What is 3D food printing?

If you’re familiar with conventional 3D printing, where instead of printing ink on paper on a desktop printer, you print the paper itself by building up an object layer by layer on a build plate by extruding material from a heated nozzle, then the concept of 3D food printing follows the same process, except at the end, you can eat the paper.

The main difference between the two is the “ink” being used to print.

Conventional 3D or additive printing uses spools of molten plastic instead of ink, while additive food printing uses foodstuffs like chocolate, pasta, vegetables, and even meat, which are loaded into a capsule.

Bocusini food capsules

How does it work?

Recipes are preprogrammed. The raw ingredients are pureed and blended into a semi-liquid form so that they can be loaded into food-safe syringes or capsules, which are either sold together or separately, and then extruded through a food-grade print-head. Most of these dishes are ready to eat straight from the printer, but others, such as those using meat and bread would have to be baked or grilled in an oven afterwards.

Source: Barilla

What is so exciting about 3D food printing technology?

Most 3D food printers are currently too expensive to be a common household appliance, making it more of a tool for the professional kitchen. However, Lynette Kucsma, CMO and co-founder of Natural Machines points out to AkuaroWorld that as technology develops, prices drop: “Flat screen TVs used to cost thousands of dollars when they first came out and now you can get one for couple of hundred or less. In a decade or so people see the same happening for 3D food printers”. And in the same way that open-source, affordable desktop 3D printers have begun to democratise manufacturing and bridge the gap between imagination and reality, 3D food printers have the possibility of revolutionizing how we source, create, even what we consider food. Lynette says that when they show the 3D food printers to culinary professionals, they totally get it. The machine gives them unprecedented control of the food’s consistency, texture, composition, allowing them to be more creative with their plating. Imagine 3D printing a miso bar or a birthday cake shaped in the celebrant’s head.

FoodINK, the first restaurant serving 3D printed food opened its doors in 2016

3D food printers do more than print food in novel shapes. They have the potential of aiding people with illnesses eat better, combat malnutrition in the developing world, and even making our food production more sustainable.

Biozoon Food Innovations is a German company that has created Smoothfood which creates printed meals for seniors who have dysphagia—difficulty swallowing—and thus lose their enjoyment of food from being served not so tasty combinations of puréed nourishment.

The company uses fresh ingredients like chicken or carrots and other ingredients along with all the nutrients needed by seniors, breaks them down into a paste and then prints them onto a surface in the shape of the source ingredient: for example a chicken leg. An edible adhesive is added allowing the extruded paste to take on a three-dimensional shape. The product already being used by over one thousand senior citizen homes in Germany.

Biozoon’s Smoothfood kit and platter

“People shrug off this technology and say it’s just for fun,” says Kjeld van Bommel, a research scientist at TNO, a Dutch research institution working on food printing technologies.” But fun is a huge part of food”. 3D printed food in attractive shapes and colours can get children with autism and other illnesses that affects their diet eat better on a psychological and nutritional level.

The food printers of today are not quite as healthy, often producing sugary products, such as sweets or chocolate. Some feel that 3D printed food is unnatural and artificial. The idea of eating an ink sandwich that has been essentially squeezed out of a tube is unappetising. This is where Foodini by Barcelona-based Natural Machines stands out.

Capsules and Foodini printer

Most food printers use pre-filled capsules with different foodstuffs to print out the actual food, so you have a limited range of ingredients to choose from. The Foodini however has open capsules that users can fill with products of their choice. This is both a pro and a con for this device, because all products need to be blended in order to become printing material. This means the printer will not be able to do all kitchen work for you, as you still have to blend the food yourself. And did you ever put a piece of meat in a blender?

On the upside, you can choose the products you would like to work with, which means the nutritional level of your meals is very much under your control. So much of the food we eat comes out of a machine in some factory, and there are so many additives, and Foodini is a step towards getting people to eat healthier. If their vision is realised, 3D food printers will occupy countertop space in the kitchen, along with the microwave and oven.

The Food Crisis and 3D food printing

That 3D food printing research and development has been funded by the European Union and NASA is a testament to the potential benefits of these machines. With the anticipated expedition to Mars which is estimated to take 3 years, the US space agency sees 3D food printing as a way for astronauts to eat better food during deep space exploration. The technology that goes into creating the edible powders for the cartridges also extends the life cycle of food products. This is because the process of creating the edible “ink” dehydrates the material and removes micro-nutrients that can cause spoilage or odors, those micro-nutrients can be re-added when the food is being prepared for consumption.

In a decade or two, the postulated benefits of printing food are incredible. As climate change continues to wreak havoc across the globe, poorer regions tend to be the worst hit areas. Natural disasters often bring severe food shortages to already vulnerable regions, regions that might not have access to transport and as a result, food. 3D-printed food offers portability and on-demand nutrients not feasible with traditional food production methods. Furthermore, many developing countries severely lack the quality and quantity of food required for adequate nutrition, leading to chronic undernourishment. 3D food printing and food technologies can ensure adequate nutrient intake and can even be customised to a person’s dietary requirements.

Finally, the possibility of 3D food printing being a solution to food shortages is one that is not only mind-boggling, but also one that, if economists are to be believed, is critical to our species’ survival.

The UN estimates the global population to reach 10 billion by the end of the century, and some economists believe that current food systems cannot sustain this many people. This means that we need to have a paradigm shift when it comes to what we consider food. With food scarcity a growing threat, efforts are now being made to find alternate food sources; abundant ingredients not normally used in food such as algae, insects, even grass, as bases for food. Two billion people around the world eat insects – locusts, grasshoppers, spiders, wasps, ants – on a regular basis. This has been practiced from prehistoric times until today, particularly in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Efforts are now being taken to normalise the concept of entomophagy–the human consumption of insects–for the other 5 billion in the developed world.

Insects au Gratin creator Susana Soares

For every human on Earth, there are 40 tonnes of insects, which is why they are a logical untapped food source. Aside from being so numerous, insects are more protein-dense, and require much less resources to produce compared to beef. 3D food printers can help make this transition to entomophagy more palatable. Insects are ground up into flour, combined with spices other flavours, after which a 3D printer turns the flour into protein-rich products, such as bars or other more aesthetically-pleasing shapes.

“We have to produce as much food in the next 40 years as we have in the last 8,000,” Jason Clay, Senior Vice President for Market Transformation at the World Wildlife Fund, said. “We need to find a way to do this more sustainably. The biggest threat to the planet is to continue producing food in a business-as-usual fashion”.