Journey to the frontier of food and you’ll find a 3-D printer, spewing out chocolate. While traditional cooking isn’t going anywhere, you can count on 3-D-printed foods eventually finding a place in our world.
Researchers around the world are fiddling with ways to use 3-D printers to make food. Their efforts could one day aid nutrition and sustainability. So far most of the work is in printing sugar and chocolate. And consumers can’t just go out and buy an affordable 3-D printer to make dinner tonight, let alone dessert. But the growing momentum and early creations hint at something that will change the way we eat.
“I don’t see this as a novelty. I see it as something that really will become a part of the culinary fabric for years to come,” said Liz von Hasseln, the creative director of the Sugar Lab at 3D Systems. “I think the way that happens really powerfully is when it impacts kind of the cultural ritual of eating which is actually a really powerful part of being a person in the world.”
Here are five interesting ways the precision of 3-D printers can be used to make foods:
1. Wedding cake toppers
For those who want their special day to be especially unique, 3-D printing is here to help. Why have the same old plastic figurine of a bride and groom on your cake when you could have one 3-D printed that is an exact replica of the couple?
There are other ways to be creative and personalized. Here’s a topper from the Sugar Lab that matches a bride’s veil.
2. Food that’s easy to swallow, but looks good
For senior citizens with chewing or swallowing problems, they’re often forced to eat foods in puree form.
“Those blobs of puree that they get on a plate don’t look very appetizing and as a result these people which already have problems eating don’t eat enough because it doesn’t look very attractive,” said Kjeld van Bommel, a research scientist at the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research. “They get malnourished in certain cases, which then leads to all sorts of medical conditions.”
Van Bommel and other researchers have begun to take carrots, peas and broccoli, mash them up and then 3-D print them. Then they’re softer, but hold their shape due to a gelling agent. The 3-D-printed vegetables are currently being served at retirement homes in Germany.
3. Customized nutrition
Currently there’s a focus on form, color and flavor, but the exactness 3-D printing allows could deliver exact dosages of vitamins or drugs.
“We can see a time when you might be wearing technology that would be sensing what your body needs at any given time, whether you’re an athlete or whether you have a medical condition or whether you’re elderly,” von Hasseln said. “And that could theoretically link up to your printer at home and when you get home a specialized meal could be waiting for you that provides exactly what your body needs.”
“You’ll be able to say when I wake up in the morning I want the printer to print my breakfast and I want it to have the right amount of trans fats, whatever we need,” said Hod Lipson, the director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab. “This is where software meets cooking and the possibilities are really limitless.”
4. Sustainable foods
Van Bommel is researching whether alternative protein sources from algae and insects could be transformed into interesting foods with a texture people will like.
“If Western consumption levels of meat would apply to the whole world we would have a huge problem,” he said. “We would not be able to have so many cows. Where would you stick all these cows and what grass would they eat?”
5. Cocktail garnishes
It’s possible to 3-D print a sugar lattice that a mixologist inserts into the glass. The rest of the cocktail ingredients are chosen with respect to the impact of the sugar, which melts into the drink.
“It adds to the kind of performance that mixologists are interested in. That pomp of serving a custom cocktail,” said von Hasseln. She describes her favorite 3-D creations as ones like this, that merge the traditional world of food with 3-D printings capabilities.
Her company will begin selling a 3-D printer for food later this year. With a price tag of about $20,000, it’s expected to appeal to culinary professional, not average consumer. 3D Systems is opening a custom bakery in Los Angeles this summer to serve as a showroom and event space to educate visitors about 3-D printed food. She expects one day we’ll be able to 3-D print other edibles such as starches, proteins and spices.