The Whole Food Fallacy

by rob


This is a response to:, as well as some of the comments

In 1828, a young organic chemist named Friedrich Wöhler committed heresy.  Wöhler accidentally synthesized Urea, a component of many lifeforms, from inorganic components. At the time everyone knew there was a special “life force” that separated organisms from other matter. It was a long uphill battle to convince the scientific community, but eventually the evidence won out. Regardless, even today many laymen tacitly assume that the holistic makeup of lifeforms such as food rise magically above their constituent chemicals.

Everything is made of parts. The idea of holistic food represents the death throes of Vitalism, the fallacious assumption that there is something materially special about forms of life separate from other forms of matter. This is an easy mistake to make. Humans and animals move, breathe, and mate, unlike rocks or soil, but we’re all made of the same interchangeable forms of matter and energy. A stone dropped in to a pond will take the shortest path to the bottom. A human will take the shortest route to work, and cling to old ideas. Life is complex, but there is nothing about it that disobeys well understood laws of chemistry and physics. I am not sure if consciousness is reducible, but carrots certainly are.

Creating a lifeform from scratch is an elusive task, and though great strides have been made recently we still have limits in our understanding. However, you do not need to fully understand an organism to feed it. Bacteria grown in labs are always grown on a synthetic medium of nutrients called “LB”. Pets live on synthetic diets and are much healthier and long-lived than their wild counterparts. We don’t know how proteins fold but we do know all the metabolic pathways of a human, and our complete elemental makeup, thanks to elemental analysis. Even the grand diversity of the human microbiome contains conserved metabolic pathways. We do not yet know what the ideal diet for a human is, but our present understanding permits us to easily design a diet that is far superior to what most people are eating.

Humans have lived on animal flesh and the reproductive organs of plants for a long time, but food has been changing all along. And it still is. The development of agriculture, then preservation, then nutrition, then processing, and now even biotechnology have all vastly improved our food products and lifestyle over their natural forms and immensely increased the carrying capacity of the earth. In fact, the foods we thrive on today are far from natural. How do you think bananas reproduce without seeds? The United States began adding Niacin to bread in 1938, which largely eliminated the deadly disease Pellagra, and iodized salt likely has a lot to do with the steady rise in IQ seen in the last century.

This is not to say that all new foods are healthy. Many food companies design purely for the sensory experience of food, leading to products that are over-stimulating, unbalanced, or even addictive. I am amazed that we have cheap chocolate bars, which would have been a kingly delicacy not long ago, but I think we deserve new healthy options as well.

Now, to respond to Tim’s concerns:

Food is not a game – I agree. What food company is more concerned with the nutrition of their product than its sensory appeal? We are more serious about health than any competitor in the industry.

Meal-replacement powders aren’t new – Affordable food substitutes are. No MRP has been designed to be a sustainable source of nutrition. Furthermore, in terms of calorie per dollar, we are easily a factor of 5 better than any of them, and will only get cheaper. Competing with groceries is a new market. And it’s a big one.

Be careful with any terminology – Soylent is not a medical product and we make no medical claims. It’s not a diet or “cleanse” either. It’s quantified food. Soylent is healthy food without all the unnecessary parts. I suppose you could live on it entirely, but why would you want to? Leisure food is an important part of life and culture.

Epistemic arrogance – Elemental analysis has given us a finite, complete list of the elements our bodies are made of. This doesn’t tell us the different chemical configurations required, such as vitamins, but patients have lived for many years on synthetic diets in a medical setting. It was premature in the 19th century, but it’s overdue today. Again, beware of zero-risk bias. How nutritionally complete is the average western diet already?

Nutrition and people are not one-size-fits-all – Our metabolic pathways are largely identical. Everyone makes proteins out of the same Lysine and breaks down glucose polymers with the same enzymes. It’s the extra “stuff” in food that gives people problems. By removing that you can have something fit for almost everyone. Still, people need different amounts of calories. Everyone lives on water, just different amounts.

Other common criticisms from the comments,

We don’t know what we don’t know – Not good enough. Show me some evidence that “food synergy”, which sounds suspiciously like a “vital force”, is essential to thrive. The evidence to the contrary is mounting rapidly.

Why not just put the work in to eating “real” food? – Your computer is slow? Just be more patient. No. Make it faster. By automating the essentials of living we can enjoy life more. Less cooking and cleaning means more math and music.

I like Soylent. I use it all the time. My life is simpler, cleaner. My thoughts are clearer, my body leaner. I still enjoy my favorite foods, though my tastes have changed somewhat towards nicer, more flavorful kinds. I find eating is a lot more fun when it’s optional, similar to taking a road trip versus driving to work.

 I do not understand the negativity surrounding Soylent. Perhaps some people confuse matters of taste with matters of morality. Some have their cooking and eating habits and seem to be offended that mine are different. I do not think it is unreasonable to desire to eat on my own terms. I would never look down on someone else’s eating habits, but I do want people to be healthy. I reasoned that by making eating healthy easier, and cheaper, more people would do so, and it seems to be working. People are not going to stop eating poorly overnight. Perhaps we should make the easy food healthier, rather than asking people to mold their entire lives around it. If the existing options for eating well were adequate more people would do so.

Most meals involve little to no ritual or social experience. Most meals will be forgotten. If we had an ultimate staple food replace these we would be much healthier and happier and not have to worry as much about the nutrition of the experiential meals we enjoy for pleasure.

I do not enjoy grocery shopping, cooking, or cleaning dishes and I shouldn’t have to. I do not like to repeat myself and I do not like having things that I do not need. No one asks me to make my own clothes. Why should I be expected to make my own food? Of course I respect a good designer or chef, I just have other skills and hobbies. Food is great, but most of the time I find what is on my computer or in my books far more stimulating than what is in my refrigerator.

I find it very strange that people want us to fail, but it doesn’t matter to me. Things are getting better. Even the deluge of negativity from Hacker News is subsiding into mere grumpiness. A decade from now when everyone is healthier we’ll all have a good laugh about it.