3D printing is on the menu


writer icon João Moniz     Dinarakasko   |   Tech     🕐 08. May. 2018

“Yes? What will you be having?” Commander Jean-Luc Picard of the Enterprise asks one of his guests. Whilst they politely refuse, the Captain addresses the machine. “Tea, Earl Grey, Hot.”

Scenes such as this are not uncommon in the beloved Star Trek franchise. Though it may be something straight out of science fiction, we could be witnessing it becoming a reality through 3D printing. More specifically, the 3D printing of food. 

What is 3D printing?
3D printing is the process in which a machine builds a three-dimensional object by building layers of material on top of each other. Commonly, the material of choice tends to be heated plastic but three-dimensional printing is not by any means limited to just that. In fact, many other materials have been used, such as powders and photopolymers. Even metals have been known to be used in some cases. 

Recently, this technology has been explored by several engineers and entrepreneurs. They have seen the potential such a method has to offer in the culinary field, and have taken to experimenting with its potential applications. Though naturally, there are many challenges yet to overcome, the printing of food is already a reality which is now being further developed.

Shapes, flavours and colours
Presently, most of the developments happening in the 3D printing of food have been made in the confectionary industry. There is a myriad of different candies and confectionary that can be produced. Though, recently, other attempts have been made to create more complex recipes such as pizza

Despite dough-based recipes being the cornerstone of 3D food printing, these are not the only ingredients the technology is limited to. One of the newest challenges of 3D printing is how it can be applied to different ingredients which were otherwise barred from being included in these initiatives, such as meat and even vegan plant-based alternatives.

Though none of these is a complete replacement of the food which we consume today, they definitely come as a potential addition to the pre-set meal choices. At times they may even prove to be preferable to it.

Applying the future
The main use of 3D printing of food in our current day is in the confectionary industry. And there are many other potential applications and benefits, which are being researched and studied every day. NASA is at the forefront of the research into the 3D printing of food. They believe that this technology holds the key to supporting up and coming long-term missions, such as a manned five-year mission to Mars. 

The shelf life is not the only advantage of 3D food printing. This technology would allow astronauts an unprecedented level of control over their own meals. In this way, a 3D food printer could combine both nutrition and the astronauts’ personal tastes as well.

And, naturally, this technology could potentially provide convenience in the military. Smaller, denser meals could be given to soldiers on the move. This could be a direct replacement for the existing edible rations carried by soldier today, providing them instead with food which is better in taste and nutrition. Some have even considered the option of delivering 3D printed meals to soldiers during deployment, using drones.

Additionally, there is the topic of nutrition. The use of smart software required to a 3D food printer could enable users to see their exact nutritional requirements, based on monitoring what they eat. 

In a 2015 study by Sun et. al it was stated that “When food printing is integrated with a nutrition model, users can calculate the exact data of calories and other ingredients of fabricated products, and provide a precise understanding of nutritional distribution. They can control their diet by selecting ingredients and corresponding fabrication via user interface.” 

This type of software gives users both the options and the tools required to create an easy, personalised meal. A meal that pays attention to the differences and challenges each individual faces with their own diet.

Challenges of 3D printing
Despite the optimism of most developers when it comes to 3D food printing, there are still several challenges and obstacles which the industry has yet to overcome. The very first one is regarding the food processing itself. In order to work with the equipment currently available, there is a limited amount of food which can be printed.

In addition, there is also the need to conserve the ingredients. This means that the current spectrum of choice is limited almost entirely to ingredients which have a prolonged shelf life.

Naturally, there is the issue of accessibility as far as the prices go. One of these products, Foodini, is priced at $4 000, and it is not even the most expensive of the range. 

Resistance to something new

Finally, there is the matter of the preconceptions held by specialists in the field, and what they expect to discover with the advent of the 3D food printer. An article in the New York Times illustrates a resistance to something new. This resistance is present even when the technology is introduced to users through their own friends. It also highlights the limitations which 3D printing still faces.

Top chef Marcio Barradas said in an interview with the Associated Press Magazine “We are going back to the time in which microwaves arrive to the kitchen ... it is the same concept. Once your mind allows it to be part of your kitchen, you will be able to print your food.” 

In the same segment, Melanie Senger, a concept developer at Print2taste defends that, through the use of 3D printing technology, one may even balance their meals in accordance to their specific needs, be it through the balancing and adding of vitamins, protein, or fibres in accordance to each individual’s dietary requirements.

Food designer Chloé Rutzerveld has gone one step further still with her expectations of 3D printed food. Rutzerveld asks herself the question “So why are we using additive manufacturing techniques to create fancy shapes of chocolate, sugar and dough?”. With her award-winning project, Edible Growths, she seeks to show the potential which 3D printing has in shaping our day to day lives in a new and healthier direction. 

In her own words “Edible Growth is a critical design project about the potential use of additive manufacturing in food production. It’s an example of high-tech but fully natural, healthy, and sustainable food made possible by combining natural growth, technology and design.“ 

She expects these machines to be able to go as far as to prepare and print living organisms which can then interact with one another to make our food more nutritious as it grows and develops.

Agrifood Innovation Event
The Agrifood Innovation Event is hosted in the Netherlands at the Brightlands’ Campus in Venlo. This conference seeks to bring together entrepreneurs and researchers within the food, engineering, and supplying industries. Their mission is to ensure that our gastronomical evolution continues to be not only pleasing but also sustainable and affordable. This event, held for the first time in 2017,  is once again held in June of this year. It already counts a sizeable amount of participants, including the 3D Printing Conference formerly held in the same spot since 2015.

At this event, both professionals and consumers gather to showcase and experience the greatest innovations currently on the market. Panels will discuss topics regarding the 3D printing of food, focusing on the technology, research, and development. There will also be discussions about ingredients’ availability, storage, distribution, business models and even several investment opportunities.

3D printing food straight to your table
Many people are unsure of what the future of 3D food printing holds, and what it means for ordinary people outside of big businesses, governmental initiatives and institutions. In this day and age, it can be very hard to visualise the potential space that technology to print food might occupy in our lives. 

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