Is this organic Soylent competitor really that much better for you?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on May 6, 2014

From The News Desk

The green silt in front of me stared up, almost accusingly. I had been reluctant to touch it for the last hour, and the heavy powder had settled to the bottom of the glass like sand. Half-heartedly, I stirred the spoon I had left in there, watching the molecules swirl and the water return to its goopy, non-transparent state.

It was hard to believe this was food. “That looks disgusting,” my colleague said helpfully.

Thus began — and ended — my one week effort to live off Ambronite, the organic, whole food Soylent competitor that launched its Indiegogo crowdfunding efforts yesterday. Having been pitched on the idea, I felt compelled to try it and follow in the footsteps of other reporters who bravely devoted weeks or months of their lives to living off Soylent, in the name of science or journalism or sadomasochism or something. I had seen their detailed accounts, read their cautionary blogs and watched their horrifying documentaries about the experience. Despite rats, mold, and goop, I was convinced I could do it, especially with a replacement made of much healthier sounding ingredients.

Ambronite’s differentiator from infamous Soylent is a big one. The ingredients are all items your average human would recognize from their grocery store. Instead of Soylent’s maltodextrin and potassium gluconate, Ambronite was composed of gluten-free oats and coconut and organic apple.

I felt healthy just reading the package. I couldn’t imagine how healthy I’d feel after living off the stuff for a week.

Unfortunately I turned out to be a much bigger pansy than the likes of Contently’s Shane Snow or Vice’s Brian Merchant. I failed you, dear Pando readers, because I did not make it one meal.

The flavor wasn’t bad at all — a nutty mixture that reminded me of oatmeal, much like Snow described the taste of Soylent. But the grainy texture and thickness repelled me.

The makers of the shake, a group of Finnish entrepreneurs, know they’re chasing down the efficiency eaters. People who have no time for meals during the day and want to consume their calories as quickly — and healthily — as possible with minimum effort. Backpackers and rock climbers looking for an easy meal to take on the go. Corporate clients with back-to-back meetings. Busy parents juggling a million to-dos.

I might be a busy reporter, but I'm also half-Italian. We make time for food, no matter what.

“I myself thoroughly enjoy cooking, but in everyday lives we run into the situation where we only have the two minute time slide,” co-founder Simo Suoheimo says. “Of course it’s not the same as the joy of cooking and we have no intention to replace that.”

Ambronite is hoping to carve off the upscale end of the market Soylent is going after. The difference between the two companies is reflected in their names. Founder Rob Rhinehart named Soylent, as you may know, after the movie Soylent Green where humans in a dystopic future society subsist off crackers of the same name that turn out to be made from dead people’s flesh. Why the hell would anyone choose that as a food product naming inspiration?

“You may have an initial knee-jerk reaction to the name. But when you step back, it allows you to analyze or engage in a reasonable discussion about the nature of food and sustainability.” Rhinehart told TechCrunch.

Ambronite, in contrast, comes from the Greek word for “food of the Gods” — Ambrosia. That might be pushing it a step too far — if Zeus could eat anything I doubt green silty powder would rank high on the list — but Ambronite’s ingredients do fulfill the day’s nutrition requirements based on RDA standards.

Silicon Valley’s fascination with drinkable, perfectly balanced meals is a new one, even though the existence of such meals is not. Protein and vitamin shakes have been around for ages, but it wasn’t until Rhinehart branded his version as “the food of the future” that excitement around meal replacement shakes bubbled up.

The New Yorker’s Lizzie Widdicombe recently delved into the product for a magazine feature, rightly concluding that fears around food have made the timing ripe for a magical protein shake like Soylent to catch people’s imaginations.

Today, technological advances have created a new wave of anxiety about our edible present, and a growing nostalgia for a time before corporate food lobbies, genetically modified vegetables, industrial farming, and the weed killer Roundup…California’s farm-to-table restaurants serve diners ingredients out of fashion since our days as Bronze Age farmers...

But the farm-to-table ethos has essentially bypassed the working class, which is left, instead, to live with the fallout of the low-cost food industry—obesity, diabetes, and, ironically, malnutrition. A recent U.N. report warned that climate change is threatening the global food supply, and that its impact will worsen in ways that aren’t confined to the poor.

Ambronite is the natural progression of that trend. The bougie, more mainstream-friendly version of Soylent, if you will. “Rob’s soylent project wasn’t a starting point but it definitely gave us a spark,” Suoheimo admits. He had developed a version of Ambronite for his own personal use as a ski hiker in college, but seeing Soylent’s success and viral media coverage convinced Suoheimo that a healthy version of the product would be a solid money maker.

He and his five co-founders spent the last year developing Ambronite, in conjunction with nutritionists from The University of Helsinki. They’ve been running a beta test since June and saw far more demand than they could meet. This brought them to the United States, where they procured partner production factories and moved into the RocketSpace accelerator. The Indiegogo campaign, launched yesterday, is meant to get them enough cash to scale the efforts. In less than two days, Ambronite raised 68 percent of its $50,000 goal.

Unlike the Soylent founder, Suoheimo doesn’t not make the claim that Ambronite can be a food-killer. “That’s something that no product can claim,” Suoheimo says. “Human nutrient needs vary and have different needs at different times.” But he does see it as being a meal replacer. When asked how often he thinks people could replace a meal with Ambronite, he says he eats it twice a day. “We encourage people to use common sense with our products. Eating long dinners with friends is one of the greatest pleasures in life and we have no desire to take it away from anyone.”

Tali Sedgwick, a registered dietician with Food NE/RD SF, told Pando she wouldn’t recommend it in the long term.

As I registered dietitian nutritionist, I think that meal replacements can help with short term weight loss but are less effective for long term weight loss or weight maintenance and for making the types of behavior changes that can lead to optimal health.

If a patient came to me and asked me about using Ambronite, I would say that in the spectrum of meal replacements it gets points for being based on whole foods and not full of items like soy protein isolate and xantham gum.  However, I would warn them that when you drink your calories versus eating them you have decreased satiety.  In my experience most people who try meal replacement shakes end up eating more calories later in the day.

With its less frightening ingredients, Ambronite stands a good chance at riding the Soylent craze alongside the original drink. It may just be smart marketing and not actually an innovative new product, but that won’t stop the masses from flocking to sample the food of the future.

Ambronite’s continued success, of course, depends on whether many customers last longer than I did.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]