It may sound like something out of a science fiction novel, but there’s a good chance we will soon be eating 3D printed food. No more ordering in after a long day of work, or opening the fridge door and wishing something edible would appear.
3D printing will allow us to prepare meals in an automated way. This technology could not only save us hundreds of hours each year but could also allow us to make our consumption more sustainable and even make life easier for astronauts- allowing them to prepare meals in space.
By 2023, the 3D food printing market is expected to reach $525.6 million. This growth has been attributed to an increasing concern over global food sustainability and security. The first 3D food printer was launched by American manufacturer 3D Systems, which revealed the technology by printing out candy at the Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in 2013.
However, this wasn’t the first foray into 3D printing. In 2011, Kyle and Liz von Hasseln wanted to bake their friend a birthday cake. Unfortunately, they didn’t have an oven. After a lot of trial and error, the couple (who have backgrounds in molecular biology) managed to print a cupcake topper with their friend’s name on it, using their 2D printer. They brainstormed until they could translate their ideas into 3D models, launching their company The Sugar Lab, which they then sold to 3D Systems in 2013.
How Does 3D Printing Work?
3D printing food is similar to other 3D printing technology because the print head is extruding material onto a surface. This piece can be in any shape, however, unlike traditional plastic 3D printing, the material doesn’t come in spools. It needs to be ‘squish’, and able to be inserted into a syringe-like container so it can then be printed. Since 3D printed food basically needs to be in a pureed form to work, there are currently limitations as to what can be printed.
However, this makes 3D food printing an excellent option for people who find chewing difficult- including babies and senior citizens. Right now, German company Biozoon Food Innovations is creating accessible meals for the elderly who are unable to eat solid foods. Biozoon uses fresh carrots, chicken, and other ingredients to make nutritionally balanced purees. It then includes an edible adhesive, which prints the puree into the shape of whatever the base ingredient is.
The result? A meal that looks ordinary, but can easily be eaten by those who would otherwise suffer from malnutrition due to their inability to chew solid foods.
Currently, experts and innovators around the world are searching for a way to make 3D food printing commercially viable. The goal is that every household will eventually own a 3D printer and be able to create literally any food they could imagine- with the touch of a button.
Presently, 3D food printers use a variety of different technologies depending on the type of food used. For example, binder jetting or liquid binding is excellent for fast fabrication and low material cost. Selective sintering is used for powders like sugar with low melting points, and this is when hot air is used to fuse sugar powder together to create gorgeous 3D objects. Hot-melt extrusion is also used for pastes and liquids and can create meat paste, dough, and processed cheese.
For people who have read the J.D Robb series In Death (set in 2058) 3D food printing sounds remarkably similar to the autochef which makes an appearance in almost every book. Will we all have our very own autochef in our homes and offices? Only time will tell.