10 Strange Food Patents and Why they Exist

Patents don't just protect inventions — they also chronicle the history of innovation.

I Stock 494291556

Patents aren’t just valuable ways to protect inventions–they’re also a fun record of the history of innovation, particularly in the world of food processing. Here are ten examples of historical food patents that, while perhaps strange at first glance, have fun backstories. 

A 'Stable and Compatible Peanut Butter-Jelly Product'

Peanut butter and jelly, while delicious together, often don’t go well in the same jar: sugars in the jelly and proteins in the peanut butter can, over time, condense and cause an undesirable darkening effect (Maillard browning). Inventors Harrison Newlin and Marvin Keck had a unique solution, patented in U.S. Pat. No. 3,615,591 to Newlin et al. Specifically, the ’591 Patent describes dissolving gelling agents in a specific type of fruit juice, heating a solution of sorbitol and dextrose to specific temperatures, mixing the fruit juice with the base solution without additional heat, and pouring the mixed product “simultaneously with peanut butter into suitable receptacles.”  

Spaghetti Was a Pain for Campbell Soup

Back in 1926, Campbell Soup had a problem: spaghetti was a pain to cook and can. More particularly, Campbell Soup cooks had difficulty “obtaining a uniform product” when pre-cooking and later canning spaghetti because, among many other problems, those cooks would frequently and accidentally over-cook the spaghetti. The solution, as described in U.S. Pat. No. 1,634,332 to McGowan, was simple: cook the spaghetti in the can. Specifically, the ’332 Patent describes putting dry spaghetti, water, and “partially cooked sauce” into a “suitable container” (like a can), sealing the container, and then heating the container to cook the contents while agitating the container to distribute the sauce and ensure that the noodles do not stick together. While previous inventors had tried to cook foods in already-sealed cans before, McGowan noted that specific care had to be taken to ensure that the spaghetti (or other noodles in the can) did not stick together and form an undesirable “pasty gummy mass at the bottom.”  

Colonel Sanders Pressurizes Fried Chickens

Colonel Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken was infamously particular about his fried chicken, to the point where he sometimes invented new and novel ways of cooking it. For example, U.S. Pat. No. 3,245,800 to Harland Sanders (the Colonel himself) describes a process involving breading “serving pieces” of raw chicken and cooking them in a pressure cooking vessel at a first temperature/pressure, then reducing the temperature of the cooking oil/fat rapidly while increasing the pressure of the vessel to “approximately 15 pounds per square inch.” The result, per Sanders, was “superior taste, texture[,] and appearance in the finished product.”

Korean Stretchy Cheese

If you’ve ever had a Korean cheese corn dog (a “Gamja Hotdog”), you’ll know that the stretchy warm cheese center of the dog is often the star of the show. Along those lines, Korean Pat. App. No. 1020180135110 to Kim describes “a method of preparing high melt cheese with enhanced stretching ability” for use “in the food market.” The trick, like Colonel Sanders’ chicken, involves heat and pressure: specifically, mixing pulverized raw cheese and water, steaming the mixture and melting the cheese at specific temperatures, then drying the cheese at a specific temperature range for 1-5 hours. The result is, of course, intended for a much more fun (albeit perhaps messy) cheese-stretching experience.  

Momofuku Ando’s Ramen Noodle 'Lumps'

Momofuku Ando’s invention of instant ramen–ridiculously cheap, easily transported, reasonably filling, and very tasty–is a long and fascinating story, and Ando is very deservedly the inventor on a large number of different patents directed to the instant ramen business. One of many English-language examples of Ando’s patents is Canadian Pat. No. 994,722, which relates to cup noodles (that is, noodles sold in a cup such that, when hot water is applied, the noodles are cooked in the cup) with so-called noodle “lumps.” A variety of unique tricks to improving the cup noodle experience are described in the ’722 Patent: for example, the noodles are dried such that the upper portion of the noodle lump is denser than the lower portion, ensuring that the noodle lump can be evenly dehydrated and ensuring that hot water can effectively permeate the noodle lump during the cooking process.

Church-Approved Soy Milk

The Seventh-Day Adventists have had a long history in the world of vegetarianism, meat alternatives, and soy food. One example of their work in this area is reflected in U.S. Pat. No. 3,288,614 to Miles, which describes a specific process for making soy milk that, among other things, saved raw material, improved processing time, and improved sanitation. Specifically, Miles’ invention avoided the need for pre-soaking and grinding soy beans, instead focusing on reducing cracked and dehulled beans to a “flake form,” adding water to those flakes to create a slurry, pressure cooking the slurry, using a high-pressure homogenizing step on the slurry, and then centrifuging the homogenized slurry to remove solids.

Coloring Maraschino Cherries in an FDA-Approved Way

Back in the 1970s, inventors Karl Jessen and Frances Jessen faced a problem: the Food and Drug Administration (the “FDA”) disallowed a wide variety of red dyes, creating a need for inventive ways to achieve the distinctive red coloring of Maraschino cherries. In U.S. Pat. No. 4,156,023 to Jessen et al., the inventors describe a solution that “allows the use of various dyes[,] all of which are allowed by the FDA.” Specifically, the inventors discovered a specific combination of ingredients (in one embodiment, around 22 parts sugar, 46 parts carbonated water, 25 parts syrup, 7 parts ethyl alcohol, 0.3 parts coloring, and 0.2 parts flavoring) to “bleached cherries in a ratio by weight of about 1:1.” The result was, as desired, more colorful and attractive Maraschino cherries that still complied with the new FDA rules.

Vitamin Spraying on Cereal

Starting in the late 1960s, cereal manufacturers like Quaker Oats promoted vitamin-enriched versions of their cereals (such as Quaker Oats’ own “King Vitaman”), pushing the health benefits of eating those enriched cereals for breakfast. That said, those manufacturers quickly discovered that they couldn’t simply throw vitamins in cereal dough and call it a day: various vitamins (such as vitamins A, B, C, and D) could deactivate during cooking of that dough. U.S. Pat. No. 3,767,824 to Keyser et al. describes one of Quaker’s solutions to this problem: the cereal was cooked and dried to a specific moisture content (from 1-30% by weight to around 0.5-3%), maintained at a specific hot temperature, and then sprayed with a “fatty composition” comprising the vitamins.

De Lano’s Pizza-Cutting Stamp

Sole inventors can often invent creative solutions to common food problems. For example, U.S. Pat. No. 3,132,423 to De Lano solves a common annoyance for “establishments enjoying a large volume of pizza pie business”: the difficulty of easily cutting pizzas in a sanitary way without consuming too much time and manpower. De Lano’s solution is essentially a large (perhaps guillotine-like) bladed stamping apparatus that lowers radially-positioned blades to cut a pizza into individual pieces in one single motion. One of the unique aspects of De Lano’s invention was its practicality: it was specifically designed to be disassembled rapidly for easy cleaning.

McDonald’s McD.L.T. Becomes History

Back in the 1980s, McDonald’s had a clever idea: a double clam-shell container for a single burger (the “McD.L.T.”), with one container holding the hot elements (e.g., the beef patty and the bun), with the other container holding the cold elements (e.g., the vegetables). This concept made its way to U.S. Design Patent No. 292,483 to Commisso et al., which depicts the container from various angles. While the McD.L.T. was ultimately discontinued in no small part due to controversies over McDonald’s use of polystyrene packaging, the McD.L.T. packaging is now part of the National Museum of American History’s collection as part of their “Food: Transforming the American Table” exhibition.

Be Careful

If you’re considering patenting your latest invention in the world of food science, be careful – even innocent mistakes can cause trouble. For example, in Chef America, Inc. v. Lamb-Westin, Inc., the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit wrestled with the language “heating the resulting batter-coated dough” (that is, not the oven) “to a temperature in the range of about 400° F. to 850° F,” which the Court noted would make the batter “resemble[] a charcoal briquet.” Along those lines, you should always engage the services of a talented patent attorney (like myself!) when you consider filing a patent application – don’t cut corners.

Kirk Sigmon is a shareholder at the law firm Banner & Witcoff Ltd. in Washington, D.C., where he specializes in protecting and litigating all forms of intellectual property, including patents, trademarks and copyrights.

More in Consumer Trends