Appetizing or Not, 3D Printed Food Industry is Growing

Agriculture and food production techniques have significantly progressed over the last 100 years. We are producing more food than ever before, but it’s no secret that our current global food model is unsustainable.

With the world’s population estimated to reach 9.8 billion by 2050, future food production systems will need to adapt and expand accordingly. Especially since some experts believe production rates need to increase by 50 percent before 2050.

The good news is that ground breaking steps are being taken in the right direction – all thanks to the progressive world of 3D printing. Within this realm, there are already a range of advanced technologies working towards making food production more efficient, increasingly sustainable, and undeniably intelligent.

Specially formatted machines can already design, print, cook, and serve food on a mass scale.

The Long-Term Vision for the 3D Printed Food Industry

However, the industry’s trailblazers believe that before long, 3D food printers could improve the nutritional value of meals and even solve hunger in certain parts of the world where fresh and affordable ingredients are inaccessible.

3D Food Printing in Practice

High end commercial kitchens, unique bakeries, and state-of-the-art food companies have gradually been adding 3D food printers to their culinary equipment collections. And the modern generation of 3D food printers are more complex than ever before, utilizing nozzles, powdery material, lasers and robotic arms to make sugar sculptures, intricately patterned chocolate, and latticed pastry.

Italian food company Barilla uses a 3D printing machine to make pasta using a simple mixture of water and semolina, while The Foodini puts fresh ingredients into capsules to create foods such as pizza, quiche, chocolate, or hummus. Another printer, the ChefJet, crystalizes thin layers of fine-grain sugar into various geometric configurations.

Hervé Malivert, director of food technology and culinary coordinator at the International Culinary Center, thinks the technology is democratizing.

“With a 3D printer, you can print complicated chocolate sculptures and beautiful pieces for decoration on a wedding cake. Not everybody can do that — it takes years and years of experience, but a printer makes it easy,” he told Digital Trends.

Food Ink, a UK restaurant, has gone even further. Absolutely everything on show is 3D printed — the food, the utensils, even the restaurant’s furniture.

Increased Sustainability Through Flat-Pack Food

Global sustainability is becoming a priority for us all. While the 3D food printing industry won’t eradicate all the current issues surrounding unsustainable international food production practices, it can certainly help.

Researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tangible Media Group have transferred the modern ethos of flat-packing to food production. They predict that their pioneering creation could help reduce food-shipping costs, while saving distributors and consumers valuable time and money.

It could also mean that more food can get to the people who need it most.

Part of an innovative research project entitled Transformative Appetite, the MIT team have so far created 2D pasta shapes that can be “programmed” into 3D shapes when submerged in water. The ingredients aren’t complex either. The "pasta" is made from everyday food items such as protein, cellulose and starch, which are then mixed with gelatine.

The research unit (led by Wen Wang and Lining Yao) print thin strips of edible cellulose in various patterns over the top layer of gelatine. As certain layers absorb more water, different structures curl into different sizes and various shapes including the traditional macaroni, flower designs, and even horse saddles.

"This way you can have programmability,” said Lining Yao. “We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space."

Wen Wang added: "With macaroni pasta, even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 per cent of the volume as air.”

In addition, the team are developing software that will allow users to design their own shape-shifting pasta creations at home.

Founder and director of the AgeLab at MIT, Joseph F. Coughlin, believes 3D printing could reduce fuel use and emissions. Grocery stores of the future could potentially stock “food cartridges” he said.

These would then last for years instead of the plethora of perishable ingredients currently available, freeing up shelf space and reducing transportation and storage requirements.

Is 3D Food Printing Destined for Success, or Set Up to Fail?

A big (and important) question is of course: Will 3D food printing machines ever be a staple appliance in the family home?

Natural Machines co-founder Lynette Kucsma certainly thinks so. She argues that food printing kitchen appliances will one day sit next to an oven, toaster, or microwave as if they’ve been there all along.

Kucsma told TechInsider: “Your kitchen is going to become more intelligent as time goes by. So you will have connected devices that talk to each other. You [could] connect your Fitbit to your food printer and it can print a breakfast bar, for example, that’s appropriate for you on that given day.”

The potential popularity of 3D food printing in the home is still unknown however, simply because it’s not a trend or necessity as of yet. Currently, it’s the high end cooking environments that are taking advantage of machines such as The Foodini, and for good reason. The machines can prepare intricate dishes while the chefs focus on other work.

Potential Drawbacks

While 3D food printing is fantastic in more complex cooking scenarios, only time will tell if it works in an everyday setting.

Indeed, home users would still need to source and purchase all of the food components before inputting them into the machine. While microwaves took a while to climb up the common household appliance ladder, they eventually peaked because they saved consumers valuable time during the cooking process.

Some members of the culinary world are skeptical. Tony Tantillo, food expert and contributor to CBS in New York, said: “‘Printed food for a magazine, yes. But to eat? Nah, nah.”

Another current limitation is the actual food produced by the printers. In a world where we’re more health conscious than ever and increasingly aware of the dangers of processed food, is this a step backwards?

Well, while 3D food printing is currently limited to foods that can be made into a paste (icing, chocolate, or dough), in the future it is thought the machines will be able to make food specific to individual nutritional needs.

Columbia’s Professor Hod Lipson predicts that future 3D printers will be able to deliver exact dosages of medicines, vitamins and supplements, and foods customized to the specific caloric or health needs of a given user.

Final Thoughts

There’s no doubt about it — 3D food printing has come a long way over recent years, but it’s still finding its feet.

What is clear: If 3D food printers are to take off in the common household, they need to do more than just make horse saddle shaped pasta or flower shaped chocolates.

However, in terms of working towards making food production more efficient and increasingly sustainable, there are certainly signs of that being achieved through the 3D food printing realm.

The public are still dubious – but these things take time to gather momentum. When people first heard about microwaves, they were skeptical. Now, 90 percent of households have one.

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