3D Food Printers: Gourmet Gizmo or Game-Changer?

Author: Sandra Ionescu Edited by: Inês Barreiros

The famous chef Julia Child once wrote to a friend that “People who love to eat are always the best people.” What she may not have imagined is that people will one day be printing, rather than cooking, everyday food such as pizza, hamburgers, and chocolates. It is 2017 and 3D printing, a technology that has long been priced beyond many people’s reach, is rapidly becoming more affordable—so affordable that companies are trying to 3D print all sorts of new things, including your dinner.

Scientists and entrepreneurs have designed 3D food printing machines that may soon find their way into households, including the Nufood printer from Dovetailed and the Foodini from Natural Machines, though neither printer is currently on sale to the general public. The Foodini is available for select early-access customers (mostly professional kitchen users) and sells for roughly $4,000 USD, whereas the Nufood website allows customers to provide their name and email addresses to receive more information about pre-ordering. The bulk of 3D printing nowadays is carried out in trendy restaurants and sweet shops, where the technology allows chefs and chocolatiers to create ornate designs with previously unachievable resolution. Food Ink, a new London restaurant, offers an immersive 3D printing experience with everything from the food to utensils to furniture coming out of a printer.

’Designer curry sampler’ 3D printed with Natural Machines’ Foodini

’Designer curry sampler’ 3D printed with Natural Machines’ Foodini

3D food printers generally use one of two printing methods. In one method, powders are bound together during the printing process with a liquid such as water. Powder-based printing is often used for sugar-based creations. The second printing method is extrusion-based and uses one or multiple syringes to deposit gels or pastes in specific locations determined by the recipe input. The Foodini, for example, uses fresh ingredient pastes loaded into capsules and can print raw doughs, make simple pizzas, quiche and brownies and fill pasta. Offering a more unique technology, the Nufood printer ejects gelatin flavour-filled droplets into a cooled aqueous medium. The droplets—or 'flavour bombs', as the designers call them—can add a burst of flavour to a dish or cocktail and contain natural ingredients that are mixed to imitate existing fruits and foods or to create new tastes. The droplet technology stems from a Science paper published in 2016, which describes the 3D printing of aqueous droplets into a lipid in oil mixture. Two of these droplets can adhere to form a bilayer, and a series of bilayer interfaces can be created to form a tissue-like network. The move from lab to industry is a perfect example of how basic science can be translated into an innovative application.

A selection of snacks created with the help of the Nufood droplet printer.

A selection of snacks created with the help of the Nufood droplet printer.

Haute cuisine aside, the key question is whether food printers will become a game-changer for sustainability or remain a cool gizmo for top chefs and foodies. Some benefits of 3D printing food are more obvious than others. For example, printed food opens the door to customisation—dishes tailored to an individual's nutritional and dietary needs. The German company Biozoon launched a 3D 'Smoothfood’ project in 2010 which aims to provide printed nutritional meals with a jelly-like texture resembling familiar solid food for the elderly and for those with difficulty swallowing. The British Army and NASA have also considered 3D printing food to customise nutrition for soldiers and astronauts. The ability to print any ingredient that can be blended into a paste or fine flour into various shapes is another advantage of 3D food printers. Printing blended tomatoes or raspberry purée may not seem like a route to sustainability, but the technology reveals a reasonable way to introduce alternative ingredients into meals, including algal proteins, beet leaves, grass, and insects. Such plentiful ingredients, which are not a part of most routine diets, may become 'digestible' if mixed with more palatable ingredients and extruded as a base of otherwise familiar dishes. Insect waffles, anyone? A study headed by Kjeld van Bommel at the Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research showed that adding milled mealworm to a shortbread cookie recipe resulted in more people eating the mealworms. The ability to turn traditionally unappetising yet nutritious ingredients into a familiar-looking 3D printed dish expands available food sources.

Creating dishes with crushed insects in not the only way to make healthy foods more palatable. The technical abilities of 3D printing allow for patterning of food constituents, such as fats and salts. In 2011, Christopher Loss, a researcher at The Culinary Institute of America, found that by concentrating salt in the topmost layer of mashed potatoes he could reduce the dish’s overall salt content by 40% without compromising its perceived saltiness. Our gullible taste buds should allow us to stuff butter, sugar, and other unhealthy ingredients into small pockets or alternate them with fat-free layers. Such patterning will allow the same servings of fat and sodium to go a lot further in terms of perceived flavour.   

The goal of existing household-oriented 3D food printers is to provide a natural-ingredient dinner with minimal preparation time. For the Foodini, all a user has to do is load ingredients into the printing nozzles, select a recipe from a touchscreen menu, and hit print. Voilà! Still, some entrepreneurs in the printed food industry are not sold on existing printing methods, which broadly rely on crushing up food into a paste or powder just to print it in different combinations. Chloé Rutzerveld, founder of Edible Growth, believes that the prevailing food printing methods are not improving sustainability and may only find use in serving food to the elderly that is combined with customised vitamins and minerals. She argues that although it may save time and money if a machine prepares the food instead of a nurse, pushing the food through a printer syringe versus using a traditional mould may do little more than augment aesthetics. An even bigger critique is that some current 3D food printers use syringes filled with cooked food that has been dried and ground up, which destroys nutrients. Her solution to this is Edible Growth, a grow-your-own 3D-printed snack. The Edible features multiple 3D-printed layers of support structure and an edible breeding ground that includes seeds, spores, and yeast. Within five days, the plants and fungi mature while the yeast ferments a solid inside into a liquid. Depending on the preferred intensity, the consumer can decide when to harvest the nutrient-rich 'edible growth'. Chloé claims that her product will reduce the agricultural footprint by relying on farmers to produce seeds and not food, minimise food transport by growing food on-site, and limit food waste and preservatives. However, in an interview with Vice, she revealed that the current prototypes are largely made by hand since printing the more complicated materials (other than the base) is still hard to achieve. In addition, the range of food that can be grown from seeds in a reasonable time-frame is limited.

Chloé Rutzerveld’s Edible Growth, a biscuit matrix that contains seeds, spores, and yeast that grow over a period of days to reveal a weird yet nutritious snack.

Chloé Rutzerveld’s Edible Growth, a biscuit matrix that contains seeds, spores, and yeast that grow over a period of days to reveal a weird yet nutritious snack.

For 3D printed food to become a sustainability game-changer, synthetic ingredients like test-tube burgers will have to be put to use. Professor Mark Post at Maastricht University created the first cultured beef burger patty from bovine stem cells in 2013. The patty performed decently in taste tests, but issues with scaling and cost-reduction need to be tackled before lab-grown meat can become commercially viable. Many other food technology start-ups and laboratories around the world are looking to develop cultured meats. San Francisco-based start-up Memphis Meats recently unveiled chicken strips that were grown from animal cells without so much as ruffling a chicken feather. Producing meat in the lab would significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions, energy consumption, and water and land usage.

Even if test tube meat is successful and 3D food printing technology advances, the idea may still be met with opposition from the public, much like the initial response to the microwave. Organic produce is cherished by our generation, and the variety and quality of 3D printer ingredients are disappointingly limited. Creating more complex dishes with rich flavours from scratch is still in the realm of science fiction and will require sizeable technological advancements. So far, every fundamental taste comes in powdered form: sweetness from sugar, saltiness from salt, bitterness from quinine, sourness from malic acid, and umami from MSG. To create more intricate multi-component dishes, food printers will have to evolve to handle printing with many materials at the same time and include cooking elements that can cook various parts of the printed product at specified times. Researchers are tinkering with parameters including the density of the food and the amount of trapped air to modify texture. 3D food printers also tend to be slow and the printing process needs to be refined to improve efficiency and reduce wait times. The most common designs require successive layers of ingredients to cool, leading to exceedingly long wait times for some foods.

Another concern is the price tag on 3D food printers. As the technology matures, production is streamlined, and competition increases, 3D food printers should become affordable. Still, there are the regulatory challenges of commercialising food printing cartridges. Challenges include getting FDA approval, determining how to sell the cartridges and who owns the recipes, and deciding on strategies to make a profit. Food production will have to be considered in a whole new way.

So, will we soon wake up to 3D-printed breakfast bars that are customised to our allergies, activity levels, age, and health? Will cookbooks be replaced by downloadable open-source recipes? One thing is pretty clear—current food systems cannot supply a population of 12 billion people sufficiently, and we may have to change our perceptions of what we see as ‘food’. The 3D food printer may open the door to new ingredients, such as insects and algae, and will likely find its niche as a complement to good farming practices, investment in plant breeding programmes, smart packaging, and other routes to sustainability. The success and impact of 3D printing will rely on everyone from scientists and businesses to open-minded policy makers and consumers.