Since consumers suffered violent symptoms after eating “proudly made with GMOs” Soylent meal replacement bars, the mainstream media has mysteriously stopped mentioning GM in connection with the product

The article below makes many apt observations on the recent story of how Soylent meal replacement bars made people sick and then were subjected to a product recall.

But it shares the fault of other mainstream media coverage of this story. That is, it doesn’t mention GM, in spite of the fact that Soylent prominently advertises its products as “proudly made with GMOs”.

The absence of the GM word is an intriguing omission, given that only a couple of months ago – before news of the violent reactions of consumers to the Soylent bars – Slate magazine was hyping Soylent’s “public embrace of GMOs” in an article headlined “Could labels indicate that GMOs are a good thing?”

The article’s author, Jenny Splitter, gushed: “Maybe Soylent’s pro-GMO message could serve as a template for how we could label genetically engineered foods — with pride.”

In reality, the Soylent episode makes a powerful argument for clear on-package GMO labelling in the US – not as a statement of pride, but as a possible health warning.

Consumers reacted to the bars with symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and violent diarrhoea.

It’s true that there could be some microbiological cause, like harmful bacteria or mould, though so far, none have been detected in the Soylent bars.

Could the cause be the GMO ingredients? One of our readers asked how a GM food could possibly give rise to such symptoms.  

As GMO Myths and Truths points out, there are three possible sources of adverse health effects from GM foods:

* The GM transformation process may produce mutagenic effects that can disrupt or alter gene structure, disturb normal gene regulatory processes, or cause effects at other levels of biological structure and function. These effects can result in unintended changes in composition, including new toxins or allergens and/or disturbed nutritional value
* The GM gene product – for example, the Bt toxin in GM insecticidal crops – may be toxic or allergenic
* Changes in farming practices linked to the use of a GMO may result in toxic residues – for example, higher levels of crop contamination with the herbicide Roundup are an inevitable result of using GM Roundup Ready crops.

It’s incorrect to assume that all reactions to a GM food and/or its associated pesticide will be chronic, “slow poison” effects. Most will be, but rapid and acute reactions are possible too.

For example, some people respond rapidly to pesticide residues on non-organic foods – residues that are assumed to have no effect or only long-term delayed effects in the general population. These reactions may be an allergic-type response and can occur even from low concentrations of the pesticide.

However, when it comes to GM soybeans, the levels of pesticide residue are not so low. Levels of glyphosate herbicide that even Monsanto calls “extreme” are now the norm in GM soybeans, according to a study of soybean samples.

Soylent bars also contain algal flour, a novel food product that one manufacturer, Solazyme, claims is “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) on the grounds that the company uses a strain of algae that “does not produce algal toxins”.

But in 2013 the US FDA said, “The agency has not… made its own determination regarding the GRAS status of the subject use of algal flour.”

As with GMOs, the FDA places the responsibility of ensuring safety – and the consequent legal liability – squarely on the shoulders of the company: “As always, it is the continuing responsibility of Solazyme to ensure that food ingredients that the firm markets are safe, and are otherwise in compliance with all applicable legal and regulatory requirements.”

But the culprit for the sickness caused by Soylent bars doesn’t have to be a novel ingredient such as algal flour. The novel composition of the bars – which aim to provide “12.5% of your daily nutritional requirements packed into a convenient and tasty bar” – means that any toxins that may be present at very low levels in the individual ingredients might be concentrated into higher levels in this particular product.

The real Soylent sickness

By David Sax
The New Yorker, October 17, 2016

I have never tasted Soylent, the meal substitute dreamed up in Silicon Valley’s hacker-engineering culture and beloved by tech workers, but it hasn’t exactly received raves for flavor. Lizzie Widdicombe, writing about it in the magazine, two years ago, found a “yeasty, comforting blandness about it.” The tech team at Quartz came up with a list of descriptors including “wet cardboard,” “the aftertaste of Cheerios cereal,” and “not food.” Now that Soylent’s snack bars, the newest form for ingesting the food-replacement substance, have been voluntarily recalled by the company, after Gizmodo reported that the product made dozens of customers sick, that innocuous taste will likely be the least of its concerns.

The source of the Soylent Bar sickness is still unknown, and, while foodborne illness is nothing new to packaged foods, the incident highlights a deeper problem with Silicon Valley’s mission to radically alter the way we eat. Over the past few years, as money from the tech industry has found its way into all sorts of disruptive startups, the can-do engineering culture has set its sights on our daily bread.

Tech companies have promised substances to make life better for vegetarians, vegans, and those concerned about sustainability: eggless mayonnaise, fake meat, milk-free milk, and other lab-cultivated non-animal products that taste, smell, and even bleed like the real fleshy equivalents. And they’ve provided edible tools for the overworked drones of the tech industry: cubes of caffeine engineered to increase brainpower, without the coffee doldrums that follow, and, yes, Soylent, a liquid meal replacement for the nutrients you need to survive, without the inconvenience of eating actual food.

The result, fuelled by hundreds of millions in venture-capital investments, is a budding industry of food futurism that blends the utopianism of Silicon Valley’s culture with the quackery of Dr. Oz-approved “superfoods” and the idea that you can live forever if you just eat enough pomegranate seeds.

The problem with all this food-2.0 stuff isn’t that it sometimes tastes horrible but that it misses the mark on how our eating is evolving. The tech world approaches food from the perspective of engineering: a defined problem to be solved, with the right equations, formulas, compounds, and brainpower. Soylent was developed by its creator, Rob Rhinehart, to compress all the nutrition the human body needs to live into one single, easily digestible formula, like the twenty-first-century version of manna. But that is fundamentally the opposite of the way we increasingly want to eat in America and in much of the developed world.

When you look at the recent arc of food culture, the most significant food movement is the purposeful pushback against the postwar industrial food system, a system that was the food futurism of its day. This industry brought us preservatives, Wonder Bread, Tang, and microwavable frozen TV dinners. It lowered the price of food tremendously and increased convenience in innumerable ways, but it also made us fatter and sicker, and robbed our meals of their original flavors,replacing them with addictive but unhealthy substances. As Michael Moss has written, food scientists, particularly in the realm of snack foods, figured out how to combine salt, sugar, and fat in a way to provide “maximum bliss.” In his recent book “The Dorito Effect,” the journalist Mark Schatzker details the persistent effect that progress in food processing has had on our taste buds, as we amp up artificial flavors in an attempt regain the natural flavor we have stripped from our food with technology. He argues that returning food to the most basic, unaltered form is the best solution not just for taste but health.

Starting in the nineteen-seventies, the American food movement that began in the San Francisco Bay area and its international equivalents, such as Italy’s slow-food movement, saw the harm that this technologically centered food system did to taste, culture, health, and the environment. Instead, they proposed alternatives that were seen as archaic at the time, but which we increasingly accept as commonplace: organic produce and livestock, locally sourced products, and traditionally made food from whole ingredients.

This movement grew for various reasons, despite the fact that the food it promoted was more expensive to produce and consume, and vastly more difficult to grow and cook than the conventional, highly processed equivalent. It spoke to people’s social consciousness. It required less fertilizer and chemicals. It provided a healthier alternative.

It is easy to critique this as bourgeois, overpriced, and inaccessible to those who can’t afford a hobby of enlightened eating, but as the modern food movement has grown, so have the economies of scale that support it. You can now buy reasonably priced organic foods at many supermarkets across North America, and the number of farmers’ markets around the country has grown nearly tenfold in the past decade. Even the most heavily processed food brands, such as McDonald’s, pay lip service to better, less processed ingredients.

What Soylent and the latest batch of food-tech startups are aiming for takes us back to the days of astronaut ice cream. Remember that stuff? It was developed as part of the space program in the nineteen-sixties, and you bought it in the sort of science stores that were toy stores for nerds. It was sweet. It came in ice-cream flavors. But it wasn’t ice cream, it was a simulation of ice cream, and no one in their right mind would chose it over the cold, creamy stuff on a hot day. Not even an astronaut.

Silicon Valley’s failure to capture our appetites lies at the heart of what the technology industry misses about so many other things in this world. Though it may be possible to create technically feasible products for any aspect of our lives, those only succeed if they improve—rather than seek to replace—the human, highly tactile, and pleasurable world we want to live in. Most humans are happy to eat real food, and crave it in its most natural form. A strawberry picked at the height of summer. Fish pulled from a river and grilled over wood coals. Sourdough bread made from a twenty-year-old starter, and kneaded by hand. Wine grown on knobby vines, and aged in a dark cellar. Why would you disrupt that?

David Sax is the author of “Save the Deli” and “The Tastemakers.” His next book, “The Revenge of Analog,” will be published in November, 2016.