3D printing is one of the biggest buzzwords of the decade.
It started off with 3D printed materials such as plastics, ceramics and metals, and has now evolved into foods like pizza, chocolate and lasagna. Edible 3D printing is booming, and along with it comes a surge of innovative ideas for design, taste, materials and uses that have the potential to revolutionize the culinary arts.
This is no longer a distant dream for sci-fi enthusiasts and forward-thinking chefs—it’s here.
Before honing in on the rapidly expanding field of food printing, an understanding of 3D printing in general needs to be established. Bi-Ying Miao, co-founder of the 3D printing company Hot Pop Factory, which has been featured at the Royal Ontario Museum and the Art Gallery of Ontario, said the technology is counter-intuitive to what most people are used to because it builds shapes by adding layers instead of sculpting them away.
Miao said common reactions when people initially hear of 3D printing are shock, awe, and wonder about the process and materials. To help clarify how they work, she distinguished between two different types of 3D printers. The first type are MakerBots, which are user-friendly which makes them great for demonstrations. The second are selective laser sintering (SLS) printers which require more knowledge and professional skill, but generally produce higher-quality products as a result.
“Because 3D printing is a very young technology, it is not like printing, like pressing print and out comes something, that’s not how it works. It actually involves a set of very niche kind of esoteric skills,” said Miao. “The exciting thing about 3D printing—the ideal—is that you can print anything.”
Enter edible 3D printing, a potential game-changer for the food production industry. This innovation has the capability to demolish the limitations of creative food aesthetics, meet custom dietary needs, and explore new flavours.
An up-and-coming 3D printer specializing in edible printing is Foodini, developed by Barcelona-based Natural Machines, which uses only fresh ingredients. The food is loaded into capsules and printed into shapes; anything from basic geometric shapes to dinosaurs and ghosts is possible.
“We are using what we call an open capsule model, meaning the consumer prepares and places fresh ingredients in Foodini,” said Lynette Kucsma, the chief marketing officer and co-founder of Natural Machines. “Once the user chooses the recipe they want to print… Foodini will instruct what fresh food to put in each capsule, and then printing can begin.”
So far, Foodini has successfully printed chickpea patties, pizzas, burgers, and ravioli, to name a few. That being said, not all foods can be successfully printed at this point in time.
“Foods do have to be of a certain texture to work in Foodini. Take a tomato sauce as an example. It can’t be too watery; otherwise it will drip or free-flow out of the capsule. It can’t be overly chunky; otherwise it will clog up the nozzle and won’t print,” said Kucsma.
"This innovation has the capability to demolish the limitations of creative food aesthetics, meet custom dietary needs, and explore new flavours."
Like most technologies, Foodini will have to undergo many iterations of trial-and-error before it is fully figured out. While the team at Natural Machines wants people to experiment with the printers in their homes, they also had to do some tinkering themselves.
“We tried printing a lasagna one day, including freshly printed pasta layer,” said Kucsma. "It didn’t quite work out as planned, as the pasta layers didn’t cook properly as we didn’t let them dry out first as you would normally do when making pasta by hand. As we had four layers of fillings prepared for the lasagna—individual tomato, spinach, cheese, and artichoke mixtures—we decided to print cubes of layered vegetables using our lasagna mixtures, and serve them as appetizers. We also printed up breadsticks in the shape of little spoons to serve with the cubes.”
As for the cost and availability, Foodini should be hitting stores by the end of 2014 and will cost an estimated $1,300.
On the sweeter side of the flavour spectrum, there is a 3D printer which specializes in printing one commonly-craved food: chocolate. A group of students from the University of Waterloo who call themselves 3D Chocolateering developed their chocolate printer with the tag line “Taking Chocolate to the Third Dimension.” Unlike Foodini, their printer works from powdered chocolate—an 85 per cent cocoa chocolate powder that they manufacture themselves.
Brian Luptak, project manager of 3D Chocolateering, explains that their machine is an SLS 3D printer. “This is a fancy way to say it uses a laser beam to melt powdered chocolate into a solid shape, which it does in stacked 2D layers to form your 3D object,” said Luptak. “There is a certain difference in terms of the texture and, therefore, the appearance. Our chocolate powder is quite literally gourmet chocolate bars which we hand-grind and sift into a fine power. The final object has the texture somewhat of an AERO Bar—bubbles and all.”
Contrary to the opinions of many is his field, Luptak’s views on printed edibles are more on the conservative side. He believes the optimal use for 3D printers will be customizing foods—not mass producing them.
"Mass production of foodstuffs is not where 3D printing shines. Rather, its bread-and-butter is in customization."
“I believe 3D printed food will remain only as a novelty. Mass production of foodstuffs is not where 3D printing shines; rather, its bread-and-butter is in customization,” he said. “For everyday use, realism kicks in and the average person seems to be happy with quick-fix meals that fit their busy lives. The thought that 3D printers could unlock exotic ingredients like seaweed and insects is quite interesting; but surely any process incorporating these ingredients into a 3D printer could be done much cheaper using mass-production techniques.”
Luptak believes that by using 3D printers, people can create almost any shape they can imagine. For example, on Valentine’s Day he printed his girlfriend one of her favourite things—figure skates, made of chocolate. Luptak said that the biggest setback for this technology will not be the printers themselves, but rather the computer software that is required to build the files due to its level of difficulty. He also mentioned that his team has performed many demonstrations, including ones to both Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and XPRIZE founder Peter Diamandis, both of whom were shocked at the prospect of 3D printing chocolate.
"You can simply save your design on a USB and bring it to the restaurant."
Not dissimilar to Luptak’s views, the Dutch research organization TNO also sees the value in nutritional and aesthetic customization. Kjeld van Bommel is the project leader at TNO, which recently developed a prototype for a fast-paced and fully functional pasta printer. (The printer can produce roughly 15-20 pieces of pasta every two minutes.) Bommel spoke at a TEDx event in 2012 where he went into detail about the potential of this machine, and all of its conceivable uses. Instead of thinking how consumers will use their printers, Bommel focused on how synthesized food will affect the restaurant industry.
“Guests can just bring their own designs. For example, you could surprise your wife with pasta in the shape of a rose for your marriage anniversary. You can simply save your design on a USB and bring it to the restaurant,” said Bommel. “The 3D food printer there will print it on site.”
Along with TNO’s passion for personalized pasta shapes, they also plan to develop customizable nutritional values based on each person’s needs. In a short video they released in 2012 called “3D Printing: Now Printing Food Too”, they show the dietary needs of seniors, athletes and pregnant women. Since the nutritional requirements for each group vary, the ingredients used in the printing process could be adjusted so that they are optimized for each individual. For example, a pregnant woman needs higher levels of omega 3 fatty acids and calcium than an athlete does. TNO’s printer could make that kind of customizability a reality.
Arthur Whitmore, a trade press officer for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said that if 3D printing companies are able to customize nutrients on a per-person basis, they will be responsible for labeling their foods in a non-misleading way. “That would be up to the manufacturer, to determine what elements/ingredients of the product would support a claim that it is for a certain subset of a market.” Given the chance to eat 3D printed food, Whitmore said he might try it.
Much of the skepticism surrounding printed food concerns what it’s made of. For some printers, household ingredients such as sugar and vegetables can be loaded in to create ready-to-eat meals. For others, powdered foods and oils are combined to make different types of dishes. As the technology develops, more alternative ingredients are being experimented with, such as algae and insect paste.
3D printing is trending more each day. The Digital Innovation Hub at the Toronto Public Library has even begun to offer certification classes in order to educate people on the software, materials, rules, and restrictions of additive manufacturing. Although the library’s printers are only capable of printing plastic for the time being, this is a sign of how many people have expressed interest in 3D printing and how it will allow people to gain a better understanding of the machines.
The possibilities of 3D printed food are seemingly endless at this point in time. Even large companies such as NASA have jumped on board. The space agency funded a 3D printer that can print pizza from powdered foods and oils, in hopes of reducing waste on spacecrafts. The 3D printing company Systems & Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) was granted $125,000 to develop a prototype for the 3D food printer in 2013. David Steitz, the senior public affairs officer for NASA, said it would be inappropriate for NASA to speculate on the use of 3D printing on a global scale because their investigation is limited strictly to space exploration.
Malcolm Prouty, president and director of commercialization at SMRC, said that their team is “currently waiting on additional funding to continue this development.” That being said, if aspirations of customizing nutrition values for printed foods are realized, it could mean major breakthroughs such as specialized nutritious meals for astronauts that don’t come from a bag.
A common myth about 3D printing is that it is an invention of the 2000s. The first ever working 3D printer was developed by a man named Chuck Hull in 1986 — it is just the innovations and new uses that have come since then that have sparked so much media attention. Hull is the co-founder of 3D Systems, which is now noted as one of the biggest players in the 3D printing field, with a range of printers meant for waxes, plastics, metals, and of course, food. One of their newest machines, the ChefJet, has the ability to print multi-coloured and flavoured candies, chocolates and sugars.
“The ChefJet uses powdered sugar or chocolate materials that are spread on a build tray that lowers after each successive pass of the binding liquids,” said Liz von Hasseln, creative director of food products at 3D Systems. “The liquids react with the sugar or chocolate materials and crystallize them in place according to the design. If the materials are not supposed to connect, they are left loose and support the final sugar structure throughout the build.”
Besides the technological appeal of 3D printing, von Hasseln points out the cultural aspects as well.
"Food is deeply cultural and personal. 3D printing adds a layer of intimacy to the experience."
“Food is deeply cultural and personal,” said von Hasseln. “3D printing adds a layer of intimacy to the experience of food by enabling chefs to explore a new facet of the culinary arts.”
Though their technologies are not yet commercially available, 3D Systems recently paired up with Hershey’s to collaborate on several printing initiatives, including creating custom candies and marketing food printers to the public.
“We are just beginning this multi-year development agreement with 3D Systems to explore the possibilities for using 3D printing technology in creating edible foods in the future,” said Jeff Beckman, director of corporate communications for The Hershey Company.
There are some food printers currently on the market for consumers. A chocolate-only printer named the Choc Creator sells for roughly $5,300. The UK-based company, Choc Edge Limited, works with melted down Belgian chocolate instead of working from powdered materials so there is no difference in taste or texture compared to a store-bought chocolate bar. Some of the shapes they have successfully printed include full-sized faces, intricate lettering and images, and 3D geometrical shapes.
Based on the current state of edible 3D printed materials and food printers, they could not yet act as a sustainable, continuous source for issues such as famine, but have the potential to serve as a creative tool for nutrition and design. The costs are still relatively high, the maintenance needs are frequent, and the foods being produced have yet to be refined. That being said, the technology is rapidly developing, and with more minds conceptualizing what can be done with the printers, the more these ideas can be made a reality.
“[When people ask] ‘What can you do with this?’ The answer is always ‘You can do anything!’” said Miao. “And that’s the kind of thought that boggles peoples’ minds.”
Writer: Veronica Sheppard Editor: Michael Brown Copy Editors: Jennifer Fan, Adam Hearty, and Jessica Maiorano Developer: Nathan Dallaire Designer: Eric Leamen Photography: 3D Systems, Natural Machines Video: Crystal Kam, David Bay 3D 'EMERGE' Logo: Dirty Moose Design
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