When a food synthesizer first appeared on Star Trek: The Original Series, I looked upon it with awe and wonder. Its workings were never explained; but entire meals would emerge from it magically. Swanson’s frozen TV dinners were its only analogue in my childhood experience—aluminum trays compartmentalized in vaguely Bento box proportions with a daily ration of meat, a starch, some vegetables, and possibly dessert. The food synthesizer did seem to be 23rd century stuff.
In a matter of 50 years, advances in the sustainable food arts are making food duplication a 21st century reality. Deconstruction of foodstuffs is now happening at the particle level in research laboratories around the world. Food replication—through 3D printing devices and like technology—promises to create even more vexing social and legal issues of food identity and authenticity.
The holy grail of this quest is a veggie burger—one with an appealing look, taste and mouth feel that will attract and retain both vegetarian and omnivore consumers. Contorting vegetable matter into tasting, sizzling and bleeding like red meat, however, poses innumerable challenges, with concomitant patenting opportunities.
This article briefly traces the patenting history of this quest and outlines where it is currently headed. Food replication is part of our cultural DNA; the journey itself is exciting.