In the 1960s, cartoon writers sat down and tried to fill their new creation, The Jetsons, with ideas of what the distant future would look like. Flying cars, houses in the sky and robot maids filled TV screens. But they didn’t stop there—space-aged technology even found its way into family rituals. Dinnertime was barely recognisable. In fact, it didn’t even involve food. George Jetson and his family would sit together and happily swallow their meal in pill form and then get on with the day.
The idea of a meal in a pill has been popping up in science fiction writing since at least the 1930s and seemed like the ultimate in futuristic predictions: the nutrition of a home-cooked meal without any of the work needed to prepare and clean up afterwards or even the effort to chew!
While we may not quite be at an era of meals in a pill, the basic motivation behind the idea has definitely taken hold in society. Convenience foods—pre-prepared, pre-cooked and table-ready—dominate the supermarket, with much of the onerous preparation already done, allowing us to spend less time making meals. You only need to look at the range of pre-cut fruits and vegetables available in the produce department of your local supermarket to realise that shoppers are looking for any shortcut when it comes to meal preparation. And the ultimate shortcut is one that has been around for decades: the drive-through. More often than not, the food that gets passed through the drive-through window is far from nutritious, but it illustrates just what we’re willing to sacrifice for the sake of convenience.
Liquid food supplements
But what if we want to have ultra-convenience, but we don’t want to sacrifice health? While we might not be able to swallow our food in pill form just yet, according to some manufacturers, we can drink it.
Liquid food supplements have been available for decades and in a clinical setting they can be lifesaving for people with an illness or injury that prevents them from eating food. But over the years, their use has extended beyond this, with food manufacturers producing versions for the everyday person. The most common use for these is as weight-loss supplements. These range from clinically tested, physician-prescribed, very low kilojoule diet supplements to off-the-shelf meal replacement shakes and mail-order or subscription-based products aimed at the “detox” and fitness market.
The concept behind these products is simple: by sticking to a set number of these meal replacements daily, people can dramatically reduce their kilojoule intake while ensuring that their vitamin and mineral needs are still met. It drastically simplifies the task of choosing, preparing and consuming a nutritious daily diet. Often, these products are designed to replace food for a relatively short period of time, with a transition to healthy eating habits the end goal. In some instances, the meal replacements are continued, but only as a replacement for part of the diet, with other healthy meals also being eaten.
But the Jetsons weren’t having their meal pills because of an illness or to lose a few pounds. It was just everyday life for them. And there’s now a product that makes this a reality. Conceived in 2013, Soylent is the invention of a United States software engineer who “resented the time, money and effort the purchase, preparation, consumption and clean-up of food was consuming.”
Soylent was designed to provide a liquid supplement that contains all the elements and chemicals in food without its users having to eat the food itself. With its rise in popularity, alternative products in this category have also sprung up, along with an online community for homemade versions and ways to create these products to make them more individualised.
Is food the problem?
But when did food become a problem that needs to be solved? There’s strong evidence that our lifestyles—including the foods we eat—have a huge effect on our health and wellbeing. Eating too much of the wrong stuff has a negative effect on our health. And, of course, the opposite is also true: filling our diets with the right foods can have an amazingly positive impact.
Meal replacements such as Soylent approach this situation by providing what’s promoted as an alternative to the bad stuff. But just because meal replacements might not be the unhealthiest option available doesn’t automatically make them the healthiest—for a number of reasons.
1. We don’t know everything about food
Science is doing a great job of exploring what it is about different foods that contributes to our health or harm. Every day we hear about new research that sheds light on how a certain nutrient interacts with the body. But part of the reason we see new research every day is because of the sheer amount that we don’t know. Foods are made up of thousands and thousands of compounds, many of which nutritional science probably hasn’t even identified. The idea that we can formulate a meal replacement that contains all the beneficial components of a wide range of foods just doesn’t stack up.
2. It doesn’t take very long to drink a shake
One of the key benefits many people see in these products is the convenience factor. They take very little time to prepare, if any, and they can be consumed quickly on the go. But in our search for efficiency, it’s important that we take a good hard look at how we’re really spending our time.
When I was a child, we’d often spend holidays with my aunts and uncles, where home-cooked meals were the norm. I remember my mum and aunts sitting around the table, some of them trimming beans, others shelling peas and all of them chatting about each other’s families. Dad would be outside with my uncles preparing the hot coals for the barbeque and coming to a consensus on the best way to roast the potatoes. Later that night the kitchen would be full of people: an adult elbow deep in soapy water, kids with tea towels clearing the dish drainer for the next wave of wet dishes and the tallest family member putting the dry plates back on the top shelf. The preparation, eating and clean-up of the meal would take hours—and no-one complained.
Mealtimes are a valuable time to bond with those closest to us. The ritual around the occasion helps us pass on tradition and maintain social bonds that are vital to good health. Whenever we can build our physical health with nutritious food and boost our emotional health with good company at the same time—that’s an efficient use of time.
3. There’s no variety in beige
Some of the best nutrition research we have available looks at the traditional dietary patterns of cultures around the world. It’s this kind of research that shines a light on what we should and shouldn’t be building into a healthy diet. Work like that of Dan Buettner’s Blue Zones project, which looks at the world’s longest living populations, has found commonalities—such as an emphasis on plant foods—among the diets of these remarkably healthy cultures.
But what his team also found was real diversity. Despite common threads, no two diets were the same. The types of foods the various groups ate were distinct to their own culture.
There’s a reason why health experts don’t recommend eating the exact same foods every single day as part of a balanced diet. The healthy diets of two different people could be built off the same principles and not contain a single common food. There are thousands of food choices available to us every single day, each with its own unique combination of tastes, textures, smells and nutritional properties. By purposely limiting our choices we might be able to save ourselves some time, but we miss out on so much of the joy and nutritional balance that comes from a diet full of variety.
We live in a time when a growing number of people look at food as a problem that needs to be solved, but the reality is that it’s our attitude toward food that’s most often the real issue. Food is woven into our social fabric and it’s easy to overlook just how big a part it can play in our emotional health and the way we bond with those closest to us.
When we drastically alter what we eat and how we eat it, we often unconsciously alter how we interact with those closest to us. And equally as important, we run the very real risk of not getting all the nutrients that our bodies need.
With such wide-ranging benefits to health, taking time to educate ourselves on healthy eating, and preparing, eating and sharing healthy meals filled with whole plant foods shouldn’t be seen as an inefficient use of time but as a sound investment in health and happiness.