This is a recent interview I did with Anatol Locker for a magazine that is about to releaunch (I cannot yet disclose which one). It is partially based on a previous article I have co-written with Xavi Tutò of Growthobjects for a magazine published by the ELISAVA School of Design in Barcelona on food 3D printing.
When people hear food can be 3D printed, they think of Star Trek’s Food Replicator. Can reality already compare to the Enterprise food dispensers?
I think that Star Trek’s replicator is the final goal for any 3D printer, however it is true that one of the primary use (that we were aware of) for the Replicator on the Enterprise was to make food, which, to me, shows that food if the one application of 3D printing that most of humanity is most interested in. Unfortunately it is also the most complex to implement, perhaps even more complex than biological tissue 3D printing (since it involves cooking as well)
What materials can I print in?
There have been many experiments however still toady you cannot print with anything other than paste-like materials and, even then, it is still mostly 2D or relief printing, rather than actual 3D structures. The difficulties are related to finding the right density and temperature, without sacrificing the food’s taste and material properties. That said you can 3D print with several different pastes, including molten chocolate, nutella, ice cream, pasta and just about anything that can be pureed. Also you could 3D print with chopped meats. In fact, since the hydrogels for biopriinting are nothing but paste-like materials made of cells, you could also use them to 3D print edible structures made from bovine stem cells.
“Stem Cell Burgers“, that sounds a bit weird. Did you ever try one yourself? What would be the benefit of printing lab meat?
The only stem cell burger made so far was funded by Google and costed between $200,000 and $300,000 dollars. Nevertheless this was just to show that the process is feasible. While making meat from growing meta cells in a lab does sound weird to us, if you really look at it, it is not much weirder than killing an animal, skinning it, ripping out its muscles and devouring them. I love eating meat and I personally believe that there is nothing wrong with eating an animal, however intensive animal farming is no longer sustainable and it is proving to be an excessively cruel practice. So in the future we will necessarily have to start adopting alternative methods and it seems that growing meat cells is significantly more sustainable than growing animals. The fact that even vegans could theoretically eat lab grown meat does pose an interesting question.
Who buys 3D food printer these days?
Food 3D printers will become more established when we will start adopting a different concept of food, based more on blends of several differed ingredients tailored for our own dietary needs. While it will be a while before this catches on at a consumer level (even though the process has begun), those institutions where food is a need rather than a pleasure can already start to benefit from robotic food assembly and these certainly include military and space (where the astronaut time is too valuable to spend it preparing food and 3D printed food could actually be a significant improvement on pre-made space lunches).
That said, another option where cost is not an issue is the very high end cuisine of top chefs, including molecular gastronomy which already makes intensive use of technology. In this case it is feasible because a top chef could invest in having the support of a 3D printing team that can tailor the machine to work according to the chef’s instructions.
Can you tell me about how Molecular Gastronomy uses a 3D food printer?
Molecular Gastronomy is a very complex field, however one of the very first clear examples of 3D printing applied to molecular gastronomy is by using a process called spherification, one of the most common in this segment. By adding certain agents, the chefs are able to turn any liquid into a caviar like substance, which can then be deposited with a numerically controlled system in order to form 3D structures.
How many companies are offering 3D printed food and who are the key players in this game today?
As said no one actually has a commercial project so far, except for Choc Creator and its Choc Edge machine, which, however, is mainly capable of creating 2D and relief decorations, with limited 3D applications. That said the closest to market is probably 3D Systems, which will launch two different machines: the Chefjet is based on a binder jetting powder technology (where water is used to glue together the slices of the 3D pretend objects) and will use mainly sugar and chocolate. The other is a chocolate paste machine developed together with Hersheys. A number of reprap 3D printers can however add a paste extruder to create basic food structures. One very interesting one is the byFlow. Other projects that offer interesting takes on food 3D printing, with still very limited applications, are Barcelona based Foodini and RIG (Robots in Gastronomy). The Dutch university TNO has also worked at some interesting projects, including one with Barilla for a pasta 3D printer (which still has only conceptual applications)
What are the drawbacks of 3D printing food?
The main drawback is that food 3D printing does not actually exist in the practical world yet. Another is that it will not entirely replace traditionally made food but will introduce a whole new range of foods that do not exist today. These may be better or worse than today’s but there is no doubt that they will become the norm to future generations and will bring several benefits to society, including highly tailored foods for those who need them (infants, the elderly and the sick) and more sustainable food production practices.
Ok, I’m hooked. Where can I try 3D printed food? If there’s none near me? Which printer should I buy?
Unfortunately you will have to wait a few more years to have something you can truly benefit from in the home. Nevertheless it is likely that pastry and cake shops will soon begin offering more and more complex 3D pretend cake decorations in both chocolate and full color sugar. Along with 3D printed pasta, 3D bioprinted meats and 3D printed pureed vegetable we may have a meal soon enough.