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In countless episodes of Star Trek incarnations, characters using the replicator for food state that "the replicator hardly does this justice", "this replicated [food item] never tastes quite right" all the way down to "why would you eat such replicated swill!"

So what is wrong with replicators? Based on my limited knowledge of the fictional device, the thing uses molecular definitions of food (or food components) and presents it. Does it add something to give it that certain artificial something to allow you to crave your Aunt's original recipe? Or are the people who say these things just food snobs?

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    A replicated steak misses the most important ingredient of a slaughtered cow: love. – Misha R Dec 19 '16 at 19:54
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    The replicators use precise amounts, where a human chef doesn't have that sort of accuracy. A 'pinch' to a replicator could be 25 mg, where to a human it's different from person to person. A running joke my family had whenever they try to make grandma's mac and cheese is that no one could get it right because they don't spit in it, or something like that. There's also the mentality that 'this was made with love' and so has an intrinsic property that the machine isn't able to produce. – CBredlow Dec 19 '16 at 19:55
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    There's an episode where Dr Crusher is looking at someone's DNA and notes there are bits missing, "as if he'd been replicated". Not sure of the episode, but the suggestion was that replicators aren't perfect, and that presumably affects the taste and texture of the food. – Tim Dec 19 '16 at 20:01
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    My understanding (just from a vague memory) is that the digitized version of anything produced by a replicator has an inherently finite resolution, and can't reproduce with the precision that a transporter (which was described as inherently analog in at least one place) can, especially down at a quantum level. You can't replicate an actually living animal, for example - an apparently, the difference can be tasted. – whybird Dec 20 '16 at 2:28
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    I always thought it was psychological. Like a placebo effect. – Brian Ortiz Dec 20 '16 at 15:19
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The Replicators most likely are not doing anything particularly wrong. However, we have a few things to consider here.

  1. The replicator has pre-programmed recipes inside of it. Unless you make or take your Grandmother's apple pie to something that can test it and determine its full compositional breakdown, it will only taste like whose ever version of pie was scanned.

  2. Taste and memory are tied together very closely. Smells and tastes are able to bring back memories involuntarily, and with a good memory that can also help "enhance" your experience of the food. Conversely, the fact that your Grandma just baked the pie for you personally, and maybe you smelled it cooking all day, can also enhance the experience when you finally get to eat it for dinner. This experience the replicator cannot replicate.

  3. Finally some things are actually different. For example, a lot of the federation replicators will make synthehol instead of real liquor.

WAITER

May I help you, sir?

SCOTT Aye, Lad. Scotch. Neat.

The Waiter goes to the replicator and presently returns with a drink.

SCOTT

Thank you.

Scott looks at it with a discerning eye... then takes a sip. He frowns and then puts down the drink in evident disgust. Data observes his reaction.

SCOTT What in blazes is this?

WAITER Didn't you order Scotch?

SCOTT
Lad, I was drinking scotch about a hundred years before you were born and I can tell you that whatever this is, it is definitely not scotch.

DATA I believe I may be of some assistance. Captain Scott is unaware of the existence of synthehol.

SCOTT
Synthehol?

DATA
Yes. It is an alcohol substitute which is now normally served aboard starships. It simulates the appearance, smell, and taste of alcohol, but the intoxicating affects can be easily dismissed.

  • There's also evidence that the computer replaces some ingredients with healthy alternatives. Troi mention this in TNG: The price :'TROI: Real. Not one of your perfectly synthesised, ingeniously enhanced imitations. I would like real chocolate ice cream, real whipped cream COMPUTER: This unit is programmed to provide sources of acceptable nutritional value. Your request does not fall within current guidelines. Please indicate whether you wish to override the specified programme?'. If this is done with all food its possible there is a noticeable taste difference from the original scanned one – Matt Jul 22 '17 at 14:20
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My understanding from watching all the various Star Trek series, especially TNG, is that there is a big difference between food that is grown, and food that is replicated. These are significantly different processes.

Variety is the Spice

Food that is grown is produced organically over time. In a real steak, all the molecules are slightly different, due to the organic, chaotic process by which it was created. Every one of these steaks is different, due to the different DNA of the cows involved, and the variance between each of the cells in an individual steak.

Food that is replicated is produced in an instant from a blueprint. Each steak produced will be essentially identical, and I presume that each molecule in the steak is essentially identical as well (obviously there would be multiple different types of molecule, but I mean that all the "internal red meat" molecules would be the same, and all the "external slightly singed gristle" molecules would be the same, etc).

This means that a real, organic steak would have a comparatively interesting and unique flavor profile, whereas each replicated steak would be just like the one you had last week. Even if a particular organic one isn't "better" per se, the monotony of replicated steaks would wear on a steak enthusiast.

Precision is Key

There's also the issue of replicator precision.

Wikipedia cites the Star Trek: the Next Generation Technical Manual as saying that

though the replicators use a form of transporter technology, it's at such a low resolution that creating living tissue is a physical impossibility.

This is the explanation for why you can't just replicate people. This implies that there are certain details of living, organic matter that the replicator can't accurately reproduce. Seems reasonable that this might affect the taste of any replicated organic matter.

The Wikipedia article on replicators goes on to say that

For example, to create a pork chop, the replicator would first form atoms of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, etc., then arrange them into amino acids, proteins, and cells, and assemble the particles into the form of a pork chop.

This process requires the destructive conversion of bulk matter into energy and its subsequent reformation into a pre-scanned matter pattern. In principle, this is similar to the transporter, but on a smaller scale. However, unlike transporters, which duplicate matter at the quantum level, replicators must be capable of a large number of different materials on demand. If patterns were to be stored at the quantum level, an impossible amount of data storage (or a set of original copies of the materials) would be required. To resolve this, patterns are stored in memory at the molecular level.

and finally

Though usually undetectable to human senses, computer scanning can be used to reveal these discrepancies, and they may explain the frequent complaint (by some gourmets and connoisseurs) that replicated food and beverages suffer from substandard taste.

Summary

So it's essentially the difference between a hand-crafted boutique product and a mass-produced one.

Each organic piece of food varies according to the whims of biological growth, unlike monotonous replicator products, and the organic food has higher complexity and detail compared to the imprecise replicator copies.

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