Does it sound like we are talking about science fiction? Maybe something out of Star Trek? A machine that can create food for you at the touch of a button? Sign me up!
In truth, we are not that far off. 3D printing has been around since the 1980s and has now turned its eye to the food industry. 3D printing first became popular with industries as it offered rapid, cost-effective, and accurate prototyping of industrial products. Using the same theory as inkjet printers, it shoots out filaments instead of ink and layers them through many print cycles to create a physical object.
The range of items produced by 3D printing today is vast. Products made from thermoplastics, metals, glass, paper, and even wood are formed into anything from toys to clothing and even human body parts. With 3D food, the theory is the same, but the filaments used are any paste-type food material.
3D Food Past and Present
The first results of 3D food printing were not too great. Objects were made from a sugar paste and did not taste very good. With advancing technology, especially Fused Deposition Modeling (FDM), the materials that could be used expanded, and the items produced were limited only by imagination. FDM involves three components – a printing plate (where the product prints), a filament coil (printing material), and an extruder (which melts the filament). With food, a syringe system that allowed the use of multiple edible materials replaced the extruder. These materials are then deposited layer-by-layer on the printing plate to create a 3D meal or complex objects that would otherwise not be achievable by hand.
In 2006, 3D food caught the attention of NASA. They began researching the possibility of using 3D food to feed teams of astronauts during long missions in outer space. This alternative food, they hoped, would be more appealing than what was available but still compact enough for space travel. In addition to this, the 3D printed food filaments are pastes created from natural, fresh ingredients, and these pastes could store for years without spoiling. In cooperation with BeeHex, a NASA spin off company, they developed the Chef3D. Their first project – a 3D printed pizza. Like any other 3D object, it would print in layers. The dough first, the sauce next, and the cheese last. It would then only need cooking. NASA has since shelved the program but has not stopped its research into the possibility of 3D food.
Today there are several 3D food printers for consumer use with prices ranging from 300 USD to 10,000USD. The most advanced ones have pre-loaded recipes and have remote access. They also allow the user to design their foods on a computer, tablet, or smartphone.
Would You Eat 3D Food?
Most people know very little about 3D food and are understandably hesitant to try it. If you think about it, most of the pre-packaged food we eat today goes through machines and into molds. In essence, this is no different, other than you decide what ingredients make the mold.
Manufacturers of 3D food machines point out that any new foods created are to individual taste and nutritional needs. With some, a fitness tracker can coordinate your caloric consumption to create a customized meal – a huge health benefit.
3D food printing is also beneficial in other environments. A hospital, for example, could tailor a menu for every patient-specific consistency and nutritional need. 3D food printing can also decrease the waste of foods not “good” enough for sale. Every year, roughly one-third of all the food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted – about 1.3 billion tons. A Dutch company, Upprinting Food, believes that 3D printing can help combat this issue. They collect food destined for waste, mostly due to over-ripeness, and then puree it. This puree then extrudes through the 3D food printer to create intricately designed biscuits. Once baked, they are crunchy and long-lasting, and most importantly, not food waste.
Upprinting Food is not the only company looking at 3D printing as food’s future. Restaurant giants like KFC are working on using this technology to create chicken nuggets. KFC calls it “the meat of the future”. Developed in the lab from stem cells and plant material, KFC plans to launch these nuggets in Russia very soon. They state that although they are not entirely meat-free, these nuggets contain fewer additives and have all the taste and texture of chicken meat.
KFC is not the only one that has looked to this technology. A Michelin-starred chef, Paco Perez, uses a Foodini 3D printer in his restaurant La Enoteca in Barcelona. He claims that no human hand can produce the complexity of what is produced by the machine. For one of his dishes, he prints a seafood puree into a flower-like shape resembling sea coral. He then tops it with caviar, sea urchins, hollandaise sauce, and carrot foam.
Food Ink, a pop-up restaurant launched in 2019 in the UK, is entirely 3D. From the chairs and decorations to the foods you eat. Open-Meals, a company in Tokyo, Japan, envisions that within 100-years, the food industry will be completely digitized. In their restaurant plan, when making a dinner reservation you submit your biometric data, including samples of your DNA. When you arrive, your food prints, and, more importantly, it addresses your specific nutritional needs.
The Ups and Downs of 3D Food
3D food printing can provide a range of possible benefits. First of all, it can help the environment as alternative ingredients can be used for food creation. In 2016, the world consumed 129.5 billion pounds of beef. Agriculture-related deforestation is seriously impacting and destroying our biodiversity. Beef, in itself, has been linked to an increased risk of certain cancers and cardiovascular disease. Creating food with a 3D printer allows other protein-rich ingredients such as algae, beet leaves, or even insects to be used instead of beef. All these produce less methane, consume less water, and do not destroy the ecosystem. Novameat and Redefine Meat are in the process of creating 3D-printed meats that mimic the taste and texture (and even smell) of real meat from plant-based materials. Fast-food chains and supermarkets are already selling “beyond beef” products as an alternative to beef.
Worried about the safety? 3D printed food is completely safe to consume, as long as the preparation is in a clean environment and with an appropriate machine. 3D printing not only allows for precision not attainable by the human hand, but it also allows you to personalize what you eat. You can control the ingredients, the nutrients, the calories, and the vitamins.
The problem with 3D food is cooking the product you get. Currently, it is ideal for foods that do not need additional cooking, like chocolate or sugar decorations. These can print in any shape, including a replica of your face. (Imagine creating a 3D cake topper of a bride and groom with your faces on it!)
Even with its limitations, the future of 3D food looks bright. Creative Machines Lab, Columbia University’s robotics division, is currently researching how to combine laser cooking with 3D food printing. The machine they are looking to create will extrude and then cook your food with two different lasers. One blue laser to produce a penetrating cooking effect and an infrared laser to tan the surface. Even though it might be some time before anyone considers a 3D food printer as a necessary part of our kitchen, look at the microwave. Invented in 1946, it did not become a popular and affordable part of the kitchen until sometime in 1965. That’s almost 20 years. Perhaps our children will look at us someday and ask us: “What’s a microwave?”
Some 3D Food Printing Models Available Today
Ready to take the leap? Here are a few models on the market today:
Foodini, Natural Machines, Spain
Price: $4,000 and $10,000 USD for the Pro model
The Foodini seems to be the most home-friendly model, although quite expensive. It pushes food down through five capsules, through a nozzle, and prints it. The thickness depends on the ingredient used, but several different nozzles come with it that allow you to create virtually any type of 3D food creation. The Foodini can connect through Wifi, Bluetooth, or USB. Preset shapes come with it, but you can certainly create your own on a computer or mobile device and load them into the program.
Focus, byFlow, Netherlands
Price: $4,600 USD
This model targets professionals in the baking industry. It includes several nozzles from the smallest available at 0.3mm up to 1.6mm. Users have access to downloadable recipes and can review them on the printer’s touchscreen.
PancakeBot 2.0, PancakeBot, Norway
Price: $299 USD
This 3D printer is designed specifically for pancakes, thus the name. The software allows you to trace any image onto your computer and create it in pancake form (including a face). It also comes with an SD card to store your custom designs.
Choc Creator V 2.0 Plus, Choc Edge, United Kingdom
Price: $3,072 USD
This printer can create intricate designs in both 2D and 3D and is ideal for chocolate. It comes with a 0.8mm nozzle and creates cake toppings that one could not make without this technology.