Note: Neither I nor this recipe have anything to do with Hacker School, a programming school in NYC that appears to be pretty rad.
This month I finished my tenure as the Resident Chef & Kitchen Manager of the Beacon Hill Friends House, and I’m now in San Francisco launching a career as a web developer, with a very different relationship to food.
But more on that another time. Right now, I want to get a recipe out, to meet considerable demand for it. My classmates, housemates, and the internets want a soylent recipe. And I’m going to give them one.
What is soylent? It seems like everyone in the Bay Area tech scene knows about it already, but for the rest of the universe – it’s an open-source food movement, focused on developing easy, fast, and cheap ways of getting optimal nutrition, so you can devote more of your resources to other things. The flagship “distro” is the creator Rob Rhinehart’s company, whose crowdfunding campaign just passed $500,000, and if you’re interested in soylent, you should contribute and order some of his mix.
But he isn’t shipping until August, nor has he open-sourced his recipe. So in the meantime, you may DIY with mine below – and fork it on GitHub.
This is the product of months of intensive work.
In February, my then-partner told me about a group of loosely MIT-affiliated people who were reverse-engineering Rob’s idea (with his blessing). In March, we become heavily involved, researching nutrients, ingredients, and sourcing. But in April, I realized I needed to work out my own system, since soon I wouldn’t be in Boston to benefit from the group’s joint purchases of 50-pound sacks of maltodextrin.
And in May I moved to SF – where in spare moments between learning Ruby and SQL, I’ve been developing a recipe optimized for students of programming academies like my own (App Academy, Hackbright Academy, Dev Bootcamp, Hack Reactor, Bloc, and the forthcoming RocketU are the ones I’m aware of). Meaning, fast, easy, and cheap… and taking advantage of the miracle we call Instacart.
So let’s begin. And let’s write the specs first.
The basic idea of soylent is a meal that (1) meets all of your body’s nutritional needs, yet is (2) easy to store, (3) easy to transport, (4) easy to prepare, (5) cheap, and (6) tastes good. Basically, an intelligently-designed smoothie mix, to which you can simply add water.
Those seem to be Rob’s main specs. I would add that it should ideally (7) use familiar, easy-to-find ingredients, (8) be compatible with common dietary restrictions, and (9) be not only easy to make a meal from the dry mix (per above), but also easy to make a batch of the dry mix itself. To draw a programming analogy, my goal has been to write a recipe in a high-level language like Ruby, whereas Rob is writing his in C. His mix, therefore, will probably be better when it’s ready, but mine is much easier for you to recreate yourself.
In particular, I’ve sought to relieve you of the obligation to purchase and measure milligram quantities of lots of individual micronutrient compounds, because that requires specialized equipment, it’s a pain, and it’s easy to screw up with potentially serious consequences. Don’t go that route, unless you know what you’re doing. Either wait for Rob to start shipping, or do something like what I’m doing below.
So here is my recipe, which I think passes all these tests.
Disclaimer: I am not a doctor or a nutritionist. I’m just providing information. What you eat is your own responsibility, and you should talk to your doctor before making major changes to your diet (I did).
This was written for three servings, a hypothetical soylent day. You don’t have to consume soylent exclusively – any more than you need drink water exclusively – but assuming three servings makes calculations easier.
First, take 120 grams of oat flour. (In English measurements, that’s about 1 cup, or 390 cubic barleycorns.)
Why oat flour? Because you need carbs, and because oat flour is an excellent source of carbs.
You need carbs because your brain needs glucose to function, unlike the rest of your body, which is less picky about its sources of energy. And unless you’re one of the few people who have adapted your body to a low carb diet, you need to consume at least 130 grams/day of carbs in order for you brain to work properly. 120 g of oat flour contain about 78 g of carbs, which gets us off to a good start.
And oat flour is a particularly excellent source of carbs – h/t Rob – because it has a moderate-to-low glycemic index, tastes good, and happens to also have a fair amount of fiber, which is difficult to get enough of.
Next, the single most contentious ingredient – protein. After extensive deliberation and experimentation, I am recommending Trader Joe’s soy protein, unflavored, exactly 85 g of it:
Why soy? Because soy protein is very high quality, and very high in calcium.
And every time I’ve looked into the evidence for the supposed dangers of soy, I find myself thinking, “where’s the beef?” Many people (males especially) get worked up over phytoestrogens, for example, for reasons that I suspect have more to do with etymology than biology. Seriously, fellas – there is nothing to worry about.
Why Trader Joe’s specifically? Because they fortify it surprisingly well, with lots of micronutrients that are otherwise hard to obtain in the proper amounts. 85 g will satisfy your minimums for over a dozen micronutrients, without quite hitting the upper limits of anything. The unflavored version is best. (The vanilla version won’t kill you, but it’s a bit high on calcium and a bit lower on various micros, so prefer the unflavored.)
That said – you may substitute if you prefer, or if you need an amount other than 85 g. But you must follow these steps: (1) Find an unfortified pure protein powder. Pea protein is a good vegan alternative to soy, and whey protein is the best omnivorous option. (2) To make up for lost micronutrients, use one of the following multivitamins: two Optimum Nutrition Opti-Women capsules, or one Rainbow Light Men’s One tablet. The Opti-Women is slightly superior; prefer that if you’re female and/or secure enough in your masculinity to buy pink vitamins. (3) To make up for lost calcium, add 5 g of calcium citrate. (4) To make up for lost choline, add a few extra grams of lecithin. (5) To make sure you’re not getting too much iron, read the “Safety” section. You might need to use the Rainbow Light multi if so.
Next up, measure a bunch of olive oil into a separate container.
How much? It depends on your caloric needs. Start with 85 g if you’re not sure. That will result in a roughly 2000-calorie mix. Personally I use 100 g, which works out to 2350 calories. Don’t trip, good fat is good for you.
If you need fewer than 2000 calories, use less than 85 g, subtracting 9 calories per gram oil. Don’t go lower than 30 g. You’ll want to make up for lost Vitamin K, however, via a supplement or food containing Vitamin K. I would recommend dried spearmint, adding 1 g mint per 10 g olive oil removed.
Now, you may find that olive oil makes your mix taste too much like… olive oil. I and my confederates in Boston felt this way at first, but I seem to have gotten used to it, and no longer notice the taste unless I’m looking for it. But if you want to reduce the olive taste, try different brands (some are milder than others), or replace half with another healthy oil (e.g. flax, hemp, or avocado), then restore the lost Vitamin K per above.
Next, add about 75 g of brown sugar.
Why sugar? For flavor, and to top up our carbs. You may use less if you prefer.
[Edit: Several commenters on Hacker News are objecting this, so I'll mention that I'm very aware of the importance of keeping your blood sugar steady. I'm comfortable with this amount of sugar, because the effective glycemic index of a carbohydrate is lowered by the presence of protein, fat, and fiber, and we have lots of all of those. And in subjective terms, I don't personally feel any "sugar rush" when I drink this.]
That’s actually coconut sugar in the photo, which tastes amazing, but you can use pretty much any sugar. I’m recommending brown sugar for most people, because it’s familiar and widely available, and contains modest but helpful amounts of calcium and potassium.
Now let’s step back for a moment. With four ingredients, we now have the core of a decent soylent. You shouldn’t stop here – we’re still short on several nutrients, especially potassium – but it’s worth noting that the above this plus some bananas would get you surprisingly close to complete nutrition.
But let’s fill in those gaps. Add 25 g of ground flax, 20 g of cocoa powder, and 15 g of lecithin:
Why flax? Fiber and omega-3 fatty acids.
Why cocoa? Fiber and taste. Consider using Dutch-processed cocoa, unless you already know your preference. It’s less bitter than ordinary cocoa. The budget option for Dutch cocoa is Hershey’s Special Dark; the premium option is Callebaut.
Why lecithin? It’s one of the richest sources of choline, a B-vitamin-esque essential nutrient most people have never heard of – and don’t get enough of. Choline is a precursor of acetylcoline, a neurotransmitter implicated in memory and sustained attention. It’s also important for the construction and maintenance of cell membranes. (The photo above displays soy lecithin granules; it also comes in powder form. If you’re averse to soy, use sunflower lecithin.)
We’re almost done. We just have four nutrients to top up – potassium, sodium, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D – three of which are easy.
The hard one is potassium. So far we’ve been able to avoid purified chemical compounds, but we need to go down to bare metal on this one.
Before we do though, you should read the “Safety” section below, to see if you’re at risk for developing hyperkalemia (excess serum potassium). Assuming you’re not at risk, here’s what to do.
Get some potassium citrate, and add a gram to your first batch. Add an additional gram with each new batch, stopping if you experience any symptoms of hyperkalemia, up to a maximum of 10 g. Our goal is to take the amount of potassium the mix contains so far – 1.2 g – and bring it closer to the most recent recommendations, 4.7 g. So we’d like to add about 3.5 g. Potassium citrate is about 38% potassium, so 10 g of it accomplishes this.
Potassium citrate can be ordered from Amazon. Alternatively, you can use potassium gluconate, the main form found in fruit, in which case go up to a maximum of 20 g since it’s about half as concentrated.
Either way, it must be a powder. Do not buy capsules. They will contain 99 mg of potassium each, meaning you’d need to swallow or disassemble dozens of them every time. I did this once in a pinch (see photo), and it was absurd.
Nor should you use potassium chloride (the blue “salt substitute” container in the photo above). As Borat would say, it is inferior potassium; the pH buffering quality of the anions in the other forms is biologically important, and potassium chloride lacks this.
Nor should you try throwing bananas at the problem. You’d have to eat eight or ten bananas every day just to get that extra 3.5 g.
If this sounds like a lot of trouble, it’s worth mentioning that most people get nowhere near 4.7 g, so you could probably skip this extra potassium entirely and feel fine. I did for a couple weeks, and felt great. But the point of this exercise is to get as close to perfect nutrition as possible. And to quote the Institutes of Medicine, moderate potassium deficiencies may result in:
increased blood pressure, increased salt sensitivity, an increased risk of kidney stones, and increased bone turnover … [it] may also increase the risk of cardiovascular disease, particularly stroke.
So be healthy, and top up your potassium. Just do it gradually; your body needs time to adjust to increased intake. And to reiterate, read the “Safety” section below first.
That just leaves sodium, Vitamin C, and Vitamin D. Add 2 g of iodized salt, 1 g of Emergen-C, and 1 source of Vitamin D:
Any Vitamin C will suffice – I’m only recommending Emergen-C because it’s ubiquitous and powdered. Extra B-vitamins are a bonus.
But the salt must be iodized. If you prefer sea salt, don’t worry: there exists iodized sea salt. You might want to add an extra gram, if you find yourself craving salty foods, since this will be less salt than you’re probably used to (which is a good thing). But not a grain more than 3 g, or it’ll ruin the taste.
That just leaves Vitamin D. Sadly, there are few food sources of Vitamin D, aside from salmon, so you should take a supplement, go outside and enjoy some sunshine, or both. But don’t skip this one, you want the D.
The minified recipe:
Hacker School Soylent 1.0
Servings: 3 (one full day, three breakfasts, or a very brief dinner party with two friends)
Time: 5 minutes
- 120 g oat flour
- 85 g soy protein from Trader Joe’s, unflavored (see above for substitutions)
- 85 g olive oil
- 75 g brown sugar
- 25 g ground flax
- 20 g cocoa powder
- 15 g lecithin
- up to 10 g potassium citrate or 20 g potassium gluconate
- 2 g iodized salt
- 1 g Emergen-C
- 1 Vitamin D supplement
- Read this blog post, especially the “Safety” section.
- Combine all dry ingredients except Vitamin D. Mix well.
- Measure olive oil into a separate container.
- To prepare an individual meal, measure about a third of the dry mix and a third of the oil into a large drinking vessel.
- Add 400-500 ml (14-16 oz) of water, and shake or stir well.
- Chill for several hours if possible, to improve taste and texture. It may be healthier that way too (due to phytic acid deactivation).
- Meanwhile, take your Vitamin D and/or get some sunshine.
On the whole, I’m more concerned about the health of people with typical American diets than that of anyone who drinks soylent, but we should still be prudent here. The main things you need to watch out for are potassium, manganese, and iron.
Potassium: The main risk of increasing your potassium intake is hyperkalemia, defined as a serum concentration greater than 5.0 mM. Above this level, you may be at risk for cardiac arrhythmia, which can be life-threatening. So read this section carefully.
Who is at risk for hyperkalemia? Mainly people who have certain medical conditions (e.g. kidney disease, heart failure, type 1 diabetes), or who are taking certain medications (e.g. for hypertension). So if any of the conditions listed here (last paragraph) or here describe you, don’t make changes to your potassium intake without medical supervision.
Now, it’s true that even healthy people can develop acute hyperkalemia by taking massive doses of potassium supplements; the IOM report cites several cases where people gave themselves hyperkalemia by taking dozens of 750 mg potassium chloride pills all at once. So, don’t do that – and don’t leave your potassium lying around where children might get into it.
But as long as you’re healthy and not stupidly taking giant doses, you should be perfectly fine. Many studies have examined chronic high intake of supplemental potassium by healthy adults, at levels well above ours – all with zero cases of hyperkalemia.
Manganese: The recipe above contains about 10 mg manganese and close to the IOM upper limit of 11 mg. For this reason, you should avoid modifications that would increase the manganese total further. Most is coming from the oat flour and soy protein (5 and 4 mg, respectively), and about a milligram each from the flax and cocoa, so don’t increase any of those.
Iron: Similarly, our total of 37 mg iron is not far from the upper limit of 45 mg. Most of it is coming from the soy. Any changes you make to this recipe should bear in mind your iron total, and keep it under 45 mg. Here’s what you need to know. (1) Don’t increase the TJ’s soy protein. (2) If you want to get more soy protein, use a generic soy protein comparable to this one and a multivitamin, per the protein section of the recipe. You can go up to 100 g if you’re using the Opti-Women (it has 18 mg iron), but better would be to use the Rainbow Light Men’s One (which has 0), in which case you can go nuts. (3) Pea and hemp protein are higher in iron, so if you want to use those, use the Rainbow Light Men’s One, unless you’re actually decreasing the protein below 85 g. (4) If you’re using unfortified whey protein, you shouldn’t have to worry about getting too much iron, so use whichever of the two multis you prefer.
What’s in this soylent?
Macronutrients: 2051 calories, with carbs as the primary source of energy at 173 g, followed by fat at 119 g (of which about 6 g is ALA) and protein at 97 g. It contains 25 g of fiber – enough for XX people, but XYs are supposed to get a whopping 38 g per day. If you’d like to get that much, I’d recommend adding 45 g of ground chia, and cutting back the oat flour to 100 g to offset the extra manganese. But 25 g is already more than most people get, so even if you don’t add any extra fiber, this recipe still may represent an improvement over your current diet.
Macrominerals: Up to 5 g of potassium, about 1.1 g calcium, 1.8 g phosphorus, 1.5 g of sodium, and 2.4 g chlorine. Chloride figures are scarce, so I’m estimating them from sodium figures, given that sodium and chloride content have been found to closely track each other in unprocessed foods. There’s also 0.7 g of magnesium.
Sulfate is even harder to estimate than chloride, but if you’re getting enough protein (or more specifically, getting enough methionine and cysteine), you should be getting enough sulfate. That said, if you experience joint pain, it might be a sulfate deficiency. Rob fixed his with 2 g/day of supplemental sulfur.
Vitamins: About 1.5 mg RAE (retinol equivalent) of Vitamin A. On the B vitamins, we have 2.8 mg of thiamin, 2.1 of riboflavin, 24 mg of niacin, and 11 mg of pantothenic acid – all above the recommendations. Likewise, we have plenty of B6, biotin, folic acid, and B12 (4 mg, 308 µg, 478 µg, and 9 µg, respectively). Vitamin C is at 175 mg, Vitamin D at 1410 IU, Vitamin E is at 33 mg, and Vitamin K is at 121 µg. And we have 658 mg of choline.
Trace minerals: In order of mass, we have 258 mg iodine, 37 mg iron, 25 mg zinc, 10 mg manganese, 1.6 mg copper, 179 µg molybdenum, and 109 µg selenium, all within acceptable ranges. We’re also getting at least 60 µg of chromium, which is plenty; I can’t give an exact figure, since chromium figures are unavailable for most foods. (We’re probably getting much more than that, but this is not a concern.)
I will worry about dubiously essential nutrients – borons and vanadiums – another day.
This works out to a dirt cheap $1.50 per meal, assuming you take advantage of all the available savings (e.g. the Amazon Subscribe & Save discount). Without those savings, it’s more like $1.75/meal. The initial startup cost, if you use the items linked to above, is about $200; if you buy smaller quantities to just try things out, you should be able to do so for closer to $75. If you’re on the fence, you can buy many ingredients in small quantities locally. The main things you’d want to order online are potassium and lecithin.
Adding chia for additional fiber increases the cost significantly, by about $2/meal if you buy pre-ground, or $1/meal if you buy whole seeds. I’ll find a cheaper way to get 38 g of fiber in a future recipe. (I wouldn’t want to just use flax, because I don’t think it tastes good in large quantities.)
And yes, it’s filling – despite being cheaper than a nice bottle of water. My first beta tester (a fellow App Academy student) had one meal for breakfast, and was barely even hungry at lunchtime.
I’m putting this and future recipes on GitHub, and when I get a chance I’ll add data on individual ingredients and nutrients, probably as Ruby hashes and JSON objects. (This will most likely happen after App Academy, i.e. next month.) When I get a chance to publish a whole-foods-based recipe I developed this spring, I’ll put that there too.