When software engineer Rob Rhinehart wrote a blog post on the lengths he'd go to live "less wastefully", many corners of the internet reacted with anger, dismay, and concern — the Soylent creator seemed to miss the point of waste with arguments for why one should, say, throw out one's clothing instead of washing it. But perhaps there's a reason for the food replacement mogul's odd stances, as according to one environmental group, his favorite meal might contain brain-damaging levels of lead.
You remember Soylent! As we reported back in May of 2014:
A 24-year-old programmer, Robert Rhinehart, sharing a hovel with a couple of other programmers in San Francisco's Tenderloin, decided in December 2012 that he was spending too much money and time on eating. He and his roommates had just spent $100,000 of seed funding on a failed startup (it involved inexpensive cell phone towers), and with only $70,000 of the money left they were scrambling to come up with something else to show for themselves. Rhinehart, who only saw eating as a burden and distraction in his day, began trying to come up with a nutritional shake that could function as a replacement for a full days' meals, rather than just as a supplement. Fastforward a few months, after some online buzz and a crowd-funding campaign, they easily raised over a million dollars.
Since then, the food's become a favorite among tech workers far too busy and important to have an Uber bring them food or whatever. (And as of October, it's less farty!)
However, a lawsuit filed this week against the company by environmental activist group As You Sow says that the goo is in "violation of California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act for failure to provide sufficient warning to consumers of lead and cadmium levels."
"Test results commissioned by As You Sow, conducted by an independent laboratory, show that one serving of Soylent 1.5 can expose a consumer to a concentration of lead that is 12 to 25 times above California’s Safe Harbor level for reproductive health, and a concentration of cadmium that is at least 4 times greater than the Safe Harbor level for cadmium," their press release reads.
Over-exposure to lead is no joke: the National Institute of Health says that exposure to lead can cause issues including "Reduced IQ," "Aggressive behavior," and "vomiting, staggering walk, muscle weakness, seizures, or coma."
"People who survive toxic lead levels," the NIH says, "may have some permanent brain damage."
For Soylent's part, they admit on their site that:
A recent quality assurance analysis conducted by an independent, third-party lab showed that the heavy metal content in the brown rice protein used in Soylent was above levels indicated in previous testing.
These levels are in no way toxic, and Soylent remains completely safe and nutritious. Soylent is not in violation of any product-safety standards or requirements, and is manufactured in FDA-approved facilities that follow federally regulated current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP). No changes to our formula are mandated by law, and we stand by the quality and safety of our product.
Food issues website Food Navigator spoke with Andrew Behar, CEO of As You Sow, who said that "the lead levels in Soylent were 'well over the legal limit.'"
“Since Soylent is marketed as a meal replacement,"Behar said, "users may be chronically exposed to lead and cadmium concentrations that exceed California's safe harbor level."
Carol Brophy, an attorney at Sedgwick LLP, who isn't involved in the Soylent case but has defended clients from suits like this in the past, says that the suit is "'alarmist' and misleading, given that its figures appeared to be based on the assumption that people eat 'nothing but Soylent every day, 365 days a year, forever.'"
Just like anything else, it seems? Eating one thing, all the time, isn't great, I think we can all agree. But is that what Soylent is doing, or counseling its consumers to do? According to Rhinehart's controversial post:
First, I never cook. I am all for self reliance but repeating the same labor over and over for the sake of existence is the realm of robots. I utilize soylent only at home and go out to eat when craving company or flavor. This eliminates a panoply of expensive tools and rotting ingredients I would need to spend an unconscionable amount of time sourcing, preparing, and cleaning. It also gives me an incentive to explore the city’s fine restaurants and ask friends out to eat. In fact, I find soylent has made me more social when it comes to food. I can spend the money I saved from groceries and take out to buy a friend lunch or dinner. When soylent 2.0 reached private beta, I was thrilled to learn that thanks to aseptic processing the product does not require refrigeration, and will still keep its nutrition for at least a year. It tastes better cold but I think it’s fine warm. Getting rid of my fridge was one of the greatest days of my life. Nevermore will I listen to that damn compressor moan.
I have not set foot in a grocery store in years. Nevermore will I bumble through endless confusing aisles like a pack-donkey searching for feed while the smell of rotting flesh fills my nostrils and fluorescent lights sear my eyeballs and sappy love songs torture my ears. Grocery shopping is a multisensory living nightmare. There are services that will make someone else do it for me but I cannot in good conscience force a fellow soul through this gauntlet.