Bachelorette Chow is one of several recipes posted by users of the platform “Complete Foods,” formerly known as DIY Soylent. Like many other websites dedicated to sharing homemade variations of commercially available nutritional substitute products like Soylent, it began with attempts to imitate as closely as possible the composition of Soylent. But meanwhile, the platform offers a variety of recipes which often aim to provide additional taste value, or claim to be targeted towards a particular purpose or target group–in the case of Bachelorette Chow, that group is obviously women.

“’Bachelorette Chow’ – Basic (Chocolate) Complete Soylent, 1500 calories” from user hharris and last updated November 5, 2013. Left: ingredients, amounts, cost ($/day), source, total daily cost: $3.04. Right: Nutrition Facts panel displaying nutrients and percentages of recommended daily allowances. Tabs above the recipe: one review, 39 comments, and 60 variants. © Lisa Haushofer

Few recipes on the platform are specifically targeted towards women. In fact, Bachelorette Chow presents an alternative to “Bachelor Chow,” a recipe which contains similar ingredients but in different quantities, and lacks the apparently feminine flavor of chocolate. It also instructs preparers to use a vitamin product made for men, rather than the mysterious combination of vitamins contained in “rainbow light just once women’s one multivitamin.”

The presence of a DIY nutritional substitute for women stands out against the deeply masculine-gendered nature of Soylent and similar products on the platform. Developed by Rob Rhinehart, an engineer, through self-experimentation on a male body, Soylent has become almost synonymous with Silicon Valley’s cultural obsession with bodily efficiency. In fact, the recipe for Bachelorette Chow was created by Lizzie Widdicombe, an editor and writer for the New Yorker, who was researching an article about Rhinehart, and tested the DIY platform in that context. She remarks that the development of DIY platforms, made possible by the open availability of the Soylent formula, appeared at first to be an unwise business strategy for Rhinehart, but she quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of Soylent and perpetuated its popularity.

This article has been originally published via H-Nutrition on H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online by Lisa Haushofer, who also coedits the medical history blog REMEDIA. It is republished with her permission.

The existence of such collections of DIY recipes is surprising not only because they appear to be counterintuitive to traditional marketing strategies, but also because, in the case of Soylent, they celebrate a product developed explicitly to save its users the inconvenience of preparing food—by reintroducing that inconvenience. The long history of commercial nutritional foods can help illuminate this irony. Even though we might think of products such as Soylent as highly modern phenomena, they are in fact only the latest iterations in a long quest to create nutritionally perfected consumables and so-called complete foods. The rise of modern nutrition science in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was accompanied by a less individualistic thinking about the relationship between food and the body food acted on the body through particular chemical constituents, which were believed to act the same in every body, regardless of age, sex, or race. This enabled the development of new, generalizable plans for optimal nutrition, and made possible the creation of one-size-fits-all commercial nutritional products that promised to bring nutritional benefits to all people, and hence could be mass-marketed. Liebig’s meat extract is perhaps the most well-known such early nutritional product, which promised to concentrate the nutritiousness of beef in a compact (and hence transportable) format. Like Soylent, Liebig’s meat extract and similar products, such as Valentine’s meat juice and Gail Borden’s meat biscuit, promised to be able to nourish a human being completely for a certain amount of time.

But with nutritious homogeneity came the challenge to differentiate one consumer product from another. What was more, even though specific nutrients seemed to be constant across a variety of food articles, considerable doubt existed as to whether nutrients acted precisely the same on individual bodies and digestions. Late-nineteenth century nutritional products therefore often provided a range of options to tailor a particular food to a particular individual. Nutritional food manufacturers created variations of products to be used in certain conditions or by certain groups of people. They also tended to supply promotional recipe collections suggesting uses of their products for a variety of occasions.

Food manufacturers thus modeled ways of using their products pragmatically and inventively, an idea that was not lost on their consumers. Benger’s Food, a late-nineteenth century food that promised complete nutrition in extremely digestible form, was one of many products which excited a veritable consumer trend in practical input on the product’s composition and uses. Documented through a large collection of letters written by users of the product to the producers, this manifested in suggestions to alter the product’s taste and texture, feedback on effects the product seemed to have on users’ bodies, and the communication of recipes using the product in particular situations. The DIY recipes of Soylent could be understood in a similar way as making a standardized product usable and practicable for a wide range of bodies and purposes. The adjustment of an explicitly male recipe to a female body might be seen in this light.

But this translation of one set of dietary guidelines to another is no straightforward process. The DIY website’s comment section is full of debates about the precise amount of recommended nutrients required and other points of contention. In the case of Bachelorette Chow, one controversy evolved around the kind of multivitamin product used, as one product seemed to potentially interact with oral contraception.

In fact, the platform is above all a reflection of the contested nature of nutritional knowledge, especially when it comes to producing dietary recommendations. The platform contains a collection of “nutrient profiles,” each giving a different amount of how much of each nutrient a person needs. There is a mix of professional and unprofessional profiles, ranging from the US government Dietary Reference Intakes to “Rob’s newest recommendation,” uploaded by “canman888.” The tinkering is thus not only restricted to creating a variety of uses and flavors in the recipes but extends to the nature of nutritional knowledge itself.

In Rob Rhinehart’s original self-experimentation, he used above all his own subjective well-being to evaluate the precise amount of a particular nutrient in Soylent. Official dietary guidelines were only applied retrospectively to compare his own results. The “lifehacking” or “biohacking” community is united not only by their goal to increase the efficiency of bodily processes, but also by a common commitment to create alternative ways of knowledge production. They prize self-experimentation and subjective parameters like well-being, performance ability, and degrees of awakeness. They often use sophisticated scientific and medical apparatus to conduct their investigations, and they have their own ideas about which measurements or which nutrients are more important than others.

While biohacking is of course a very new phenomenon, the degree to which twenty-first-century biohackers assert superior access to knowledge about their own bodies when it comes to food is something they have in common with their late-nineteenth-century predecessors. In the letters written to Benger and his food company, users of the product described how they used their own diagnostic tools and evaluated the product according to their own personal framework of what a nutritional food was, and how it would act on the body.

Laying claim to this personal expertise allowed consumers of Benger’s Food a particular kind of creative participation in the product. They took on the role of evaluators and testers of the product, and contrasted their lay expertise with the professional expertise of physician-consumers. The act of participating in the evaluation and development of consumer products has been described as a characteristic attribute of millennial consumer culture in the twenty-first century. In Marketing to Millennials: Reach the Largest and Most Influential Generation of Consumers Ever, marketing consultants Jeff Fromm and Christie Garton argued that the emergent generation of technology-savvy, creative, well-connected and achievement-craving young people born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s was no longer content with passively consuming attractive and convincing products; instead, they wanted to actively participate in every step of a product’s conception, production, and marketing. They coined the term “participation economy” to describe a culture of consumer participation paired with the emergence of new consumer subjectivities based on an awareness of the economic value of one’s contribution. The recipes on the DIY Soylent platform can be read within this wider context of participation consumption. In this light, a recipe is a particular form of displaying creative participation, affirming autonomy and individuality through tinkering, while taking part in a communal act of consumer culture.

About the Author

Lisa Haushofer

Lisa Haushofer is a final-year doctoral candidate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University and a Graduate Student Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Her research interests lie at the intersection of the history of medicine, food, and capitalism. She is currently completing her dissertation on the history of nutritional consumer products in Britain and the United States. This project analyzes the interplay between nutrition science and the emergence of modern capitalism and seeks to understand the effect of this interplay on conceptions of the body. Haushofer holds an MD from Witten/Herdecke University, in Germany, and an MA from University College London. Before coming to Harvard, she worked as a resident physician at the Department of Dermatology, Helios Klinikum Wuppertal, Germany. Her research has been supported by the Chemical Heritage Foundation, the John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History at Duke University Libraries, and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Harvard University. She founded and coedits REMEDIA, a multiauthor blog showcasing high quality medical humanities scholarship in an accessible format.

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