Yesterday, food replacement startup Soylent halted sales of its Soylent 1.6 powder amidst reports that it was making customers sick. Two weeks prior, the company paused sales of its latest product, the Food Bar, after Gizmodo reported that several customers had experienced nausea, vomiting, "uncontrollable diarrhoea" and severe dehydration after consuming the bars. Some customers were admitted to the emergency room due to their symptoms. Illustration: Sam Woolley
In a blog post yesterday, Soylent revealed that while the company was reviewing what happened with Food Bars, it "noticed that a handful of consumers (less than 0.1%) who consumed Powder 1.6 over the past several months reported stomach-related symptoms that are consistent with what our Bar customers described". Although the company wouldn't say which ingredient is causing the illness, it has narrowed down its search, "given there are only a few ingredients that are specific to only [its] bars and Powder 1.6".
Soylent markets itself as "open source" — it is a tech company after all — meaning the full ingredient list of 1.5 and 1.6 products are on its website. The company claims that it did not see the same kind of complaints with Soylent 1.5, which suggests that some difference in the two formulas is what's causing people to get sick.
There are many, many differences between 1.5 and 1.6 — so many that it's impossible to zero in on a problem without more information. That said, the most glaring one is the role algae plays in the formula. Since the company's inception, founder Rob Rhinehart has wanted to produce Soylent using algae, a super efficient source of nutrients. He told The New Yorker in 2014 that his ultimate goal was "to design a Soylent-producing 'superorganism': a single strain of alga that pumps out Soylent all day. Then we won't need factories."
The difference between Soylent 1.5 and 1.6 shows how much progress the company has made when it comes to using algae. Soylent 1.5 has only 2.2 grams of Algal DHA Powder, but is mostly comprised of High Oleic Sunflower and Canola Oil powdered with Maltodextrin. Soylent 1.6, on the other hand, has 176 grams of Algal and Canola Oil Powder.
But differences between the powder formulas doesn't necessarily account for the bars getting people ill. Soylent powder may be open source, but the bars are far more mysterious. The company does have nutrition facts available for the bars. Whole Algal Flour is the fifth ingredient listed.
Gizmodo first reported on the bars making people sick after finding many, many posts on r/Soylent and Soylent's own message boards complaining of getting violently ill after eating the bars. Originally, Soylent wrote off the complaints by attributing the illness to "a certain subpopulation of individuals" who "may have an allergy, intolerance or sensitivity to ingredients such as soy and / or sucralose". But after receiving so many reports, the company decided "to err on the side of caution and take [the] preventative step" of pulling the bars from the shelves, and offering refunds.
Besides possible allergic reactions or odd interactions caused by a combination of ingredients, it's worth noting that products like Soylent drinks and Food Bars are especially susceptible to food borne illness, like any product that requires such an intensive process to manufacture. Eric Newguard, a food scientist with a PhD in Biological Systems Engineering who currently works as an operations analyst at Raw All Natural Pet Food, told Gizmodo, "Every time a product is touched (moving or processing), there is a risk that a microbial contamination can occur." It's unclear where the powder is produced, but the bars are made at Betty Lou's factory in McMinnville, Oregon, so there's a possibility that there was some contamination there. Gizmodo previously reported that many of the bars that were making people sick all shared a common expiration date, 14 July 2017, and identifying numbers before and after the expiration date.
While BuzzFeed reported that Betty Lou's had not undergone a health inspection since 2014, the Oregon department of agriculture confirmed to Gizmodo that Betty Lou's underwent inspection earlier this year. In a message addressed to the factory's "valued customers and clients" sent to Gizmodo by an anonymous source, the factory claims the illness "did not originate from our facility". Betty Lou's also claims it passed its safe quality food desk audit "with a score of 100% compliance" and that the results of that inspection will be released on November 8. Betty Lou's has not responded to repeated requests for comment over the last several weeks.
It's also important to note that even though Soylent is marketed as a meal replacement, the US government classifies the product as a dietary supplement, meaning it's regulated differently than food. The FDA's website emphasises that the agency "is not authorised to review dietary supplement products for safety and effectiveness before they are marketed". Soylent says the company is investigating what went awry and will share its findings with the FDA. We have reached out to the FDA to ask whether the organisation is currently investigating incidents of Soylent-caused illness.
This is just the latest dustup for the company, which has had its nutritional claims challenged since the release of its first powdered drink meal replacement in 2013. This also isn't the first time the company's been accused of being the source of health problems. Despite some early viral success owing to an aggressive publicity campaign, which claimed Soylent would allow you to give up food, experts were not convinced. Joy Dubost, a spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told Time in 2013 that many of the company's claims about the nutritional benefits of Soylent "are not scientifically substantiated".
"The composition of what [Rhinehart] has made is not going to be nutritionally adequate. He has made a lot of assumptions, and it is not going to be sustainable by any means for a certain population or even for an individual," Dubost said.
When Motherboard's Brian Merchant toured the company's factory in 2013 (manufacturing has since moved elsewhere), he spotted a bunch of rodents. He also reported that several packets "were infested with mould". A cursory search of "mould" in the subreddit reveals dozens and dozens of people who have found mould on all sorts of Soylent products, especially its 2.0 product, which the company continues to sell.
We reached out to Soylent for comment but had not received a response at tie of writing."