You probably know that 3d printers have been used to create everything from mechanical gears and electrical parts to prosthetic limbs and living human tissue. But did you know that they’re also being used to print food? It sounds a bit like the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle from the Jetsons cartoons—but it’s happening in real life.
Why 3D Print Food?
3D printing is quickly becoming one of the most important technologies in recent memory, and it should be no surprise that it’s being incorporated into just about every industry, even into the home—but most people would be surprised to find out that food can be 3D printed. And the first question you might ask would be “Why would we need that?”
One of the ideas developed by researchers is making interesting foods for people who are on a soft food diet, like residents of retirement communities or hospital patients. Instead of putting a regular meal in the blender, a softer version of a favorite food could be printed.
The modifying of the texture and consistency of a food could also help people who don’t like one aspect of a food enjoy the others: for example, if you don’t like the texture of tomatoes, you could print a different food from a tomto base that includes all of the nutrients that you’d get from a raw tomato.
There are a few other practical considerations, too: making intricate chocolate designs can be tough with traditional methods, but some very intricate and impressive chocolate treats have been made with 3D printers. When it comes to other foods, Barilla is hosting a competition for 3D printed pasta designs. If you’re a 3D printing enthusiast, you can enter the competition at Thingarage.
Allergens could even be removed from favorite dishes. NASA’s looking at the process for long-term space missions. The US army is even considering using 3D food printing on the front lines.
Many people don’t like to cook, and 3D printing offers a way to get foods that don’t have the preservatives contained in most packaged options, but don’t require the amount of preparation that most fresh foods do. Being able to print a quiche, some pasta sauce, or a veggie burger with fresh ingredients will appeal to a lot of people. And, of course, there’s the fun factor: it’s just cool to print food.
How Does It Work?
It’s clear that there are plenty of reasons that you might want to 3D print food. What’s less clear is how the process works. Let’s take a look at it, step by step.
As in 3D printing anything else, you start with the raw materials. Except, instead of the printer being loaded with cartridges that contain plastics, the cartridges in 3D food printers are filled with edible materials; the same kinds of materials that are currently used in food analogues that we eat all the time, like veggie burgers and soy cheese.
Different printers use different materials; the Foodini machine uses capsules that contain freshly prepared ingredients (basically standard food products blended into a paste). The Choc Edge uses melted chocolate. Other printers use a combination of powders and oils.
After that, it’s a familiar 3D printing process: the machine dispenses ingredients from nozzles on the capsules, layer by layer, until a food product has been created. It can be a single-ingredient food, like chocolate, or it could be complex, like a pizza. In the case of more complex foods, the ingredients are layered in the correct order and amount.
Finally, at least in many cases, the food is cooked in an oven. 3D printers can’t cook food yet, but that’s a feature that manufacturers would like to offer in the future. The whole process isn’t as fast as you’ve seen in the Jetsons and science fiction movies—it’s actually slower than other 3D printing methods—but it has the potential to be significantly faster than preparing fresh food by hand. Especially if the printer could be set on a timer so that dinner would be printed when you got home from work, ready to put in the oven.
Will It Catch On?
For now, the days of a Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle in every home seem far off. As of now, there aren’t many consumer models available; they’re mostly limited to professional ones. But companies are pushing the price of these machines down in the hopes that they’ll get much more popular. However, manufacturers would need to make a great marketing push to get the populace over the “weirdness” of printing their own food.
That being said, we’re now using a number of kitchen devices that people never thought would be widespread; the advent of the countertop microwave oven in the 60s was met with some suspicion and confusion. And now, just about everybody uses one. 3D food printers will be connected to the Internet of Things, another recent technology that people are slowly starting to adopt, as can be seen in the proliferation of connected appliances.
At the moment, it looks like 3D printed food will be most enthusiastically received by people who need or would be helped by alternate methods of food preparation—soldiers, astronauts, or people with food allergies and dietary restrictions. And while today’s 3D printed food is often clearly distinguishable from more traditional alternatives, it’s likely that the technology will advance quickly—we may find that 3D printing allows us to get a finer mix of ingredients that actually improves the flavor beyond what we’ve been able to do in the past.
It’s difficult to say what the future might bring, but it’s clear that 3D food printing is here to stay.
What do you think of 3D printing food? Would you buy a 3D food printer? Does it make you nervous? Do you think it’s totally unnecessary? Share your thoughts below!
Image credits: courtesy of Natural Machines.