As we are reminded of on a near-daily basis, the American lifestyle is not environmentally friendly. Not only do we need to stop using SUVs to cart our kids to soccer, we need to find more sustainable food sources. And in true American fashion, Silicon Valley has risen to the occasion and provided some entrepreneurial solutions.
One of the more well-known tech foods is Soylent. Soylent is a genetically-modified product, derived from soy and oats. Billed as the ultimate meal replacement drink, Soylent contains enough calories and micro-nutrients to replace any meal. (The original goal of Soylent was to remove the need to eat ANY food. Foodies were not happy but many people took on the challenge and lived off of only Soylent for months at a time.) The original target audience for Soylent was Silicon Valley techies who did not have enough time in their day to stop and chew. Now, Soylent is sold at your neighborhood Walmart.
Not only will Soylent require humans to expend less energy to consume it, due to the long shelf-life, Soylent reduces food waste. Soylent is advertised as made entirely out of plant products, which reduces the amount of resources that are required to produce this liquid meal. And if you think the individual-bottle packaging is wasteful, Soylent offers a line of powders for mixing. And you can buy directly from the company, reducing the carbon-imprint of shipping. Lastly, Soylent brags about the benefits of GMOs, commenting on how the process is better for the planet and society and should not be viewed as scary.
But why aren’t we all just saving the world by drinking Soylent? Because governments do not know what it is.
Recently, the Canadian government pulled Soylent’s drinks off the market for failing to meet the standard of “meal replacement.” The ban was prompted by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s inspection of Soylent after a series of consumer complains, including a 2016 spurt of gastro-intestinal issues resulting from “food bars” and powders. The food bars were removed from all markets and Soylent has yet to replace them. TerraVia, a company that transforms low-cost plant sugars into oils and produces food-safe algae, stopped supplying Soylent because of Soylent’s failure to address consumer complaints.
While their shakes and reformulated powder are still available in America, Soylent has faced an uphill battle with regulators—not only did Soylent pull all of its bars and powders off the market in 2016, the company did a voluntary recall of its drinks and powder in 2017. While the 2017 recall was not prompted by unexplained sickness, it was prompted by unexplained animal products—the “made from plant” drink had milk in it.
But is Soylent safe? The American government may not actually know. Soylent proudly claims to be made of GMOs. While the FDA does not require producers to label their products as GMO, the agency does provide some oversight of GMO. Per a 2001 ruling, developers of “plant-derived bioengineered foods” must submit scientific data to the FDA 120 days prior the food hitting the market. However, the FDA narrowly defines what products meet this requirement—one must submit data only if the modification results in a higher rate of the desired substance than comparable foods. Additionally, the FDA excludes certain GMOs from the evaluation process if the modification has already been approved in a prior FDA ruling. (This rule applies to must plants that have been modified to include herbicides.) The FDA is primarily focused on new food additives and has taken the view that there is “unlikely to be a safety question. . . when the [modified food] products do not differ significantly from other substances commonly found in food and are already present at generally comparable or greater levels in currently consumed foods.” This means that GMOs that target substances that are already in food (such as carbohydrates, fats, and oils) are “generally regarded as safe” without any FDA-testing. For those items that are not excluded, the producer must supply data about the origin of the plant strain, the method of modification, the level GMOs in the food, any potential allergens, and historical information about comparable foods. All of this data is self-reported; the FDA does not do its own scientific studies. Instead, the FDA reviews the data.
Based on Soylent’s blog-post devoted to promoting GMOs and its online ingredient lists, it does not seem like Soylent qualifies for the FDA testing. Soylent mentions the benefits of pesticide-resistant GMOs—and the FDA does not require those historic-plants to be reviewed, believing that any safety questions have already been addressed because they are been on the market for so long. Additionally, the blog talks about the power of genetic modification to provide nutrients, such as carbohydrates and vitamins, both of which are found in natural food. If Soylent has not introduced a new food additive into the market, it most likely has not been FDA tested.
Soylent does have a nutrition label, which means the FDA has done some review of Soylent. But, once again, that review can be as limited as checking the data supplied by Soylent. Because of its nutritional label, Soylent can make claims about its nutritional and health values. And, as before, the FDA simple reviews the health claims to make sure all the required information is included and does no independent investigation.
So, the US government has approved of the health claims and nutrition label of Soylent and the Canadian government does not think it is a “meal replacement.” Soylent has pulled its products of markets multiple times yet its drinks are available at Walmart. Is this in-between land the future for all new foods?