people have pointed out is how easy it is to simply cook something healthy up in your kitchen. Except it's not that way for many, not just for people in third world countries, but for people right here in America, a food saturated country and culture if ever there was one.

I have struggled with hunger in my life at multiple times. Times when I was poor, times when I was homeless, and times like right now, where I'm employed, my wife is employed, but somehow, I still struggle to eat enough. I've been losing weight steadily for months, but not on purpose. True, I don't like that pot belly I've got, but neither do I like losing it because I'm forced to restrict myself. Sometimes I only eat once a day, other times maybe twice. I'm rarely truly full and satisfied. I have to struggle to balance my hypoglycemia against the lack of money we have to afford simple food. A product like Soylent, which shows promise in becoming truly cheap and affordable (the makers have stated an eventual goal of $1.50 per meal), is something I would jump at as a way to afford to be healthy. And yet there are people who think it just shouldn't be allowed? I find that, honestly, a disgusting attitude that lacks in genuine appreciation and empathy for the struggles that people right here in America are going through daily.

Aside from that, there's the issue of "it's easy to cook" that I just don't find to be true. I relate to the following from the article:
As many have pointed out in past comment threads on Ars and on other sites, cooking isn’t hard at all—whipping up a wonderful pan-seared salmon with a bit of olive oil takes literally less than 10 minutes. The Internet is bursting with easy recipes that can be quickly pulled together from simple ingredients. There is no excuse, I have heard many people say, for not being able to produce a healthy and delicious meal even if you’re pressed for time. 
To quote Ben Kenobi, what they’re saying is true—from a certain point of view. Though it may not be obvious to someone who keeps a full pantry, effective and sustained cooking requires an incredibly complex long tail of supporting knowledge and skills that a lot of geeks—me included—simply don’t have. With the possible exception of baking, cooking is a decidedly analog process, relying as much on deduction, intuition, guesswork, and experience as it does on measured ingredients and conditions. This "fuzzy" process can induce anxiety and actual fear in people who have never cooked before—especially geek types. 
Here is a simple recipe for cooking ground beef. I plucked it randomly out of Google because it looked easy. But right away, it’s filled with things that either require you to already be familiar with cooking or that will send you down endless rabbit holes of additional research. The recipe’s introduction talks about how to pick fresh beef and how you may or may not want slightly fatty beef. But how do you know? What effect does that have on flavor? Is it important? Can it be quantified? How do you make an informed choice about what you want your food to taste like based on these kinds of squiggly, soft parameters? Further, there are steps in the recipe labeled as "optional." How do you know whether or not you need those steps? What are the parameters defining optional, and what effects on the outcome of the recipe will they have? 
Step one says to "film the pan with a little" oil. How much is a little? It says "film," so does "a little" in conjunction with "film" mean to ensure the entire bottom of the pan is covered in oil? If so, to what depth, exactly? Or does "a little" semantically override "film" and you really only need a few millilitres? If so, how many? 
Step two says to "warm the pan over medium to medium-high heat." Which one is it? What set of initial conditions are we attempting to achieve? "Medium" isn't a temperature, so exactly how hot should the pan be? How do we know when it’s hot enough? Should we get a thermometer and attempt to measure when the pan has reached thermal equilibrium with the burner beneath it? 
Steps three and four are even more problematic. Step three says to break the meat into "several" pieces, but then step four says to "continue breaking the ground meat into smaller and smaller pieces." Why are these two discrete steps? Is there supposed to be a delay between steps three and four? What constitutes "several" pieces? How do we know when the beef is sufficiently broken up? 
And then, worst of all, we have to "sprinkle with salt and any spices"—how much salt? Is there a preferred ratio of salt to beef? And what kind of spices? There’s a tremendous variety available—how are we supposed to know, based on this recipe, which ones to use and in what quantity?
Until recently, I worked at a group home for disabled adults, and I had to cook. Rules were that meals should be from scratch whenever possible. I hated the cooking, positively hated it, for exactly the reasons laid out here. I found it a daunting, sometimes terrifying, prospect, and my attempts to follow "simple" recipes wound up in more than one disaster of a meal, or near disaster. Yes, I can brown hamburger, but a lot of things about cooking were still, and are still, a mystery of fuzzy complexities that belong in the Abyss. I love microwave meals for their simplicity: stick in the microwave for a specified number of minutes, and bam! you got a meal. Soylent sounds as easy as a microwave meal. Just mix, and go. No time wasted (because I also hate how long cooking takes for so little return--seriously, 30 minutes to an hour for something that takes ten to eat?), and no daunting, terrifying, fuzzy instructions.

If you're sitting there thinking "but cooking is easy!" still, consider this example from the article of something else that's easy, at least for some:
To turn the problem on its head for perspective: expecting someone without experience in the kitchen to jump in and make healthy food from a recipe is a little like expecting a non-technical person to sit down and compile a complex Linux application from source. It's not exactly hard—I mean, you don't even have to write any code! You just download your tarball, make sure you have your dependencies, set the options you want, and then it's just configure, make, and make install. The computer does all the work! You just sit there and watch it cook, er, I mean, compile!
Easy, right? Actually, that went over my head, so let me consider an example from my own kind of geekery: RPGs. Make a tenth level Pathfinder character for a campaign that features dungeon crawling and political intrigue.  It's not that hard. First, roll up some initial stats, using a standard 4d6 drop the lowest one method (or, if I'm the DM, 5d6 drop the lowest two, because I like things a little powered up). Second, decide on class. Of course, to do that, you may wish to consider what kind of character you want to play, and what sort of stats you got from your initial rolls. Do you want a tough, kick-in-the-door style of character that really doesn't like all these political games? Or how about a charismatic magic user who uses charm magic to, well, charm people? What about a sneaky, manipulative type? Etc, etc. Not that hard, though you really ought to consider the sort of campaign your in, and what the other players are making for their own characters. Someone needs to be a healer after all, especially when going into the trap and monster filled dungeon, or if there's an expectation of assassination attempts as part of all the politics. Then you need to pick skills: do you want to be good at climbing and jumping? How about book learning? And don't forget to pick your feats, and to choose from an array of class abilities. Once you're done with that, you still need to consult the Wealth by Level table to determine how much and what kind of equipment you can buy for your character. Then, plug everything into your character sheet, add up your modifiers, and you're good to go.

Easy. And a lot of fun.

Unless, of course, you're not into that sort of thing. I'm not into cooking. I hate it. I have no interest in being good at it, and don't know that I ever could be good at it. The frustration and hatred I feel for the process just makes the end result seem not worth the time. So, I'm sometimes forced to do it, but I'll avoid it when I can. Some are probably thinking "but it's a challenge that you should try to overcome! it's good to overcome challenges!" Sure it is, but why is this particular challenge one that anyone should be required to overcome if it isn't necessary? And with the advent of things like Soylent, it might not be necessary. That's a good thing.

There are more things in the source article that I really hope you'll take a look at, and consider carefully if you're still having doubts. For my perspective, anything that has the potential to be cheap, very healthy, and not a time waster, is something we should embrace. At least on behalf of those who can benefit from food that's cheap, very healthy, and not a time waster. I intend to be watching the prices on this, and if it drops enough, I'm grabbing some.

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