Soylent Abandons Food Disruption as Its Brand

David Shultz

David Shultz reports on clean technology and electric vehicles, among other industries, for dot.LA. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Outside, Nautilus and many other publications.

Soylent Abandons Food Disruption as Its Brand

Soylent wants you to know it's not the same dystopian tech bro food liquid that it used to be. With a new strategy and an updated formula, the Downtown L.A.-based nutrition tech company is no longer billing itself as the only thing you'll ever need to eat again… although CEO Demir Vangelov says a 100% Soylent diet is still possible, just not recommended.

"We've shifted from being a meal replacement company to a complete nutrition company," says Vangelov.

Unlike the company's original CEO Rob Rhinehart, Vangelov brings food industry experience to the business. Before joining Soylent as chief operating officer and chief financial officer in 2018, he was the CFO and COO at Califia Farms, a plant-based milk company also based in California.

As Soylent has matured—and especially since he became CEO in 2020—the 20-person company has sought to distance itself from its Silicon Valley roots. Soylent's goal is not to "disrupt" nutrition, but to supplement it.

This pivot has also come with financial gains. The eight-year old company turned a profit for the first time in years in 2020, thanks to a new formulation, new flavors and a continued focus of premixed, bottled products available in retail locations rather than the traditional mail-order powder the company launched with. The premixed protein drinks are sold at Walmarts and in drug stores like Walgreens, Rite-Aid and, most recently, CVS.

That level of distribution, Vangelov says, has made Soylent into the largest provider of plant-based protein beverages in grocery stores in the U.S.

To long-time Soylent followers, this move to prepackaged, flavored drinks may seem to be a stark departure from the original business model. The company began as mail-ordered powdered formulation that Rhinehart, a Silicon Valley computer engineer dreamt up in response to his busy lifestyle and the high cost of eating well.

The new iteration comes in eight flavors, including, café chai, banana and "original." (Full disclosure: I ate plenty of "original" flavored Soylent back in 2016 and 2017. It was paste-y, rich, and sort of nutty. It tasted like what it was: Something that was filling, probably not bad for me, and designed by people who seemed to hate food and eating.)

As easy as it is to make fun of Soylent, it's got a lot of things going for it. It's vegan. It's gluten free. It contains 100% of all the nutrients, vitamins, and minerals a human being needs. It's a liquid, which is convenient for people who can't chew or don't like to chew. It requires essentially no culinary skills to prepare. It's even cheap—as low as $1.50 per meal in its original powdered formulation.

Jane Burrell, a dietician and professor at Syracuse University, says there are other considerations to make when weighing a cuisine. "It does have a lot of nutrients in it, but it's not a very satisfying and fulfilling way to eat," she said.

"We think about eating as really nourishing your body in terms of the nutrients you need, but it also makes you feel good and gives you a connection with people. It's the context of eating and thinking about your culture and all those things that make you a person. That means eating food that has textures and flavors and smells and brings back memories and feelings."

Of course, not every meal needs to be a culinary experience either. There are plenty of use cases where Burrell says Soylent makes sense. People are actually busy and healthy food often takes time to prepare. If having a Soylent drink keeps you out of the drive-thru line, great, says Burrell.

There's also something to be said for how the drink can help consumers gain or lose weight thanks to how precisely it's formulated. There's no guessing about calories or portions. If you eat a scoop, you know exactly what you're getting.

The company has had success in hospitals, where doctors have used Soylent with patients who are having trouble eating for one reason or another.

"We did a scientific study at UCLA with the throat and neck cancer department. They were extremely happy with the performance," says Vangelov. "The takeaway was that this was the best performing nutrition that they'd seen."

With a freshly-inked deal with CVS and existing distribution channels at Walgreens, Rite-Aid, Target and Wal-mart, the business is transitioning from the first food tech company into the largest provider of plant-based protein beverages in grocery stores in the U.S.

Is it soulless? Maybe, but who cares? It's healthier than the average American diet and better for the planet. It's not going to become the only food anybody eats, and it doesn't want to. Soylent is finally becoming what it has always been: bland.

Subscribe to our newsletter to catch every headline.

A Yard Tractor, a Crane, and a Top Handler: LA’s Mission to Decarbonize Ports
Evan Xie

Back in 2017, the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach announced plans to go zero emissions. The pledge, which built on the ports’ 2006 clean air goals, was an ambitious one, and officials estimated the cost of eliminating air pollution could reach $14 billion. Still, the plan, which involves transitioning to zero-emission terminal equipment by 2030 and zero-emission trucks by 2035, represented a critical step in the fight against climate change.

Read moreShow less

From Corporate Banking to Hair Care: Julian Addo on Her Startup Journey

Yasmin Nouri

Yasmin is the host of the "Behind Her Empire" podcast, focused on highlighting self-made women leaders and entrepreneurs and how they tackle their career, money, family and life.

Each episode covers their unique hero's journey and what it really takes to build an empire with key lessons learned along the way. The goal of the series is to empower you to see what's possible & inspire you to create financial freedom in your own life.

From Corporate Banking to Hair Care: Julian Addo on Her Startup Journey
Courtesy of BHE

On this episode of Behind Her Empire, Adwoa Beauty founder and CEO Julian Addo explains how her corporate career taught her how to succeed in business and how she landed a partnership with Sephora.

Read moreShow less

Hospitality Startup Jurny Launches Free AI-Enhanced Property Management System

Decerry Donato

Decerry Donato is a reporter at dot.LA. Prior to that, she was an editorial fellow at the company. Decerry received her bachelor's degree in literary journalism from the University of California, Irvine. She continues to write stories to inform the community about issues or events that take place in the L.A. area. On the weekends, she can be found hiking in the Angeles National forest or sifting through racks at your local thrift store.

Hospitality Startup Jurny Launches Free AI-Enhanced Property Management System
Courtesy of Jurny

Last week, Los Angeles-based Jurny announced it had released a free AI-enhanced property management system (PMS) powered by GPT-4 on its platform.

As previously reported by dot.LA, the hospitality startup provides software and services to hotel and short-term rental operators in an effort to streamline their operations and make guest service available from a single dashboard.

Read moreShow less