A powdery substance made from dried algae may have been the cause of violent gastrointestinal upset reported by consumers of Soylent powder and bars.
So said founder and CEO Rob Rhinehart Bloomberg Monday that Soylent will release newly formulated products next year that will “no longer contain algae flour.”
As Ars reported last month, the company halted sales of its flagship 1.6 powder and its snack bars after online illness reports bubbled up. The company said it had ruled out contamination or quality control issues and suspected a poorly mixed ingredient was causing intolerances in some customers. In an Oct. 27 blog post, the company said it narrowed down the suspects by identifying ingredients that were used in both 1.6 and the bars but were absent from its other trouble-free products.
The company did not respond to Ars’ requests for follow-up information on what those ingredients might be or how the products would be reformulated soon. Based on the ingredient lists, the suspected ingredients were Isomaltooligosaccharide (a non-digestible, low-calorie sweetener made from short-chain carbohydrates), soy protein isolate, and whole wheat algae meal.
A source close to the company previously told Ars that Soylent believed the soy protein was to blame for the gastrointestinal upset, which generally included nausea, vomiting and diarrhea soon after eating one of the products. Soy is a known allergen, and the source told Ars that Soylent used a mismixed blend of three types of soy protein in its bars. However, many customers claimed they had no issues with other soy-containing foods, including other Soylent products.
The algae meal is more of an unknown. It is a light yellow to green powder made from dried algae, in particular Chlorella protothecoides strain S106, which is grown in huge fermentation tanks under controlled conditions and produced by TerraVia Holdings, Inc. under the product line “AlgaVia.” The flour was only approved for use in foods by the Food and Drug Administration in December 2014. The agency signed off as a Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) ingredient after reviewing industry-supplied data on its safety. In the original submission (PDF) to the FDA, the authors noted that participants in several small human trials of algae meal reported gastrointestinal complaints, including nausea, cramping, and “bulky stools.”
The GRAS approval process has historically come under fire for being too lenient with food manufacturers. In a comprehensive 2013 report on food additives, Pew Charitable Trusts concluded that the FDA’s regulatory process is “plagued by systemic problems” that allow for uncontrolled conflicts of interest, and that some manufacturers could make GRAS decisions without notifying the FDA. Pew estimated that about 1,000 chemicals used in foods have not been reviewed by the FDA.
In an email to Bloomberg, TerraVia Senior Vice President Mark Brooks stressed that the algae meal is safe, writing, “Our algae meal has been used in over 20 million servings of products and we are aware of very few side effects. In no case was algae meal identified as the cause.”
According to a tip from Soylent user Raylingh, who closely monitors illnesses associated with Soylent products, there have been similar online reports linking another product containing algae meal, VeganEgg, to gastrointestinal distress. On vegan forums and on Reddit, consumers have complained of cramping and vomiting after eating the product.