This Exemplary Embodiment: The Year in Food Patents This Exemplary Embodiment: The Year in Food Patents
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This Exemplary Embodiment: The Year in Food Patents

by Nicola Twilley

January 4, 2011
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I think that patent applications—where human ingenuity meets dreams of profit, within the straitjacket of line diagrams and legal prose—might be my favorite literary form.

A tour through the year in food patents reveals several understated gems, from this "Grater for Gratable Food Products" to ConAgra's "Proportional Length Food Slicing System." The consistent format creates an equalizing effect, as products of massive corporate investment in R&D, such as Sysco's "High Protein, Reduced Carbohydrate Bakery Product," are shelved alongside the inventions of a lone, obsessive-compulsive salad lover whose new container design ensures that no element of the salad touches any other element until such time as the salad lover is ready to eat.

I assumed that a quick browse through the year's patents might serve as a guide to the future of food. It does —but as with all futurology, it works even better as a diagnostic of our prevailing food anxieties and obsessions. Thus anti-obesity techno-fixes, in both pet and human food contexts, were a recurring theme.

Meanwhile, in a year of food recalls and safety reform, several patents claimed to fight bacteria and other pathogens through innovations in food processing, packaging, and preparation devices.

Food journalists may have spent 2010 writing about urban agriculture, backyard chickens, and heirloom vegetable canning, but there was no corresponding boom in window farm, chicken coop, or vacuum sealing patents. Instead, I found a device for inserting a "shrimp-like product" into a buffalo chicken wing and a process whereby a multiple textures of cream cheese (or "other dairy material") could be combined into a single snack format. Even the simple activity of boiling an egg can be improved through the application of technology, it seems.

Browse selected highlights of the year in food patents in this slideshow, and then dive into the full glory of Google Patents search here. A warning: although it is addictive, the overall effect, I find, is simultaneously awe-inspiring and vaguely depressing—something to do with the witnessing the boldness of scientific invention as applied to speeding up the molding of flame-grilled patties, perhaps.

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This Exemplary Embodiment: The Year in Food Patents