3D Printed Food is More Than Just A Novelty

It’s 2016, and 3D printing, a technology long priced beyond many people’s reach, is quickly undergoing democratization. So much democratization that companies are trying to 3D print all kinds of new things, including food.

Think about the replicators on Star Trek and the many other machines that litter science fiction movies, which prep, cook, and serve meals on command. This could actually be our future. 3D food printing has the potential to revolutionize food production by boosting culinary creativity, food sustainability, and nutritional customizability, but technical and market barriers still face it in the years to come.

The 3D printing of food has been an evolving method of food production over recent years, and the uses within this application are set to grow even more. Additive Manufacture within the food industry has allowed designers combine their 3D digital design knowledge with food to produce shapes, textures, tastes and forms that were previously found too challenging to create by hand, all whilst still being edible.

Most 3D printers work by slowly depositing layers of material, one on top of the other, until an object is constructed. The process is called “additive manufacturing,” and it uses deposition printers. Others bind layers together with adhesive — they’re called binding printers.

This method of manufacture could also prove to be a healthy alternative that’s good for the environment. Proteins from algae, beet leaves and insects can be converted into edible products. It is also a stop forward for food customisation, and even NASA is using this technology to look at ways to 3D print food in space.

Now The 3D Systems ChefJet crystalizes thin layers of fine-grain sugar into virtually any geometric configuration, while Natural Foods’ Choc Edge dispenses chocolate from syringes in beautiful, melty patterns. The Foodini uses fresh ingredients loaded into stainless steel capsules to prepare a surprisingly wide array of dishes. Its latest model isn’t a soup-to-nuts solution — it only prints raw doughs, which then must be cooked as normal — but the printer can partially make pizza, filled pasta, quiche, and even brownies.

The Global Market

The Global market for 3D printed food is anticipated to be driven by a need for mass customisation, as 3D printing saves both time and waste. The actual nutrients themselves can even be customised, so consumers can benefit from tailor made food for their dietary requirements.

Currently, it is said that all microwave pancakes in the Netherlands are 3D printed, and its looking possible that there could be a rise in the popularity in 3D food printing machines, much like microwave ovens rose to power years ago.

However, this method of food creation also has its restraints. Many food ingredients used for 3D printing need to be turned into paste or melted, which is limiting as there many foods which cannot be turned into a paste, or melted. The process can also be rather slow, and also needs to be cooled before the food can be eaten. 3D printing food has the potential trump many current food customisation techniques, though the manufacturing cost is quite high.

3D Food Printers Invade The Gourmet World

On the opposite end of the gastronomic spectrum, 3D food printers are beginning to breach gourmet spaces. Earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) unveiled a partnership with 3D Systems, maker of the ChefJet. The CIA plans to begin beta testing with the ChefJef, and 3D Systems will provide CIA students with fellowship and internship programs at the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles.

Food Printing Moves Beyond The Kitchen

Other chefs are looking beyond the kitchen. Dutch food designer Chloé Rutzerveld documented the creation of cracker-like yeast structures containing seeds and spores that sprout over time, and thinks the snack he synthesized and those like it — natural, transportable products printed efficiently — could someday transform the food industry. And he’s not alone.

Some experts believe food printers could minimize waste by using cartridges of hydrocolloids, substances that form gels with water. Those same machines, they theorize, could also use unpalatable but plentiful ingredients — ingredients such as algae, duckweed, and grass — to form the basis of familiar dishes. In a study headed by Van Bommel, scientists added milled mealworm to a shortbread cookie recipe. “The look [of the worms] put me off, but in the shape of a cookie I’ll eat it,” he said in an interview with Popular Mechanics.

Key Players

There’s a fair amount of companies who are getting involved with this new way of producing food. Some of the key players include:

  •  TNO (innovation for life)
  • Philips
  • Electrolux
  • Barilla
  • Nestle
  • NASA
  • Hershey’s
  • Modern Meadow
  • Choc Edge
  • 3D Systems
  • Natural Machines
  • ZMorph
  • Fab@Home

Maybe in the future you could buy your own customized 3D printed chocolate bar just as easily as you can buy your favourite snack at the corner shop, or even create your own from your own machine at home! That’s food for thought.

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