Soylent’s new snack bar, which contains 12.5 percent of your daily nutrients, supposedly “makes the afternoon slump a thing of the past.” But that may only be true if that “breakdown” doesn’t involve you about a toilet.
According to a discussion on Soylent’s website and several Reddit threads, customers say some bars caused gastrointestinal upset, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. On the Soylent thread, user Raylingh has racked up 33 reports since Sept. 7, just two months after the company started making the bars. In general, customers say that stomach problems start a few hours after eating a bad bar and go away in a day or two with no other symptoms. These shared illnesses easily fit the description of food poisoning, and many users have ruled out the possibility of food allergies, noting that they’ve eaten the bars and other Soylent products in the past with no problem.
The reports could become a sticky mess for the bars’ maker, Rosa Labs, who made a splash two years ago with its first Soylent product, a meal replacement drink. The company quickly tried to minimize the problem, given the small number of reports. Rosa Labs aggressively defended its quality control after extensive internal testing. In an official statement, the company said: “Following these reports, we have collected remaining bars from our consumers and have personally consumed many of the remaining bars with no adverse effects. We also sent them for further microbiological testing and all tests came back negative. Based on this, we remain confident in the safety of the bars.”
A source with knowledge of Soylent’s production said the company spends tens of thousands of dollars testing and examining all ingredients for possible contamination. The company’s leading theory so far is that some customers have a sensitivity or intolerance — rather than an allergy — to an ingredient in the bars. Those elements include algae meal, a sugar from beets called Isomaltooligosaccharide, and vitamins. However, the bars’ soy and the artificial sweetener, sucralose, are most suspected of causing an intolerance.
Unlike an allergy, where the immune system mistakenly identifies a component of food as toxic or infectious and mounts a full-blown reaction, intolerance occurs when someone has digestive problems without the immune system being involved. Symptoms of a food intolerance are limited to stomach problems, and they develop slowly (ie over a few hours) compared to those of an immediate allergic reaction. Also, unlike an allergy, which can be caused by trace amounts of a food, an intolerance may only cause noticeable problems after eating a large portion.
Sources tell Ars that the soy in the bars is a prime suspect for causing such an intolerance because the bars contain soy protein from three different sources and they may not be mixed evenly during the making of the bars. Those three soy protein products — two of which are not in other Soylent products — are derived using different processing methods, which can introduce potentially tricky components. So if a few bars contain higher levels of one soy protein that contains a sensitizing component, that could be enough to cause stomach problems for some consumers. The company says it is investigating the matter.
Still, in the month since users started reporting their illness, several other theories have been tossed around online.
Raylingh and others on the Soylent thread have been tracking the batch numbers containing suspicious bars. Several have noticed problems with boxes labeled 14JUL17 F3 1966, leading some users to wonder if a particular batch or ingredient was bad on a particular day of production. If so, a simple recall may solve the problem. However, expert sources say the reports to the company relate to different batches over different days of production, making it unlikely that a recall will solve the problem.
Users have also speculated that some bars may have become hot and spoiled during distribution and processing. Some reported sticky yellow residue on the inside of the package. Still, sources say that heating would not cause spoilage and any residue that might appear under different circumstances would be harmless.
Soylent reported that it will refund and collect any leftover bars from customers who have fallen ill. But on the forums, some customers reported that the company was not interested in collecting their bars.
Reporters at BuzzFeed flagged the Food and Drug Administration’s inspection report of the manufacturing facility where the bars are produced, Betty Lou’s, Inc., in McMinnville, Oregon. Soylent says the facility is inspected annually by the FDA and its own independent food safety inspectors. The last inspections were in March this year, the company said. However, BuzzFeed noted that an online database of FDA inspections recorded the last inspection in 2014. Sources speculated to Ars that the database may not be up to date. Ars contacted both Betty Lou’s and the FDA about this discrepancy, but neither has responded. The FDA’s website states that: “This database does not represent a comprehensive list of all inspections performed and should not be used as a source to compile official counts.” The agency may withhold information if enforcement action is planned.
Some users plan to report their illness or have reported it to the FDA, which collects such complaints and forwards them to county departments calling for a local manufacturer to be investigated. For its part, Soylent says it will continue to investigate on its own and refund and collect questionable bars. So far, the company says the number of complaints per bar sold is just 0.03 percent. However, the company declined to comment on the number of complaints it received.