Photo By Maurizio Pesce from Milan, Italia – ChefJet Candy 3D Printer, CC BY 2.0, Wikimedia Commons, Original photo modified for light and contrast [Danielle Bauer]
If you’re a sci-fi fan, you may recall a theme in the food featured in most movies. It seems the people of the future are either eating a single pill for every meal or making fabulous dishes at the touch of a button. Convenience was key. While we’ve come a long way in convenience and food product offerings, we’re still pretty far off from making food appear before our eyes. Or are we……
Introduction to 3D Printing
You’re probably familiar with 3D printing. If you’re like me, you think of plastics and engineering. However, did you know that scientists are working on creating 3D printers for food?! Sounds pretty cool, right? But why do we need this new technology?
3D printing has actually been around for a while. In fact, the first machine was built in 1983. 3D printing of food, however, is relatively new and still has a long way to go before it’s likely to reach your taste buds. That’s because when it comes to producing food that is both safe and tasty, there are a lot more considerations than with a plastic that is not consumed.
How Does 3-D Printing Work?
Think of a printer or even an artist’s paint canvas. A printer lays down one layer of ink to print your ideas. An artist may lay down one or two layers of paint, or they may keep building it up, layer upon layer. As the layers come together, the paint gets thicker and even pops off the canvas. That’s what’s happening when you 3-D print food. The food is “printed” layer upon layer until you have your final product. This is what’s known as an additive manufacturing process, specifically fused deposition modeling. Materials are bonded by different chemical reactions from compounds present in the food, itself. The material is heated and extruded (pushed) through a nozzle that lays the product down in the shape designed by the computer.
The material to be printed must be low enough in viscosity (flowability) that can it can be extruded through the printing nozzle, but thick enough that it can maintain its shape and properties once printed. This can be challenging Examples include pizza dough, cheese, and sauce. Chocolate and sugar confections are more fun examples.
Another way food may be 3D printed is through a process called selective laser sintering. In this method, also known as powder bed printing, a laser or liquid is used to fixate layers of powder and create shapes. The powder used here is often powdered sugar.
Applications to Industry
The cost of 3D printers has rapidly declined since the invention of the technology, meaning consumers and manufacturers alike have more access to its benefits. 3D printing can be used to develop more realistic prototypes that aid in the product development process. And while 3D printing isn’t exactly fast, it’s a more economical and efficient way to produce many prototypes during the beginning stages, and possibly even test them internally or with consumers to know how to move forward.
Customization is a big advantage with this technology. You are able to have complete control of design and make any necessary manipulations based on feedback. Any idea you have could (theoretically) be designed and optimized for the printer. This saves time, and we all know time is money.
For now, 3D printed food is served mostly in high-end restaurants or confectionery shops. 3D printing of sugar has been successful and beautiful treats are easy to make (see photo above). There are also a few home options available, such as the Foodini printer, that allow you to design and print your own creations from many different materials (I won’t even mention the hefty price tag…) There are also more affordable options, such as those that will 3D print pancake batter onto a hot griddle. As knowledge and technology improve, 3D printing is expected to greatly expand. In fact, it is expected to reach a worth of $525.6 million by the year 2023 (Forbes). So, you can expect to see more coming in the future.
This video by Bloomberg shows some of the ways companies are currently using 3D printing to improve their products.
Opportunities in Health & Nutrition
Dysphagia is a medical condition common among the elderly. It is characterized by an inability to swallow food properly or fully. This can be very dangerous, especially for those who live alone. It also impacts foods eaten and thus nutrition. In fact, there is a whole branch of science dedicated to helping those with dysphagia.
During my exploratory phase in college I considered becoming a speech language pathologist and this was one area many were choosing to go into. If you’re curious, do a little research on dysphagia and the “barium swallow.” After shadowing at a hospital for a day, I ultimately decided food was more my calling and switched majors the next semester 🙂 However, I will never forget witnessing the barium swallow and how patients were impacted by dysphagia.
3D printing allows scientists to create foods with a softer texture that are easier to chew, but still look appetizing. This is extremely important for the elderly who may have little interest in food, especially food that is mushy and unappetizing in appearance. It could greatly improve the nutrition and quality of life of those affected.
As mentioned above, customization is a huge advantage for 3-D printing. And as our society moves toward increasingly customized products, this could even allow printing of specific items with specific, customized nutrition. Whether it be specific vitamins or avoiding gluten, this could have a significant impact to the consumer.
Another opportunity that may improve nutrition and the environment, is the use of alternative protein sources. Insects could be used to reduce consumption of current agriculture products, while improving the appearance and potential acceptance for those who are squeamish (Digital Trends). In addition, renewable materials such as algae could also be used as renewable sources of hydrocolloids (gel-forming ingredients).
Did you know that NASA and the need for safe food in space is the reason we have the food safety system known as Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) today? In the 1960’s NASA actually teamed up with Pillsbury and the US Army to develop a system that would ensure the food sent on space missions wasn’t compromised. Think: food poisoning in space, not a good idea! Before this system, there were no real standards in place. Today, the Food Safety Modernization Act (2011) has expanded upon HACCP and helps to ensure a safer food supply across different sectors of the industry.
Now, NASA is looking to push boundaries yet again. 3D printing of food could improve the quality, taste, and nutrition of food available to the crew. This is extremely important in space under high-stress situations and long missions.
Could We Use 3-D Printing to Solve the World’s Food Problems?
Food security (meaning having enough food), sustainability, feeding a population of over 9 billion people, food safety, food waste, access to fresh fruits and vegetables, obesity, and malnutrition are some of the biggest problems in food facing our world today.
If you notice in my review above, most current applications and foods created with 3D printing have included baked goods, chocolate, and sugar. While this technology can help companies improve products and efficiency, does it really help solve any of our biggest issues?
That’s the argument you’ll see in the video below by TedxYYC from presenter Chloe Rutzerveld. Ms. Rutzerveld argues that more research should be done to improve availability of nutritious foods and cut down on food waste. I appreciate the unique perspective and think its important to remember the bigger picture in the technology we create.
” Everything we eat is actually designed by man. Everything we eat is technology. Farming is technology. Agriculture is also technology. But we started to see these technologies as “natural” as nature. So, perhaps, the influence of these new high-tech production methods doesn’t have to be bad or unhealthy.”Chloe Rutzerveld
Her idea is called “Edible Growth” and uses 3-D printing to create mini-gardens that consumers can grow themselves. This technology would bring people closer to food production and have potential positive impacts on the environment due to decreased transportation and waste. Check out the video below for more information.
As with any new technology there are pros and cons, things that must be improved. 3D printing for food still has a long way to go. Here are some of the biggest challenges:
- Food must be ground and pasted to be printed
- Currently, only dried, shelf-stable products are used for printing due to spoilage and food safety concerns
- Foods are complex mixtures of chemicals that react in more complex ways, than say, plastics
- Printing AND heating the food simultaneously to cook the food and ensure safety is a challenge for many materials
- Time constraints – additive manufacturing currently adds roughly one inch of material per hour!
- Excess material removal and cleanup to ensure sanitation – requires extra time/labor
- Most applications are currently only available for bakers and confectioners, which doesn’t exactly provide solutions to improve the current health crisis of obesity and food insecurity
Food Safety Concerns
The safety of food depends on time/temperature relationships that ensure even heating throughout the food and destruction of bacteria. Safety also depends on viscosity and flow (turbulent or laminar, if you’re into physics and engineering) of liquids. And, of course, the basis of food safety is sanitation and cleanliness. Food processing equipment is specifically designed to be as easy to clean as possible with minimal nooks and crannies that bacteria could hide out. Designing 3-D printers that can be easily cleaned will be critical, whether for use in the home or in manufacturing.
The 3D Future
Can you imagine having dinner waiting at home with just the push of a button? You could even watch it’s progress from your phone. Or maybe your food costs will decrease because transportation and fuel use have decreased. Maybe the environmental impact of food production could even go down. And maybe people in all areas of the world will have access to healthy, safe, and delicious food. Of course, 3D printing is definitely not the answer to all of our problems, but the technology can get us one step closer.
I hope you learned a little about this unique application of 3-D printing. What makes you most excited or concerned about 3-D printed food? Comment below!
Bloomberg. 2015. Video. How Hershey’s is using 3-D printers to make chocolate kisses. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9FajGAeJ840
Brody, A. 2014. 3-D printing: Rapid prototyping from food to food packaging. Food Technology. Institute of Food Technologists. pp 107-108
Hall, L. 2013. 3D Printing: Food in Space. NASA. https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/spacetech/home/feature_3d_food.html
Hannum, K. 2018 Is 3-D food printing the next microwave? Science Meets Food. http://sciencemeetsfood.org/3d-food-printing-next-microwave/
McCue, TJ. 2018. 3D food printing may provide way to feed the world. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/tjmccue/2018/10/30/3d-food-printing-may-provide-way-to-feed-the-world/#46cb7015817c
McHugh, T. Bilbao-Sanz, C. 2017. 3-D Food printing: A new dimension in food production processes. Food Technology. Institute of Food Technologists. pp 123-125
Rutzerveld, C. 2015. Video 3D Printed Food: The Future of Healthy Eating. TedxYYC. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hw321SwC6kA
Wiggers, K. 2017. From pixels to plate, food has become 3D printing’s delicious new frontier. Digital Trends- Emerging Tech. https://www.digitaltrends.com/cool-tech/3d-food-printers-how-they-could-change-what-you-eat/