was our dinner 3D printed?

06/22/2020

By: Liz Froment

Imagine this scenario: It's almost dinnertime, but instead of going into your kitchen to get your pots and pans ready, you walk over to a printer and press start. The machine starts whirring and not long after you've got a plate of freshly printed food.

That's right—food.

By now you've probably heard of 3D printing, the technology that's been used for years to manufacture everything from spare parts to prosthetics. Now it might be coming to a kitchen near you.

How It Works

Essentially, 3D food printing works just like any other type of 3D printing. Through a robotic process, material (in this case food) is squeezed through the printer nozzles layer by layer, based on a 3D, computer-generated design.

First, you need to have your design established, which you can create through computer-aided design (CAD) programs or access many open-source templates online. After you connect your computer to your printer so it can read the design, you take your recipe, blend it up into a paste and load that paste into food-safe nozzles, which are slotted into the printers.

The robotic function of the printer then moves the correct nozzle in coordination with the design that was fed into the printer. Over time, the paste will get pushed out from the proper nozzle into the design you specified.

Right now, the foods that work best for 3D printing are those that can easily be made into paste, so these include chocolate, mashed potatoes, pastas, grains and dairy products.

In 2019, a Spanish company called NovaMeat was one of the first to print a realistic looking steak, which was actually made from grains and veggies.

An Example: Making Dessert

You can use a 3D food printer to make a cool design with cookies. You simply load up the design you'd like into the printer, then mix up your cookie dough batter just as you would normally; load the batter into the nozzles, press start and watch. Your printer will start pushing the batter out into the shapes you want. Once done, pop your cookies in the oven and eat when ready.

Since 3D food printing isn't something that's done at a huge scale just yet, most home chefs and smaller restaurants that use the technology create their recipes from food they already have on hand.

The Growing Need

A 2019 report prepared by the Congressional Research Service noted the dramatic growth of consumer 3D printer sales over the last 15 years. In 2007, there were barely any purchases, and in 2018, nearly 600,000 printers were sold, with significant growth year over year.

It may seem strange to then leap to printing food, but it's one area that many agricultural experts are exploring over the long term. Why? The potential of food shortages in the coming decades, most importantly.

A report by the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) cited a combination of growing populations, climate change concerns and less arable land as contributing to concerns on food demand and production.

As the agricultural industry turns more to technology to help fix problems, 3D food printing on a mass scale is an intriguing option. Every farmer knows land is finite and crops are limited, so new resources must be explored to keep up with growing demand.

Some of the Benefits

3D printing is potentially a way to help meet the growing need of food scarcity, but there are other interesting uses for it, as well.

Importantly, it can help boost the amount of nutrients we eat. It's no secret that unless something is farm fresh, it's been processed with additives to keep its shape or last longer. With printing, the need for those extra additives is removed because you can create your meals directly from fresh foods, not something that's already been processed and put in a box.

In Europe, researchers are also using 3D printed food to look at feeding the elderly. A handful of nursing homes in Germany have been part of a pilot program where meals are prepared with a printer.

The study found printed food helped older patients enjoy food since it's easier to swallow. A nice "chicken drumstick" dinner, something that would normally be hard to eat, gets made with a mix of cauliflower, broccoli and potatoes. Another added benefit researchers found is they were able to increase the nutritional value of meals, which improved the appetites of residents and helped them gain weight.

There's also the potential of reducing food waste. In one example, creators could take fruit and veggies deemed "too ugly" for the grocery store, make them into a paste and use for meals or snacks, saving a considerable amount of food from getting thrown out.

Not Quite Ready for Primetime—Yet

While a lot of progress has been made on this front, don't expect to see 3D food printers in your neighbors' homes just yet.

Currently, much of the focus is in the business to business (B2B) space. However, creators, researchers and food experts all agree on the potential of 3D food printing and many of the biggest B2B brands are creating at home printers. So don't be too shocked to see these becoming more common in the years to come.

Liz Froment is a content marketing writer and strategist with a focus towards insurance, real estate and finance.