The development of 3-D printers in the food world
Considering how much society loves technology and food, the two aren’t often combined. Smart kitchens aren’t as ubiquitous as smart TVs or phones, and any sort of tinkering with what’s “good and natural” is met with skepticism, if not fear. Despite the space-age implications of food technology, it is being considered more seriously as the world’s population is projected to reach 11 to 12 billion by the end of the century. Additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, is one of these options for the future of food.
Rather than putting ink or toner onto a flat surface in a single layer, 3-D printing takes advantage of the entire space and lays down material in successive layers to construct a model in three dimensions. Just like a regular printer, the material has to be liquid before it can be extruded onto a surface, but 3-D printers can utilize a variety of materials such as plastic, metals and food to create any number of different shapes and designs.
Due to the malleable nature of many of the materials, desserts have been at the front of the 3-D printed food crusade; the two food printers premiered at the 2014 Consumer Electronics Show, for example, were designed to print chocolate and sugar treats. Hod Lipson, engineering professor at Cornell University, said the Cornell Creative Machines Lab started printing with chocolate and cake frosting in 2005 because they found it worked well in their 3-D printers.
“At the time, it was more of a byproduct than a goal, but it was ‘Hey, cool, look what we can do,’” Lipson said. “It was interesting enough that we wanted to see what we could do with it.”
The Creative Machines Lab experimented with cookie dough as well — a family shortbread recipe from one of the researchers took the prize — but with modifications to the extruder setup, any pureed food can in theory be printed. Lynette Kucsma, CMO and co-founder of Natural Machines, said her company started in 2012 with the idea of printing sweets, but she sought a healthier, less-processed option.
“We looked at the underlying 3-D printed food technologies and thought it could apply to sweet and savory food,” Kucsma said. “We actually changed the entire business to go after sweet and savory foods, meals and snacks, and using freshly made ingredients so users can actually prepare their own fresh ingredients to use to print with Foodini.”
The ability to prepare 3-D printed dishes from personalized purees provides a level of flexibility and control not seen before in the food industry. Rather than buying a pizza from a restaurant or store, one could utilize a favorite dough recipe and grandma’s secret recipe tomato sauce to print a fresh pizza ready for the oven. If families have dietary restrictions or nutritional requirements, they can modify their own purees to accommodate that. And as long as the consistency is right, pretty much anything could be printed into pretty much any shape.
A lot of the public’s hesitance to welcome 3-D food printers into their homes is based in the idea that a machine can turn something as texturally unattractive as paste into fun shapes. In some ways, 3-D printed foods can be what Lipson called “the ultimate processed food” because they’re so far away from their original forms, having been severely mechanically manipulated. The ability to turn anything into anything else also opens up the door to foods made out of things we normally wouldn’t eat, like insects or even edible synthetic compounds, because they can be made into recognizable food shapes.
Are 3-D printed foods the answer to the world’s food problems? Some believe that making food out of bugs or powder mixes isn’t addressing the problem; rather than making more food to feed everyone, we should be eating less and learning how to more sustainably produce what we do have. Proponents say the technology allows us to utilize more and different ingredients to make a variety of nutritionally balanced food on-demand rather than relying on processed foods found in the supermarket.
3-D food printers aren’t going to replace how we prepare food today. We’ll still have farms and gardens, grocery stores, five-star restaurants and pretty kitchens with granite countertops. But like the microwave in the 1970s, 3-D food printers will likely become a valuable tool in the food industry.
Amanda Hutchinson is a senior journalism major who can’t wait to start printing out cookies en masse. Email her at [email protected].