It is fair to ask whether 3D-printed food as a curiosity will eventually become a necessity. The short answer to this question is simple: it already has!
How 3D-printed food could change the way we cook and eat
Since the 1980s, steady progress has been made in 3D printing materials, from thermoplastics to metals and now even food. Complicated cake decorations and intricate chocolates take advantage of the complex geometries possible with additive manufacturing (AM) processes. Thanks to multi-nozzle printers, it is possible to print everything from beet, spinach and carrot salad towers to pizzas. How much more appealing might children find soup laced with 3D-printed dumplings shaped like cat paws?
How to 3D print food
In the world of additive manufacturing, 3D printers extrude thermoplastic and even titanium filaments. When 3D-printed food is extruded, it is deposited by a nozzle guided by an STL file derived from CAD data. The digital information directs the nozzle to deposit “build material” one layer at a time. The extrusion process in a 3D-binding printer requires food of even consistency and proper viscosity for two key reasons: First, it must emerge smoothly from the nozzle. Second, it must maintain its shape upon deposition.
At first thought, the idea of sitting down to a meal of blended, extruded food is uninspiring until one realizes that extruded food is already both commonplace and tasty. pasta, sausages, breadsticks and certain breakfast cereals are all produced via extrusion. The path to tasty extruded food of consistent quality is already well established.
Direct 3D printing of food via extrusion
So exactly how does 3D-printed extruded food make a contribution to gastronomy and the culinary arts?
Chocolate is one of the tastiest of edibles that can be extruded through a heated nozzle to create intricate and creative designs direct from CAD data. The design freedom and customization that 3D printing offers in the food industry is unprecedented.
Traditionally, chocolate creations are produced by pouring liquid chocolate into molds. However, there are two inherent limitations to this process. First, molds are cost-effective for quantity production rather than limited runs. Second, design intricacy is limited by what can be successfully pulled from the mold.
Since no mold is required, it is far easier to maintain the geometry of 3D-printed chocolates from production to consumption. It is also possible to calibrate chocolate’s viscosity so it will maintain geometry as it is laid down on the print bed, layer after layer. AM processes allow for the creation of truly intricate, one-of-a-kind chocolate products. It is even possible for consumers to customize an edible item at a computer and then see their design materialize.
Belgian chocolate is world-renowned for its quality. Now, a factory in Belgium called Miam (“yum” in French) is using four specialty 3D printers to create ready-to-eat delectable edibles from milk chocolate, dark chocolate or white chocolate. A nearby brewery commissioned The Miam Factory to 3D print chocolate beer bottles that served as memorable awards following an Easter egg hunt.
It is also easy to see how smooth, fluid products like cream cheese and mashed potatoes are amenable to the 3D-printing process. Extrusion systems with multiple nozzles allow for more complex entrees. For example, a multi-nozzle print head can automate pizza-making by depositing dough, sauce and cheese. The same process is possible for extruding different cake batters to create elaborate baked goods.
Mold Printing Food
Some foods that begin as liquids cannot be extruded. Flavored gelatin is one example of a food that benefits from using another approach to 3D-printed food. For example, stereolithography (SLA) may take data directly from CAD software to create molds that are then used in food production.
3D-printed molds made of food-safe silicone are also used with chocolate and cake batter. For example, a Ukrainian pastry chef uses 3D printing to fabricate unique spherical cake molds.
Is 3D-Printed Food Safe?
However it is produced, food for human consumption must meet stringent federal requirements designed to ensure safety. When the Food Safety and Modernization Act became law in 2011, those regulations became more stringent than ever. The FSMA, the most sweeping food safety legislation in seven decades, meshes well with the potential for safe 3D-printed food. Eventually, FSMA regulations regarding food safety may amplify the demand for 3D-printed food. What's more, a custom nutrition process may help those with serious food allergies since it is possible to replicate 3D-printed food with such precision.
Is Anyone Eating 3D-Printed Food?
Is anyone eating 3D-printed food? The answer is a resounding yes! Novelty items earlier produced by consumer printers have paved the way for professional printers to produce food in restaurants and commercial kitchens.
At one gourmet restaurant in the United Kingdom, everyone is eating 3D-printed food because that is all that is served. The enterprising entrepreneurs at London’s Food Ink decided to push additive manufacturing to its logical extreme. Everything is 3D printed, including the utensils, plates, tables and chairs. At Miramar, a gourmet restaurant in Spain, food printers take on more mundane tasks, freeing chefs to better focus on their creative cuisine.
There is also a practical side to 3D-printed food. “SmoothFood” is already being served at more than 1,000 German nursing homes. Extruded food meets the needs of older residents who have difficulty chewing and swallowing. Various foods, including pork, chicken, potatoes, pasta and peas, are first cooked and then pureed before they are extruded and printed into recognizable shapes. 3D printing allows for food presentations that are visually appealing and therefore appetizing. With the infusion of $4 million from the European Union (EU), 14 companies in five countries are collaborating to expand the reach of SmoothFood.
3D-printed food offers both terrestrial and extraterrestrial appeal. If you think the idea of 3D-printed food is “out of this world,” so does NASA. In 2013, it awarded a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase I contract to a Texas company so it could explore the potential for printing food on deep space missions. Astronauts would use a modest-sized 3D printer to transform space-saving bulk foods into tasty entrees.
The future of 3D-printed food
In the future, 3D-printed food may help feed the world’s population in a simultaneously sustainable and nutritious manner. For example, researchers at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research in Germany print food using a type of algae rich in protein and antioxidants. Expanding protein sources for a growing global population helps ensure ingredient availability.