Printing Food with a 3D Printer…
…Well, stranger things have happened! If you think making 3D printed food sounds like something out of a science fiction film, think again. New technology can actually make it happen – and scientists hope it can help alleviate a potential food crisis in the future, as the world’s population booms to almost eight billion. With current agricultural methods becoming unsustainable, this innovative solution could make sure nobody goes hungry.
Thanks to ever-improving technology, 3D printers today can do just about anything. They can sit on a desktop and create many different 3D objects from metals, plastics and other raw materials. Many people will have heard of high-precision jets that can create customised medical implants, while carbon fibre printers can make auto prototypes. Items such as jewellery, custom toys, clothing and home decorations can be created with a digital file.
The latest innovation to come from 3D printers is food. It’s a relatively new concept but experts believe it could improve the nutritional value of meals in the longer term and solve famine problems in parts of the world where there’s little access to fresh ingredients.
How does it work?
The majority of 3D food printers are known as deposition printers. They carry out a process called additive manufacturing, depositing layers of raw materials. However, the latest 3D printer is a new concept, known as a binding printer. It adheres materials together with a substance described in layman’s terms as an “edible cement”.
This latest generation is more complex than its predecessors. It combines lasers, nozzles, powdery materials and even robotic arms. As these 3D printers are more advanced, their capabilities are endless. They can make sugar sculptures, latticed pastry and patterned chocolate. The Choc Edge, manufactured by Barcelona-based Natural Foods, produces chocolate in beautiful ornate patterns.
Most 3D food printers function like their counterparts that make items out of plastic – the only difference being that food printers create items made with edible materials, rather than thermoplastics. However, the newer more high-tech generation of printers can do much more, such as using fresh ingredients – placed in stainless steel capsules – to make stuffed pasta, pizza, quiches and brownies!
The Barilla 3D food printer can print noodles made from semolina flower and water. A prototype still being developed by Columbia professor of mechanical engineering, Hod Lipson, makes nutrition bars and pastries.
A number of bakeries and commercial kitchens are already using the cutting edge technology to save time and effort. Executive chef Paco Pérez, who works at a Michelin-starred restaurant in Llançà, Spain, uses a Foodini 3D printer to recreate foods that are “identical” to the original, enabling the line cooks to get on with other tasks.
Perhaps even more amazing is the Food Ink printer which constructed a whole 3D printed restaurant, including tables and chairs, within a week! The entrees and desserts were made with a 3D printer too. The Food Ink restaurant is totally unique – even the utensils are 3D printed.
With the global population of the planet expected to boom to 9.6 billion by 2050, experts believe that unless food production is increased by 50%, it will be impossible to maintain current levels. They say 3D food printers can help solve the anticipated food crisis and could also make processed food healthier.
The 3D printers can use substances that form gels with water (hydrocolloids) to replace the ingredients of traditional dishes with renewables such as grass, duckweed and algae that are plentiful. The research team at Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research is developing a means of 3D printing food using microalgae, a natural source of carbohydrates, protein, antioxidants and pigments.
Some experts believe that 3D printing could reduce fuel use and emissions, while grocery stores could sell “food cartridges” that have a long shelf life, thus reducing storage requirements and the number of deliveries needed – as food can be stored for longer, larger amounts can be left in one delivery.
This could lead to a growth of environmentally-friendly food shops that will revolutionise nutrition. At the forefront of development is NASA, where scientists have been developing a 3D printer that can print food for astronauts.
Processed food could be made more wholesome, providing a modern alternative to instant foods that are packed full of preservatives. It is envisaged 3D food printers could produce exact doses of supplements and vitamins customised to the user’s nutritional needs.
In Germany, some retirement homes are using 3D printers to turn nutritional vegetables into easy-to-eat soft moulds that the elderly residents can chew easily. There’s even a printer under development by Italian firm Wasp that could produce gluten-free varieties of popular food.
The industry must still overcome challenges before the technology can be perfected. Currently the printing process can be time-consuming, with most ingredients having to be converted into a paste before printing. Also, ingredients such fresh dairy and protein products could go off, reducing the product’s shelf-life – so this must be addressed.
In the UK, executive director of the Food Ethics Council was more cautious, saying the health impact of 3D food printers must be examined more closely, rather than going ahead and using the technology just because it’s there.
Although 3D food printing is not among our services, LEFA Print is a leading printing company providing state-of-the-art services, using the latest technology. For bespoke printing, contract printing, print partnerships and creative finishing, please contact us for further details.