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Why 3D food printing is more than just a novelty — it’s the future of food

It was Marcel Boulestin, the first cook-turned-television star from the BBC’s 1937 show Cook’s Night Out, who insisted that cooking was not chemistry but an art. “It requires instinct and taste rather than exact measurements,” he said.

If only he could see the world now.

It’s 2015, and 3D printing, a technology long priced beyond many people’s reach, is quickly undergoing democratization. So much democratization that companies are trying to 3D print all kinds of new things, including food.

Think about the replicators on Star Trek and the many other machines that litter science fiction movies, which prep, cook, and serve meals on command. This could actually be our future. 3D food printing has the potential to revolutionize food production by boosting culinary creativity, food sustainability, and nutritional customizability, but technical and market barriers still face it in the years to come.

3D printing food ain’t easy

Most 3D printers work by slowly depositing layers of material, one on top of the other, until an object is constructed. The process is called “additive manufacturing,” and it uses deposition printers. Others bind layers together with adhesive — they’re called binding printers.

3D food printing has the potential to revolutionize food production.

3D food printers are more difficult to explain. Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab, laid out the three dominant methods of printing food at the 2015 Inside 3D Printing conference in New York City, which are nozzles, powdery material, and lasers. “You can think of it as the ‘RGB of food,’” he told Digital Trends.

Many systems mix and match those approaches. The 3D Systems ChefJet crystalizes thin layers of fine-grain sugar into virtually any geometric configuration, while Natural Foods’ Choc Edge dispenses chocolate from syringes in beautiful, melty patterns. The Foodini uses fresh ingredients loaded into stainless steel capsules to prepare a surprisingly wide array of dishes. Its latest model isn’t a soup-to-nuts solution — it only prints raw doughs, which then must be cooked as normal — but the printer can partially make pizza, filled pasta, quiche, and even brownies.

None of these machines will be next in line for the Bocuse d’Or chef championship, though. Emilio Sepulveda, co-founder of Foodini maker Natural Machines, has said publicly that food synthesizers like those seen in Star Trek and The Fifth Element will take “many more years” of development.

But that’s not stopping early adopters. Some German nursing homes serve a 3D-printed food product called Smoothfoods to elderly residents who have difficulty chewing. Purees, the conventional alternative, typically aren’t very appetizing, which sometimes leads to under eating. Residents “get malnourished in certain cases,” said Kjeld van Bommel, a research scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, in an interview with the Washington Post.

The tastier Smoothfoods — made of mashed carrots, peas, and broccoli, which 3D printers congealed with an edible glue — are already a hit; 1,000 of the country’s facilities now serve them daily.

3D food printers invade the gourmet world

On the opposite end of the gastronomic spectrum, 3D food printers are beginning to breach gourmet spaces. Earlier this year at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) unveiled a partnership with 3D Systems, maker of the ChefJet. The CIA plans to begin beta testing with the ChefJef, and 3D Systems will provide CIA students with fellowship and internship programs at the company’s headquarters in Los Angeles.

We have a very deep, visceral reaction to foods we don’t recognize.

Tom Vacarro, dean of Baking and Pastry Arts at CIA, spoke to WAMC Northeast Public Radio about the arrangement. “We just took that ran with it and said, okay, we could do many different things with these printers and here’s our ideas” he said. “[You can] design your mold on the screen, and hit print, and out it comes. It just shaves off all of that back-and-forth time.”

3D Systems Creative Director Liz von Hasseln, speaking at CES, said she sees food printing “as something that … will become a part of the culinary fabric.”

“I think the way that happens really powerfully is when it impacts the cultural ritual of eating, which is actually a really powerful part of being a person in the world,” she clarified. Hasseln predicts most of her team’s culinary experiments, which include shaping chocolate and sugar into wedding cake toppers and cocktail garnishes, are just the beginning. Cornell’s Lipson agrees.

3D printed sugar cake topper - blue china

3D printed sugar cake topper – blue china

3D Systems

“These are things that no pastry chef, no confectionary chef could ever make,” he said. “They represent a new design space in food. We’re getting to that point of artistry.”

Food printing moves beyond the kitchen

Other chefs are looking beyond the kitchen. Dutch food designer Chloé Rutzerveld documented the creation of cracker-like yeast structures containing seeds and spores that sprout over time, and thinks the snack he synthesized and those like it — natural, transportable products printed efficiently — could someday transform the food industry. And he’s not alone.

Current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently … [We] have to change our perception of what we see as food.

Some experts believe food printers could minimize waste by using cartridges of hydrocolloids, substances that form gels with water. Those same machines, they theorize, could also use unpalatable but plentiful ingredients — ingredients such as algae, duckweed, and grass — to form the basis of familiar dishes. In a study headed by Van Bommel, scientists added milled mealworm to a shortbread cookie recipe. “The look [of the worms] put me off, but in the shape of a cookie I’ll eat it,” he said in an interview with Popular Mechanics.

To that point, people are very conservative when it comes to food, Lipson said. “Most people will only enjoy foods that are very similar to what they’ve had before. We have a very deep, visceral reaction to foods we don’t recognize,” he said. 3D food printers could be used to make the unappetizing, appetizing.

“Consider a food source that’s not something you’d want to eat in its raw form but a good source of protein, like insects,” Lipson said. “There’s an interesting advantage there — being able to make something that looks and tastes good from something that doesn’t.”

Anajan Contract, an engineer who’s currently developing a pizza-making printer with a $125,000 grant from NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research program, envisions a machine that can produce food from capsules of powders and oils with shelf lives up to 30 years. He believes such a printer would not only reduce the environmental impact of cooking, but also offer a renewable form of sustenance to a growing world population.

“I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” he told Quartz. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

Beyond sustainability, 3D food printing holds great promise for nutrition. Lynette Kucsma, CMO and co-founder of Natural Machines, says printers like the Foodini can help people cut down on the amount of chemical additives in their food and reduce overconsumption. The food printers of tomorrow could even allow customization at the macronutritional level, allowing users individualize the amounts of calcium, protein, omega-3, and carbohydrates in their meals.

“You’ll be able to say when I wake up in the morning I want the printer to print my breakfast and I want to have the right amount of trans fats, whatever we need,” said Lipson.

The many obstacles ahead

But 3D food printing has many challenges to overcome, chief among them speed. Devices like the recently announced Carbon3D can fabricate a mind-boggling number of objects in minutes, but that level of advancement hasn’t trickled down to food printers yet. The most common designs require successive layers of ingredient to cool, leading to exceedingly long wait times for some foods.

Many food printers have chocolate, dough, and sugar nailed, but more complicated products like meat are tougher to master. “Printing in food materials is a lot more difficult from an engineering point of view than plastic of metals,” said Lipson. “They interact with each other in very complex ways.”

“I don’t see 3D food printing as a novelty. [It] will become a part of the culinary fabric for years to come.”

That’s not to say producing them isn’t feasible. Modern Meadow, a company in New York, raised $10 million in funding to research the production of printable biomaterials — but achieving the right texture and flavor is a lot harder. And even if scientists are able to closely replicate natural beef, consumers might not bite; in a survey by GlobalMeatNews.com, only 34 percent of respondents said they’d even try 3D-printed meat.

There’s also the issue of expectations. The Star Trek replicator comes to mind when many people think about food synthesizers, but such a device would hardly be practical — a simple vegetable, like a tomato, would likely require tens of millions of different ingredient cartridges alone. “It sounds simple to say ‘we’ll have a fat cartridge,’ but there are hundreds of kinds of fats,” van Brommel explained.

And how does the culinary world at large feel about 3D food printers? I’ll let Tony Tantillo, food expert and contributor to CBS in New York, expresses a sentiment felt by many: “Those two things shouldn’t be together. ‘Printed food’ for a magazine, yes. But to eat? Nah, nah.” Vacarro thinks they might have a place… in cheap in-and-out joints. “If I think about what’s happening in fast food, there might be something there where some fast foods are printed instead of handmade,” he said.

But perhaps like any new technology, 3D food printers just take some getting used to. “When people first heard about microwaves they didn’t understand the technology,” Lynette Kucsama, Chief Marketing Officer at Natural Machines told Fortune. “Now 90 percent of households have microwaves.”

3D food printers may not produce great-tasting food right now, or be able to cook meals from scratch. Or have the wholehearted endorsement of the epicurean elite. But they’re getting better every year, and what they promise — sustainable, nutritional perfection — is worth the pursuit.

“I don’t see 3D food printing as a novelty. I see it as something that really will become a part of the culinary fabric for years to come,” von Hasseln said recently.

A lot changes in 70 years. Boulestin, like any great chef on the bleeding edge of gastronomy, would understand that.