From pixels to plate, food has become 3D printing’s delicious new frontier

Agriculture has come a long way in the past century. We produce more food than ever before — but our current model is unsustainable, and as the world’s population rapidly approaches 8 billion, modern food production methods will need a radical transformation to keep up. Luckily, there’s a range of new technologies that might make it possible. In this series, we’ll explore some of the innovative new solutions that farmers, scientists, and entrepreneurs are working on to make sure that nobody goes hungry in our increasingly crowded world.

Three-dimensional printers — machines that can fit on a desktop and create 3D objects from plastics, metals, and other raw materials — can do just about anything. High-precision jets pump out custom medical implants at the press of a button. Carbon-fiber printers spit out automobile prototypes with jaw-dropping precision. And off-the-shelf modelers generate custom toys, jewelry, home decorations, and clothes with no more than a digital file.

Commercial kitchens, bakeries, and confectionaries are using 3D food printers to save time and effort.

But there’s a new frontier in 3D printing that’s only beginning to come into focus: food. Recent innovations have made possible machines that print, cook, and serve foods on a mass scale. And the industry’s luminaries aren’t stopping there: They think 3D food printers could improve the nutritional value of meals, produce intricate sculptures out of everyday foodstuff, and solve hunger in regions of the world that lack access to fresh, affordable ingredients.

There’s no doubt about it — 3D food printing’s come a long way. But like any new technology with lofty promises, it’s far from a silver bullet.

The basics of 3D food printing

Most 3D food printers are deposition printers, meaning they deposit layers of raw material in a process known as additive manufacturing. A newer category of 3D printer — binding printers — adhere materials together with a kind of edible cement.

The latest generation of 3D food printers is much more complicated, combining nozzles, powdery material, lasers, and robotic arms to make sugar sculptures, patterned chocolate, and latticed pastry. One printer, the ChefJet from 3D Systems, crystalizes thin layers of fine-grain sugar into a variety of geometric configurations. Another, the Choc Edge from Barcelona-based Natural Foods, dispenses chocolate from syringes in beautifully melty patterns.

Most 3D food printers function exactly like their plastic-spewing counterparts — they just extrude edible materials instead of thermoplastic goo. (Video: Foodini)

Cutting-edge printers can tackle even more. The Foodini, for example, uses fresh ingredients loaded into stainless steel capsules to make foods like pizza, stuffed pasta, quiche, and brownies. Pasta-maker Barilla’s machine prints noodles with water and semolina flour. And a prototype design by Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia, fabricates nutrition bars and simple pastries.

Food production

Already, commercial kitchens, bakeries, and confectionaries are using 3D food printers to save time and effort.

“It takes years and years of experience, but a printer makes it easy.”

Hervé Malivert, director of food technology and culinary coordinator at the International Culinary Center, said the technology’s democratizing. “With a 3D printer, you can print complicated chocolate sculptures and beautiful pieces for decoration on a wedding cake,” he told Digital Trends. “Not everybody can do that — it takes years and years of experience, but a printer makes it easy.”

Paco Pérez, the executive chef at two-Michelin-starred restaurant Miramar in Llançà, Spain, has already put that theory into practice. He uses a Foodini to “re-create forms and pieces” of food that are “exactly identical,” freeing line cooks to complete other tasks.

And he’s not the only one. Food Ink, a pop-up “3D-printed restaurant,” was constructed almost entirely with commercially available printers. Everything from the restaurant’s tables to its chairs and lamps were printed over the course of a week. And all of the entrees and desserts it served were 3D-printed, too; rather than farm to table, think of it as pixels to plate.

Food Ink is a UK restaurant with a unique twist: absolutely everything the restaurant puts at the table is 3D printed — the food, the utensils, and even all the tables and chairs. (Photos: Food Ink)

There’s mass-market potential in 3D food printing. XYZprinting’s eponymous XYZ Food Printer, which the company unveiled at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, is already making ready-to-bake cookies, pizza, meat pies, and scones for bakeries in China and an Australian food retail chain.

Sustainability

The global population is expected to grow to an estimated 9.6 billion people by 2050, and some analysts project that food production will need to be raised by 50 percent to maintain current levels. Sustainability, it seems clear, is becoming less a “nice-to-have” than a necessity.

Future 3D food printers could make processed food more wholesome.

3D food printing probably won’t solve the problem, but it could contribute to the solution. Some experts believe printers that use hydrocolloids, or substances that form gels with water, could be used to replace the base ingredients of familiar dishes with plentiful renewables like algae, duckweed, and grass.

To that end, a team at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research in Germany has developed a printing method for microalgae, a natural source of protein, carbohydrates, pigments, and antioxidants. In one study, research lead Kjeld van Bommel 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.

Joseph F. Coughlin, founder and director of the AgeLab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thinks 3D printing can reduce fuel use and emissions. Grocery stores of the future might stock “food cartridges” that last years on end rather than perishable whole ingredients, freeing up shelf space and reducing transportation and storage requirements. “[The] delivery of product[s] may be in larger amounts that may be easily stored,” he told The New York Times.

3d food printers how they could change what you eat future of foodini xlarge body
A pair of Foodini 3D printers, which extrude food from a system of refillable capsules, meaning you’re free to print with practically any ingredients you choose. (Photo: Foodini)

Nutrition

3D food printers could do more than produce renewable, environmentally-friendly food stores — they also have the potential to revolutionize nutrition.

In this field, NASA’s at the forefront. In 2013, the agency experimented with technologies that could preserve food on long-term missions, awarding a $125,000 Small Business Innovation Research contract to Systems & Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) to develop a 3D-printed food system for astronauts.

Future 3D food printers could make processed food more wholesome. Lynette Kucsma, cofounder of Foodini, envisions printers producing more nutritious takes on preservative-filled fast food burger patties.

Lipson predicts that future printers will be able to deliver exact dosages of drugs, vitamins and supplements, and foods customized to the specific caloric needs of a given user.

Wasp 3D Printer Gluten Free
It’s not just about complex geometries either — in the future, food printing could allow consumers to print food with customized nutritional content tailored specifically for their individual dietary needs. (Photo: WASP)

“Food printing could allow consumers to print food with customized nutritional content, optimized based on biometric and genomic data,” Lispon told The New York Times. “So instead of eating a slice of yesterday’s bread from the supermarket, you’d eat something baked just for you on demand. This may be the missing link between nutrition and personal medicine, and the food that’s on your table.”

But 3D food printing holds promise for those with ailments and allergies, In Germany, a group of retirement homes have adopted 3D printing technology that purees vegetables like carrots and broccoli into nutritional, easy-to-chew soft molds of their original shape. And WASP, a 3D printing company based in Italy, is testing a printer that can produce gluten-free versions of popular foods.

Obstacles

Despite the many recent advancements in 3D food printing, the industry has a myriad of challenges to overcome.

Currently, most ingredients must be converted to a paste before a printer can manipulate them, and the printing process is typically quite time-consuming. “Printing in food materials is a lot more difficult from an engineering point of view than plastic or metals,” Lipson said. “They interact with each other in very complex ways.”

On top of that, most of the 3D food printers in existence are restricted to dry, shelf-stable ingredients, because most protein and dairy products have a spoilage risk. “Everything must be dry, because otherwise you’d have to worry about something going bad,” said Malivert. “It’s a question of health.”

Then, there’s the matter of expectations. “We need to be sensible about this,” Daniel Crossley, executive director at the U.K.’s Food Ethics Council, told Digital Trends. “We need to start with the problem we’re trying to solve and work backwards, and try to understand the social and health impacts of 3D food printing. I’m not a believer in novelty for novelty’s sake.”

Even some in the culinary world are skeptical. Tony Tantillo, food expert and contributor to CBS in New York, believes 3D food printers are better suited for fast food joints than homes and high-end restaurants. “Those two things shouldn’t be together,” he said in a recent interview. “‘Printed food’ for a magazine, yes. But to eat? Nah, nah.”

But times change. “When people first heard about microwaves, they didn’t understand the technology,” Lynette Kucsama, CEO and founder of Natural Machines, told Fortune. “Now, 90 percent of households have microwaves.”