How 3D Printing May Shape the Future of Food
Imagine a cake with a birthday message hidden inside and only revealed when the cake is cut, or a dinner with its nutritional content carefully calibrated to your caloric needs for the day but prepared with little to no effort.
Researchers are experimenting with the technology that could make these customized foods a reality.
Three-dimensional printers create 3D objects from digital designs; the technology is a type of additive manufacturing, in which materials are added, rather than removed, to make an object. People are experimenting with it to produce everything from artificial body parts made from live cells to guns and jet-engine parts.
3D printers could be applied to food in a number of ways. For instance, NASA is looking to use 3D printers to feed astronauts on long voyages, while others are hoping to use 3D printing to assemble cells to create meat without slaughtering an animal.
However, one expert says the greatest commercial potential for this technology lies in creating customized novelty food and, further down the line, quick meals tailored to nutritional needs.
“I think the appeal will be, 'Can I automate your dinner at home? Can I make a birthday cake with your name written across every slice on the inside?’” said Jeffrey Lipton, a doctoral student at Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab. “That is where I see the technology going.”
Novelty foods will be where food printing starts, said Lipton, who heads the Fab@Home project, which is developing personal 3D fabrication technology. With the help from Chef David Arnold ofThe French Culinary Institute, Lipton and his colleagues at Cornell have experimented with printing food. So far, their projects include a cookie with the Cornell‘C’ embedded within it and sea scallops shaped like the space shuttle. [Photos of 3D Printed Foods ]
Lipton used the technology to create one cookie that accounted for 10 percent of his caloric deficit for one day. He also created a similar cookie for his colleague Hod Lipson, an associate professor at Cornell. (Caloric deficit is the difference between the calories consumed and burned; Lipton created these cookies as an exercise in data mining and 3D printing.)
In the future, Lipton hopes this technology can make meals healthier while also keeping them simple.
“The basic issue is enforcement of diet,” Lipton told TechNewsDaily. “Somewhere between picking up the kids at school and running around, your diet plan goes from making dinner at home to ‘Let’s get McDonald’s.’”
Lipton envisions a system that uses 3D printing to quickly produce meals based on data that describes someone’s daily activity,diet, metabolic requirements, medical conditions and so on. “Everything could be used to tweak the meal to be a little better,” Lipton said.
Early on, Lipton and his colleagues attempted to use 3D printing to build food from the ground up, using any color, texture and flavor. The idea is, “anything can taste like anything,” he said. Their work focused on replicating textures, with some success.
Among other things, they created a yellow, gelatinlike substance with the flavor of a banana and the texture of a mushroom, “because we could,” Lipton said. It was not a hit: When this newly created food was given to undergraduates, the taste testers responded with “pretty universal disgust,” he said.
NASA envisions its 3D-printing kitchens taking this approach —building, for example, pizza out of powdered nutrients —and others see it as a way to address hunger and growing world population. But, said Lipton, “I think it will be a long time before it is refined for wider consumption.”