Technology has changed every aspect of our existence, whether it’s the way we drive, the way we handle money or even the way we produce food and how we eat.
3D printing technology has taken the world by storm, as we are currently able to print anything from the tiniest parts of robots to jet engines and even items of clothing. Perhaps one of the biggest revolutions in 3D printing is the idea of making 3D printed food. This concept is no longer a science-fiction fantasy, it’s very real and it’s highly likely to mold the way we interact with food in the future.
Whether you want chocolate, biscuits or even a pizza, there’s probably a printer out there that’s ready to prepare a delicious meal just for your tastebuds. You’ve probably heard of the expression “life imitates art”, in the same way, a pizza that can be 3D printed by a robot in less than 5 minutes is very reminiscent of the food replicator in Star Trek.
For any science fiction and technology enthusiast, the idea of 3D printed food sounds extremely exciting. However, on the other side of the spectrum, you’ve still got a lot of people who are a bit hesitant to embrace 3D printed food or even lab-grown meat; perhaps it reminds them of the dystopian future described in the novel 1984 or Brave New World.
Regardless, there is no denying that 3D printed food and other food technologies have already started shaping our future and the fate of food production.
How does 3D printed food work?
3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is a technology that’s been introduced in the 1980s and since then, has been developed and incorporated into applications in multiple fields, such as medicine, automotive, aerospace, military, manufacturing, engineering, and gastronomy.
The premise of 3D printing consists of a monitored robotic process that builds up a product or object layer by layer based on a 3D computer-aided design program. After creating a design on a CAD or 3D platform, the information is then sent to the printer which divides the 3D model into different self-supporting layers and starts depositing each individual layer in a cross-section pattern until the 3D model is completely put together.
There are many techniques involved in 3D food printing. The three main procedures are:
- extrusion-based printing,
- binder jetting,
- inkjet printing.
The extrusion-based printing technique builds a food model by extruding edible materials through a nozzle with constant pressure. In extrusion-based printing, edible materials are generally soft, with a paste consistency, like mashed potatoes, meat puree, dough or melted chocolate, yet they should have a low viscosity.
Not only does the variation of ingredients affect the outcome and taste of the food, but also the nozzle diameter, movement speed, and extrusion rate have a big impact on the quality of the 3D food model.
This technology has been utilised by Cornell University and Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) to formulate several foods (cake frosting, cookies, and processed cheese) from both traditional and non-traditional edible materials like algae and insects.
Creation of foods through binder jetting
The second technique is binder jetting. This method consists of building a 3D food model through the use of a binder to selectively assemble multiple layers of powder. This process requires depositing very small droplets of liquid binder into a bed surface of powder that is then exposed to a fixed degree of heat in a cyclic manner for each layer until the food model is complete.
Binder jetting presents a lot of advantageous characteristics, like fast construction and the ability to fabricate complex structures with a significantly lower material cost.
But there are two major downsides of this method of production. Firstly, binder jetting requires the use of ingredients in powdered form, limiting the types of food able to be produced this way. This may not be an issue for certain projects, since pastries and other baked goods tend to be made from powdered ingredients like flour, baking powder, and sugar already.
The second issue is that this method tends to create finished products with a rough surface texture, making it unsuitable for the intricate candies and decorations of which bakery enthusiasts are so fond.
Inkjet printing of foods
The third technique is inkjet printing. This one is used to decorate food, such as pizza, cookies, and cake, or create surface fillings as in meat paste, cheese, jam or sugar icing. Inkjet printing operates by doling out a stream of edible material droplets from either a thermal or a piezoelectric head onto a surface.
Thermal heads are electrically heated to create enough pressure that can push the droplets out of the nozzle. Whereas piezoelectric heads use piezo crystals that are subjected to small electric charges causing it to vibrate and, thus, release the small droplets from the nozzle. This technique offers great opportunities in food decoration with precise, high-resolution images laid on top of cookies, crackers, cakes, and biscuits.
Advantages of 3d printed foods
3D food printing technology undoubtedly offers many prospects and opportunities in the food sector. 3D printers have the potential to make highly sophisticated and complex designs that no other machine or human can replicate. This technology grants the consumer the ability to customise their food designs, as well as personalise their food based on their nutritional information and needs.
Advantages of 3D printed foods:
- 3D food printing technology is already redefining the borders of food processing because of its potential to deliver meals tailored to each person’s standards of taste, convenience, and cost, along with any dietary restrictions.
- It also offers the prospect of shifting towards complete automation of food production processes.
- This is mirrored by several improvements in sustainability, with a substantial reduction in food waste while relying on alternative nutrient sources like insects, high fiber plant-based materials, and animal or plant-based byproducts.
- The universal application of 3D food printing will bring about a massive revolution when practically everyone owns a small food manufacturer in their homes, being able to produce specific foods tailored to their own physical status and energy requirements, for any occasion, and in any colour, taste, shape or form.
- This means customers are closer or in direct contact with food producers, which entails a serious decrease in transport volume, thus, eliminating additional costs of packaging and distribution.
Elements like soft cheese, cake frosting, chocolate, hummus, and hydrogels are all printable food materials that can easily be extruded from a syringe. Unlike other formulas like protein pastes, these materials don’t require any post-processing to enhance their taste or nutritional absorption.
However, foods like meat, fruit, vegetables, and rice are non-printable by nature and require additives like hydrocolloids to facilitate their extrusion.
Limitations and disadvantages of 3D printed foods:
- Besides the restriction in ingredients and the need for post-processing, there are other limitations that still inhibit 3D food printing from reaching its full potential, namely, the short shelf life of 3D printed food. Most purees and doughs are subjected to a shift in their structure after a couple of hours from their production.
- Furthermore, the extrusion of edible materials necessitates a flexible substance, which can only be achieved by heating the materials. Then, they have to cool down after being deposited on the surface bed. This constant heating and cooling process makes the food more prone to grow bacteria and fungus.
What is the future of 3D printed foods?
One of the most exciting aspects of 3D printed food is how sustainable and environmentally friendly it can be. 3D printing food enthusiasts have already started applying this technology in what’s known as ‘food recycling’; they take food waste and turn it into edible materials to fabricate other foods.
3D food printing represents a brilliant solution to solve the issue of food waste (a third of the food produced annually in the world for human consumption gets wasted or thrown away).
Some companies are already using 3D printing technology to create food for public consumption. In 2016 Food Ink began a series of pop-up restaurants in which everything is produced using 3D printing. Not only is the food 3D printed, but also are the utensils, décor, and even the furniture. Natural Machines makes the Foodini, a 3D printer designed especially for food, which has even been utilised by Zuckerberg Media’s science-based food venture Sue’s Tech Kitchen.
This technology also has the potential to solve the serious problem that increasing demand and decreasing supply pose. Food shortage is a major global issue, but it can be dealt with by implementing alternative or non-traditional ingredients in food products. 3D food printing can make these alternative ingredients look more appealing so as to encourage people to try them.
Research has shown that insect powder is an excellent source of protein since it contains more protein than actual meat products, and using 3D food printing technology to introduce this substance into other edible materials is exceptionally convenient, highly nutritious, and good for the environment.
*This article was written by Gregory Miller, a writer with DO Supply who covers Robotics, Artificial Intelligence and Automation. When not writing, he enjoys hiking, rock climbing and opining about the virtues of coffee.