It’s a little after 3 p.m. as I type this, and my concentration is fading.
This hazy, mid-afternoon reckoning with distraction is when Will Nitze would like to poke around in your brain. Nitze is the creator of something called the IQ Bar, the latest entry into an energy bar market crowded by Clifs and Lunas and Laras and Kinds.
But the IQ Bar, like Nitze, is a little different. “I’m not a cook,” said Nitze, a 27-year-old Harvard grad and former software sales and marketing manager who left his corporate job and started a business based in part on his own interest in “biohacking” his own body. “I’m interested in functional food.”
Nitze reverse-engineered the IQ Bar from foods high in nutrients that some legitimate peer-reviewed studies suggest promote brain health. The result seems to exist somewhere in the vast expanse between the humble and unhealthy granola bar, and so-called “food replacement.” That ethos — food as fuel — strip-mines ingredients for their raw nutritional properties and eliminates messy concepts like “cooking” and “chewing” and “joy.”
That ideology has more than a few devotees these days. Energy bars are a huge business, but so are pills and powders and potions like Soylent, Silicon Valley’s “nutritionally complete” solution to a problem a lot of us never considered: The overwhelming nuisance of eating.
As someone whose relationship with food is almost totally divorced from the concept of necessity, it’s hard get my head around the appeal.
There is a reason that the phrase “home-cooked meal” endures as shorthand for soul-and-body sustenance.
I’ve gone to great lengths to eat healthier in recent years, but if the future of food involves nutrient powders measured to the microgram and then blended into a nut-and-bean slurry, I think I’d rather live in the past.
But people like Nitze — young, technologically inclined, approaching what we eat with an engineer’s eye — may have a bigger hand in the future of food than we might imagine. Maybe something like Nitze’s bar, made mostly from recognizable foods, can be a middle way?
The push to reduce food to nutritional perfection is nothing new, said Colin Lynch, a chef whose food — at Bar Mezzana in the South End — is about as far from a mashed up, puck-shaped glob of “brain food” as you can get.
“Before this it was sweet potatoes. Before that it was quinoa,” said Lynch, whose menu is studded with duck eggs and pork belly, lobster and lamb. Lynch’s food may not make you smarter (or healthier) but it will probably make you happy.
Lynch rolled his eyes at “pills that have all the health benefits of red wine — without the alcohol.”
And energy bars? Well, they’re not so different from a pioneer gnawing on hardtack as he wandered the early West.
The no-food movement is somewhat newer.
Perhaps the best-known devotee of the no-food movement is Rob Rhinehart, the creator of the food replacement beverage Soylent.
Rhinehart was toiling at a tech startup when he became frustrated by the necessity of eating in order to stay alive, he told The New Yorker in a 2014 story headlined “The End of Food.” And so he set out to find a better way. The result was Soylent, a beige, viscous nutrient slurry that allegedly contains everything you need to continue being alive.
In a manifesto of sorts, Rhinehart wrote that he never cooks. Shopping for groceries is “a multisensory living nightmare,” so he stopped doing it. The kitchen “sounds like a torture chamber,” with its “red hot heating elements and razor sharp knives,” so he got rid of it, refrigerator and all.
Can you imagine actually wanting to eat something that this man made for you?
Rhinehart did not respond to e-mails sent to the address on his website, which now includes only a rambling Ralph Waldo Emerson quote and his own contact information. Soylent is now available in several flavors online; its success, like its appeal, is hard to measure.
Soylent is hardly alone. With somewhat less bombast, products such as Shakeology and Amazing Grass and VEGA have all brought similar meal replacement potions to a market that, apparently, has neither the time nor the inclination to cook and eat food.
But bars — snack bars, protein bars, energy bars, whatever you want to call them — are especially hot right now. It’s easy to see why: They’re quick, portable, and often graced with the questionable imprimatur of healthiness.
RX Bar, a Chicago operation that makes bars from simple, recognizable ingredients, recently sold to Kellogg’s for a flabbergasting $600 million. Various anaylsts’ estimates put total sales in the US in the billions and predict steady growth. Nitze’s Kickstarter campaign has collected over $30,000 in just a couple weeks.
“People like food and don’t like pills,” Nitze said. As it happens, some people really like pills. But point taken: Most people probably think about what they’ll eat for lunch, rather than what they’ll masticate and swallow and digest and excrete for lunch.
Packed with ingredients that contain things like omega-3 fatty acids and medium chain triglycerides, his bars aren’t designed to give you a massive energy rush. Even though the taste is not really the point of the IQ Bar, Nitze spent a long time in the kitchen experimenting with recipes until it was something people might actually want to put in their mouths.
“Everything is in these for a brain-nutritional purpose,” Nitze said, though he won’t — and can’t — say that the bars will actually improve your brainpower.
The bars he ended up with, now manufactured according to his specifications at a facility on the West Coast and sold in sharp little packages for about $3 apiece, are decidedly not terrible. The texture is an issue, and the flat, nearly square bars seem to wilt as you hold them, and the Matcha Hazelnut flavor, lent a strange dustiness possibly from the green tea’s involvement, wasn’t for me. But the Almond Cacao and Blueberry Walnut flavors are actually pretty tasty — and undeniably healthier than many of the sugary energy bars on the market.
As I worked my way through the samples Nitze gave me, I can’t say I felt any increased clarity — at least not more than eating when you’re hungry routinely provides. The IQ Bar didn’t make me any smarter, but it does show that food built from beneficial nutrients can also be quite a bit more palatable than a bowl of kale sprinkled with chia seeds.
If this is the form that the post-food, biohacking movement takes, well, I think I can hack it.Nestor Ramos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @NestorARamos.