food, 3D printing, technology

Photo by Brenda Godinez

By Valerie Devoy

Yes, it is true. You can print food. You can actually put edible materials into a 3D printer and make items like pizza, pies, quiches, pasta, pastries, desserts and more. If you don’t believe me, check out NASA’s printing of a pizza here or Natural Machine’s printing of a hamburger here.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: Yuck! But before you turn up your nose, hear me out. There are scientists, engineers, and industrial designers who believe that 3D printed food has the potential to solve world food problems. Industrial designers such as Chloé Rutzerveld, Anjan Contractor and Joseph F. Coughlin are developing food printing concepts that use real food, made from fresh ingredients. This emerging technology might even eventually end food waste, create customized nutritional content for global populations and reduce reliance on fossil fuels by using renewable energy resources like algae, duckweed, grass and beet leaves.

Excited yet? I am!

How Did 3D Food Printing Start?

The first printed food occurred in 2005 in a laboratory at Columbia University. American robotics engineer, Hod Lipson, was experimenting with his engineering students and decided to put some frosting into one of the canisters of the 3D printer. From there they tried cheese, chocolate and other food materials.

At the time, Lipson and his students just laughed off their experiment as something they had done for fun. But word got out and stirred a lot of public interest. When The New York Times showed up for an interview, they knew they were onto something. Lipson realized that people otherwise uninterested in technology or 3D printing would certainly be interested in food, and that food printing could popularize 3D printing technology like never before.

What Does the Food Printing Industry Look Like Today?

After the experimenting in Lipson’s lab, the industry took off and companies like Natural Machines started producing 3D printers such as the Foodini. The Foodini is a basic kitchen appliance that can be purchased for about $1,000. It downloads recipes from the internet and prints food in your own home. In fact, you can program it from your smartphone to print dinner while sitting behind your desk at work. In addition, you can choose ingredients that deliver exact dosages of vitamins and supplements while customizing them to meet your specific caloric needs.

However, as great as this sounds, the Foodini is still a little extravagant for today’s typical consumer. (I don’t personally know anyone who has a 3D printer in their kitchen, do you?) But restaurants have taken to the new technology quite enthusiastically. In London, a restaurant called FoodInk serves only 3D printed food. In fact, everything in the restaurant is 3D printed, like the silverware, plates, tables and chairs. There’s also a restaurant in Santa Monica who uses a 3D food printer to add a twist to their dishes. For example, they print various crouton designs for their onion soup. Other examples of famous restaurants who use 3D printers are La Enoteca and La Boscana of Barcelona, Queens Bakery of New York and Charm City Cakes of Baltimore and the list continues to grow as 3D food printing becomes popular in creative gastronomy.

What is the Future of 3D Printed Food?

Crouton design, elaborate chocolate sculptures, pizzas and hamburgers have given 3D food printers a frivolous reputation. But that’s changing fast. For instance, the Chloé Rutzerveld concept of Edible Growth is committed to “use this technology to create healthy, functional food that could contribute to solving world food problems and environmental issues.” Her portfolio of food design is not only beautiful to look at, but focuses on reducing the agricultural footprint, Co2 emissions and food waste.

As the world’s population continues to grow, our current food systems will face more and more challenges. In fact, we already know that eating meat is unsustainable, so why not get our protein from renewable resources like microalgae, which is naturally high in protein?

It might sound extreme but it’s worthy of our attention! Emerging technology has always played a role in bettering the human condition (from the wheel to 3D printing). As new technologies emerge, they provide a context for communication around important world issues.

Just imagine what kind of world problems would be solved by making this technology accessible to all people, and how much better off individuals and communities would be if they could produce inexpensive, high quality food on demand. It’s food for thought, don’t you think?

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