Engineering Tech

3D printing – the future of food?

3D Printing, or additive manufacturing, has transformed a broad spectrum of industries since its inception in the 1980s. Healthcare, automotive, aerospace, carpentry, energy, fashion, and assembly line manufacturing have all been massively affected by this technology due to its ability to produce high-quality prototypes and materials cost-effectively. There’s another industry this marvel in engineering is revolutionizing, and it surprisingly doesn’t generate nearly as much buzz as it should. Welcome to the future of 3D printed food.

There are three main 3D printing methods used for food creation. Extrusion based printing consists of ingredients transformed into pastes, placed into reusable, syringe-like cartridges, and printed on a 3-axis stage. Selective laser sintering is when powdered ingredients are heated by a laser and bonded together by layer to create a solid structure. Inkjet printing provides surface filling or decoration with liquid ingredients like sauces, condiments, and food dyes.

Thus far, the 3D printing of foodstuffs has mainly been used for confections due to its ability to create unique and intricate shapes that would be very tedious and time-consuming to create by hand. However, this process can also make human food healthier and innovate the industry to be more efficient and sustainable while combating the world’s most serious issues: climate change, obesity, and malnutrition. The only way to understand the positive effects this technology can have on the global food industry is to understand everything that happens before you sit down for dinner.

Food is cultivated on a farm and sent to a plant for two kinds of processing (manufacturing & packaging.) It then moves on to mass distribution and transportation to the retail market, where it’s purchased and takes its final trip to your home. This entire process is responsible for 26% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Let’s break this down:

-Land use attributes to 24%, leading to deforestation, grassland burning, and cultivation of land for crop production

-27% is a result of crop production for human consumption and animal feed

-31% belongs to livestock and fisheries including manure management, pasture management, and fuel consumption. 

-Supply Chain accounts for the final 18% and includes emissions of food processing, packaging, distribution, transportation, and food waste.

So how can 3D printing innovate the food industry? The Canadian start-up, Genecis, transforms food waste into printed eco-friendly PHA plastics, which biodegrade in a year. In the “Edible Growth” project, Dutch food designer Chloé Rutzerveld published an edible greenhouse structure containing a breeding ground that grows vegetables from seeds and spores within 3-5 days. An Israeli company, Redefine Meat, recently launched Alt-Steak™, their 3D-printed plant-based meat alternative, which resembles beef in look, texture, and flavor. This food product could significantly reduce GHG emissions from raising cattle for human consumption.

With all emerging technology, there are obstacles to overcome to become mainstream. The process has time constraints, as designs are printed layer by layer. Plus, the printed materials may require final preparation steps, such as baking or frying, before you’re able to enjoy the finished product. There are also sanitary concerns; the improper cleaning of cartridges and nozzle heads can result in a high possibility of residual food developing bacteria, causing contamination during the machine’s reuse. To add a more human downside, people are reluctant to change, particularly regarding their food eating habits. There’s a personal element to making a meal for your family and friends that might be lost if the “labor of love” component is taken out of the equation.

What could the 3D printing of food have in store for our future? There’s potential to download coded recipes based on daily nutritional recommendations, dietary restrictions, specific calorie counts, etc., and print them in your kitchen. That may be a bit of aways, but it’s not as far off as you think. There are currently various 3D food printers available in retail and commercial markets with price tags ranging from $1,299-$6.000+.

Hot for more?

WATCH: 3D Printed Food: The Future of Healthy Eating

LISTEN: The Podcast: Columbia University 3D printed food

READ: Future Food: How Cutting Edge Technology & 3D Printing Will Change the Way You Eat 

Featured Photo: Edible Growth 2014 by food futurist Chloé Rutzerveld 

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