Imagine a world where you could have any food you liked in any shape you desired at the touch of a button. Rocket-shaped pasta? Easy. A bowl of dinosaur-shaped cereal? No problem. Or how about some chocolate, sculpted into an assortment of intricately shaped snowflakes? Well, with 3D food printing this could be a reality. And, as the technology has started to make some real progress in recent times, it could happen sooner than you might think. Its potential does not end at just printing individual foods like pasta and breakfast cereal, though. Scientists envision a future where entire meals could be printed using a 3D printer.
3D printing, also known as additative manufacturing, comes in several different forms, but the basic process involves laying one or more materials down, layer upon layer, to produce a 3D object, fusing each one together to make it seamless. A 3D model, which could be designed from scratch using 3D modelling software or generated by making a copy of an existing object using a 3D scanner, serves as the starting point for making the item. This model is divided into hundreds or thousands of thin, horizontal layers by “slicer” software. Each layer, which corresponds to a cross section of the original model, can then be read by the 3D printer, telling it how, and in which order, each layer should be printed.
This technology has already found many interesting and useful applications in a variety of sectors, from making car parts to producing customised medical implants. But you might wonder why we would want to print food. After all, cooking is something that many of us enjoy and pre-packaged microwaveable meals are readily available for the less culinarily inclined. However, there are number of benefits it could bring.
It’s getting personal
For some, the benefit would simply be the fun it could bring to the kitchen – keen cooks and novices alike could use 3D printing to impress their guests with novel tastes, textures and shapes, or even produce entirely new foods that couldn’t be made using other methods. It could also prove an effective way of incorporating novel protein sources into food. As the population continues to grow, it may become necessary to explore alternative, more sustainable protein sources. Some of these – proteins from algae, beet leaves and insects, for example - probably sound quite unappealing. But TNO, a Dutch company working to develop 3D printing solutions, suggest that they could be incorporated into tasty products that are both healthy and good for the environment.
A further benefit of 3D printing is its potential to produce fully personalised products that are precisely tailored to an individual’s needs and preferences. While traditional manufacturing equipment is designed to produce large quantities of identical products, with 3D printing each product is manufactured individually, making it much easier and more economical to produce one-off designs.
In the food industry, textures, colours and flavours of foods could all be adapted to personal preferences, while individual nutritional requirements could also be catered for. This could benefit several different consumer groups – athletes, pregnant women and people suffering from various illnesses, to name a few.
Making things easier to swallow
But the consumer group that might be first to benefit from personalised 3D printed foods is the elderly. A 3 million Euro multidisciplinary collaboration project, involving 14 partners from 5 European countries, is being funded by the EU to develop a system for producing personalised foods for elderly citizens suffering from dysphagia (chewing or swallowing difficulties). Known as the PERFORMANCE (PERsonalised FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs) project, it aims to use 3D printing to produce foods that look and taste like the real thing, only much easier to swallow.
At present, sufferers of dysphagia are often stuck with pureed foods, which can be unappealing and unappetising, particularly if all the components of a meal are mixed together into an unrecognisable blend of the original ingredients. This can lead consumers to eat less, putting them at risk of malnutrition and decreasing their quality of life.
While foods can be pureed individually and formed back into something that resembles the original item without the use of 3D printing, the technology could make the process a lot easier and more economical, and would enable far more realistic looking foods to be produced than many people could make by hand. In addition, 3D printing would enable each item of food to be finely tuned to an individual’s needs, taking into account its hardness, size, nutrient content and the amount of calories it contains, thereby ensuring each individual gets exactly what they need.
On a mission
Proving that 3D food printing really has potential to take off, in 2013 NASA awarded a contract to the Systems and Materials Research Consultancy in Austin, Texas to study the feasibility of using 3D printing to make food in space. At present, because of the significant spacecraft resources that refrigeration and freezing require, NASA provisions consist solely of individually pre-packed shelf stable foods, which are processed using technologies that degrade the micronutrients. These foods would not meet the nutritional needs or the shelf life required for a mission to Mars, which could take 5 years or more. But if successful, the 3D printing technology being developed could provide the solution.
The system the developers propose to build includes a 3D printing component that would deliver unflavoured macronutrients (starch, protein and fat), structure and texture, and an inkjet component that would add the flavour and aroma, as well as those all-important micronutrients, as the food is processed by the 3D printer. Macronutrient feed stocks for making the foods would be stored in dry sterile containers and fed directly to the printer, and water or oil (depending on the digital recipe being used) would be combined with the stocks at the print head to minimize wastage and spoilage. Texture modifiers and flavours could also be added at this point. Then, the mixture would be ready for blending and extruding into the desired shape.
A pizza has already been printed using a prototype of the machine, demonstrating its potential, and it is claimed that several other types of food can be printed on it, too. As a next step, the developers are looking to increase the capacity of the printer from the 3 ingredients it can print at present up to 8 or 10 different ingredients, greatly expanding the potential of what could be produced. Perhaps one day, the options for dinner in space could reach infinity and beyond!
Back here on Earth, changes are beginning to bubble up in the world of confectionery as 3D printers make their way onto the market. UK-based company Choc-Edge has designed two “Choc Creator” chocolate printers that allow complex customised patterns, portraits and logos, as well as 3D objects, to be printed out, giving users a new level of freedom in the design of their chocolate creations.
Meanwhile, US firm 3D systems has developed its own two printers, the ChefJetTM and ChefJetTM Pro, which can turn sugar, chocolate and candy into a whole host of geometric marvels and artistic sculptures, some of which look too good to be eaten. And patents for yet more 3D chocolate printers have also been applied for by further companies wanting to get a foot in the door.
Natural Machines, another company developing 3D food printers, have gone further than just confectionery by unveiling a prototype for a food printing machine called the Foodini that can not only print chocolate, but also crackers, pasta, bread rolls, burgers and much more besides – so the prospect of printing your dinner really might not be that far off.
Unfortunately, while some of these machines are already available to buy, they come with quite a hefty price tag. But we are still only at the beginning of the journey for this fascinating technology, and some people predict that one day 3D printers will become as commonplace in the kitchen as microwaves are today. While the prospect of trying 3D printed food is certainly intriguing, I’m still not convinced I’d want to replace my everyday meals with printed versions. But I do look forward to the day I have a chocolate printer of my very own sitting on my kitchen worktop.
(Image Credit: Reproduced from www.3dsystems.com/es/chefjet)