Apr 15, 2014
3D Printing and Food: Now and the Future
While 3D printing food will not currently solve global hunger or halt the rise of obesity by replacing foods too high in fat, salt or sugar with perfectly balanced nutritional food, it’s a technology that has potential for growth across the food chain. Farms can implement 3D printing to replace broken or obsolete machine parts. New products made out of insects can appeal to protein-seekers who prefer to not eat red meat. For retailers with bakeries and catering outfits, food presentation can achieve new creative heights. Smaller models at prices under $300 are emerging, and according to a Forbes survey on 3D Printers, millennials “were more likely to state they wanted to buy a 3D printer.” The question is, how many of those folks will use them to make food?
“Top down,” “Bottom up” & “Biological”:
Jeff Lipton, of the Cornell Creative Machines Lab and Co-Founder, Seraph Robotics, categorizes 3D printers and their use in food applications with these three schools of thought. “Top down” is what he personally subscribes to. “Take real good food and make it into interesting shaped food,” says Lipton. “You take local ingredients, meter them and shape them into the right form for you. You get a fresh cookie from fresh cookie dough. It makes it for you.”
“Bottom up” is what Lipton describes as “starting with low-level ingredients and building up from proteins and fats and carbs and replicating a large number of foods.“ Such ingredients could be insects. In different worlds, insects are an accepted source of protein. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations issued the report Edible Insects: Future prospects for food and feed security, marking “the first attempt by FAO to document all aspects of the insect food and feed value chain, with the aim of enabling a comprehensive assessment of the contribution of insects to food and feed security.”
Susana Soares’ Insects Au Gratin project was inspired when she learned that, “On average 100 grams of insects are double the protein compared to 100 grams of red meat; and only four crickets add the same calcium as a glass of milk.” She knew people would balk at eating bugs if they were not designed in an aesthetically appealing fashion, which is why she printed the insect paste into ornate biscuits. “Initially the project was designed to be a public engagement tool, and the kind of futurist look comes from microscopic images of insect patterns (insect wings, eggs, legs, etc.),” explains Soares. “The presentation of the insect paste in this way gets people’s attention showing that food has a huge value and we don’t normally appreciate this fact. Perhaps in the future as pricey as a jewelry gem...” Interview with Susana Soares, Insects Au Gratin Project
“Biological” is described by Lipton as “Bio-fabrication to grow artificial meat. Making meat in a more efficient way than a cow.“ A company that does this is Modern Meadow. “They brew some cells that are ecologically efficient. They take a biopsy from the worlds best cow and make the world’s best piece of meat every time. They adjust the fat content in the meat, get the proportions you want and incubate it," says Lipton. "Unfortunately, right now for any company in this space, 3D printing a hamburger can cost a minimum of $100,000.” Modern Meadow is also making cultured leather without any animal slaughter. Interview with Jeff Lipton, Cornell Creative Machines Lab and C0-Founder, Seraph Robotics
Nutrition and FDA Regulation:
A healthier America is a positive component to 3D printers’ potential for more personalized nutrition. In a TED Talk, 3D Systems Avi Reichental, said food and 3D printing means “the promise of personalized nutrition is right around the corner.” There still remains the issue of food safety on a more commercial level. According to Tech Republic on food safety, “In order to more safely produce 3D printed food and kitchenware, there may be a need for an FDA-approved machine. People probably don't want to eat genetically-engineered pizza off of toxic plates.” The concern lies not so much in an FDA-approved plastic, but in the various parts where bacteria can thrive or a brass nozzle which could pose lead contamination. Also, how will the FDA regulate the machines if models are made to be open-source (in this case meaning “universal access via free license to a product's design or blueprint”) like the RepRap which can print many of its own components (a self-replicating machine).
Big Brands and Retail:
While Hersey Co made an announcement in February of its agreement with 3D Systems Corp. to develop edible 3D printing, it is still years in the making. In a voice mail, a representative from Hershey's said, "Entering this agreement was to begin an exploration that will span multiple years. Folks beginning this work say there are really no actual details to share at this stage. I hope there is movement, but it is measured in years at this stage." Mondelez International partnered with Twitter to host an Oreo Trending Vending Lounge at the SXSW Interactive Festival, 3D printing “deliciously hyper-personalized and customized snacks based on real-time data collection.” (Read more about Mondelez Trending Vending)
Supermarkets don’t appear to be jumping on the bandwagon to install 3D printers at this time. The UK nationwide chain York will be offering customers the opportunity to 3D print… but not food. The customers can scan themselves to produce a miniature self-model.
For now, consumers take it upon themselves to fund 3D printers through Kickstarter (world’s largest funding platform for creative projects) campaigns. While the Micro has a low price tag of $299 and touts itself as “the first truly consumer 3D printer,” it does not focus on food. The Foodini by Natural Machines labels itself “a new generation kitchen appliance” and promotes healthy eating.