Technology is capable of producing three-dimensional food from both edible synthetic and natural ingredients. The challenge is to make them palatable and cost-effective
NASA conducted the first research into food printing back in 2006 with the idea of being able to feed astronauts on long space journeys. Seven years later, they succeeded in printing the world’s first 3D food – a pizza measuring 30cm in diameter – the perfect choice as it could be made in layers.
3D printed food technology has come a long way since then and, so far, has succeeded in printing steak, fish, sponge cake… even wagyu beef. But one thing is the technical achievement, quite another, of course, is the taste and appearance of the finished product, and not least the matter of whether or not it is a financially viable process. For now at least, it is not.
When we think of 3D printing technology, its usual applications come to mind, such as reproducing prototypes, industrial components, artificial prostheses, and even houses. 3D printers work by building up volume of an object through layers (additive manufacturing). From three-dimensional blueprints, the device extrudes material through a nozzle onto a plate in accordance with a pre-programmed sequence to give it shape and form. In food 3D printing, these programs are replaced by digital recipes using edible materials instead of the resins or plastics used in industry.
Although 3D food printing is still in its infancy, several companies are forging ahead with this technology. In Spain, for example, Cocuus Systema Ibérica is capable of bioprinting chops, ribs and fish from synthetic meat.
To date, there are just three companies selling professional-grade 3D food printers. 3D Systems focuses on confectionery; Foodini, from Natural Machines (Barcelona), recreates different textures from various foodstuffs; and similarly BeeHex (NASA’s original 3D pizza makers) offer their Chef 3D printer.
Much like the modern capsule coffee machines, aspiring manufacturers are working on innovating food cartridges, or capsules, which can be used in 3D food printers. This technology will lead to no end of possibilities for creating personalised dishes with nutrients and calories carefully planned to suit individual requirements.
3D printers do not actually cook the food by applying the different cooking times required for the different each ingredient that makes up a complex dish. That is why they are limited to simple foods, which are prepared in advance and cooked once printed. Another downside, for the moment, is the time/cost ratio. This technology is well-suited to producing a one-off special or a few units. However, it is rather slow and complex for any repetitive, large-scale production, which makes it very costly.