Soylent, the futuristic meal replacement product may not be as perfect as it claims.
Many conventionally grown and processed foods carry the risk of exposure to harmful chemicals and heavy metals. That’s why experts compile lists like the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen list of chemicals in produce; and conscious consumers, like you and me, shop so carefully. And that’s why it’s both surprising and not-so-surprising that Soylent, the makers of the vegan, nutrient-rich meal replacements, is defending questionable levels of heavy metals found in its products.
Surprising because, when used as recommended or at least modeled, Soylent should replace most, if not all, actual food. An environmental watchdog groups alleges that this means repeated exposure to lead and cadmium at levels above what is permissible in the state of California. And it’s not-so-surprising because, after all, Soylent is a processed food, no matter how it markets itself.
Watchdog group As You Sow alleges that Soylent violates California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act, which requires that producers disclose the presence of detectable amounts of harmful chemicals. The group gave notice that it intends to sue Soylent after results from two separate tests performed at an independent lab found “that one serving of Soylent 1.5 (the powder mix) can expose a consumer to a concentration of lead that is 12 to 25 times above California’s Safe Harbor level for reproductive health, and a concentration of cadmium that is at least 4 times greater than the Safe Harbor level for cadmium.”
Long-term, low-level exposure to cadmium can lead to kidney, bone, and lung disease. Lead exposure can affect every organ in the body, but it’s most sensitive target is your neurological system, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Even low levels of exposure to lead are linked to nerve damage, lower IQ, and reproductive problems in adults.
“Nobody expects heavy metals in their meals,” As You Sow CEO Andrew Behar said in a statement. “These heavy metals accumulate in the body over time, and since Soylent is marketed as a meal replacement, users may be chronically exposed to lead and cadmium concentrations that exceed California’s safe harbor level. With stories about Silicon Valley coders sometimes eating three servings a day, this is of very high concern to the health of these tech workers.”
Soylent responded in a blog post, maintaining that “Soylent’s levels of heavy metals are entirely safe and sustainable, even for people using Soylent as a complete food substitute.” The post goes on to say that the California regulations in question are much more stringent than federal and other state regulations, which the product adheres to.
These allegations, and Soylent’s defense, should remind us to look for food sources that care about minimizing these risks and produce food without using harmful chemicals that can be ingested by consumers.
Soylent may contain “safe” levels of these heavy metals, but is that really “safe?” Soylent’s CEO, Rob Rhinehart, boasts that he relies on the product for 80 percent of his diet. I always thought questions about living on a single food for the rest of your life were a joke (for the record, my answer is pizza). I think all nutritionists would agree that eating a varied diet helps ensure your body gets all the required nutrients. It may also prevent excessive and repetitive exposure to chemicals and metals.
Behar told The Guardian that As You Sow has found high concentrations of heavy metals in several protein powder and food replacement products. According to Behar, this is a consistent problem in processed food substitutes that rely on galvanized piping, ‘It usually comes down to something fairly simple to find and fix in these cases,’ he says.” This is another symptom of the over-processed food system we rely on.
So what can you do? Many experts recommend buying organic food for this very purpose. Organic food is raised and prepared without the use of harmful chemicals. Here is a list of more tips to avoid exposure to toxins in common foods.
Secondly, embrace the trend of buying local and getting to know your producer. Shopping at a farmers market or purchasing a share in Community Supported Agriculture gives you the chance to know who produces your food and how. Local Harvest helps you find one near you.
These simple guidelines are what have kept me away from Soylent so far.
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Soylent photo from Soylent.com