3D food printing offers a range of benefits, but can it replace the traditional methods we all know and love?
As the world’s population is projected to reach 9.8 billion in 2050, food production methods will require a revolutionary transformation to keep up. Food production will need to be increased by 50 pecent to sustain current levels, as estimated by some analysts. Fortunately, there is a variety of new technologies that might make it possible, and one of them is 3D food printing.
3D food printer
While the big 3D printing companies have yet to deliver on food printing, Natural Machines, a small Spanish startup company, has been working on and started shipping an Android-powered 3D food printer called Foodini in the last couple of years, making it one of the very few commercially available 3D food printers.1
The Foodini comes equipped with five re-usable, stainless steel food capsules which enable you to print a limitless amount of ingredients and make foods like pizza, brownies, quiche, and stuffed pasta. Thanks to this open capsule model, consumers can put fresh ingredients that they have at home or buy their own local, organic ingredients into their printers, instead of being forced to buy pre-packaged food capsules2. Up to five capsules can be loaded into the printer at one time, without the need to wait hours for dinners. Cooking times range from less than a minute to a couple of hours depending on the complexity of the food.2 Foodini will be beneficial for those who do not enjoy cooking, or even for those who cook regularly as it will really come in handy for those times when they lack time.3
Consumers can choose from a library of shapes or generate their own print. It also has different nozzle sizes to accommodate different textures. Foodini users only need a Wi-Fi connection to select recipes from Natural Machines’ community site, which they can also do from a smartphone or tablet.3
The obstacles ahead
Despite the new advancements in 3D food printing, there are still a multitude of challenges this industry must deal with. The technology remains complex and expensive. The engineering required to make food is much more difficult and sophisticated than producing objects with plastic and metal. Ingredients in food interact with each other in very complex ways, particularly with meats. Therefore, while food printers can be utilised for dough and chocolate, it will be hard-pressed to achieve the right flavor and texture for more complex products like meat. However, the technology is advancing at incredible pace, allowing us to believe that in the twinkle of an eye, anything might be possible.4
Then there is also the issue of public acceptance. The concept of 3D printed food is foreign to most people and is indeed an extreme departure from the more traditional methods of making food we are all used to. But times change. “When people first heard about microwaves, they didn’t understand the technology. Now, 90 percent of households have microwaves,” Lynette Kucsama, CEO and founder of Natural Machines, told Fortune.5
- Precise and personalised meals and nutrition
With food printers, we will be able to create personalised meals and are no longer at the mercy of what food manufacturers decide to produce for us.3 Since 3D printers follow digital instructions as they print, it will also be able to address malnutrition. The customisation allows us to make food containing the correct percentage of nutrients required for a particular gender, lifestyle, medical condition, and life stage, optimised based on biometric and genomic data. The amount of protein, carbohydrate, or omega-3 fatty acids, and the quantity of different vitamins and minerals could be controlled, ensuring adequate nutrient intake based on a person’s dietary requirements and hence preventing malnutrition. “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,” Hod Lipson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia told The New York Times.5
Moreover, in comparison to traditional food manufacturing methods, 3D printed food offers portability and on-demand nutrients. This will be indispensable during times of disaster when a region might not have access to transport and hence food.6
- Intricate food designs, textures, and decorations
In a world where we snap photos of our food first before we eat it, the demand of visually pleasing food has never been higher. 3D printers enable us to create a wide variety of shapes, textures, and decorations that can resemble those of traditional foods such as quiche, or they may also have a unique or unusual appearance.7
3D printing could also reduce food waste, as it enables the reproduction of "ugly" food. Foodini’s ability to reprocess cuts of fish into more appealing shapes was showcased by Natural Machines at September's 2018 World Seafood Congress in Reykjavik, Iceland.3
3D printing via hydrocolloid cartridges that form gels when mixed with water can dramatically reduce kitchen waste. It also has the ability to transform rarely used but easily sourced sustainable ingredients such as grass and algae into delicious foundations of familiar dishes. Alternative but rather unusual and previously unpalatable protein sources such as insects and mealworm can be transformed too into tasty pastes that offer the flavour of meat without the environmental footprint.8 This is good news considering the fact that an approximate 14.5 percent of the Earth’s global warming emissions stem from animal agriculture – more than from the entire transport sector.9
Melita Brainta is currently a student majoring in Food and Nutritional Sciences at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.