The future is closer than we think. We think that if it were real, most of us would have probably seen it on our Facebook walls or videos shared by our friends. It all seemed so futuristic and almost unreal, being able to print out an actual functioning object. This was also my initial impression of the 3D printing technology. What is 3D printing really? It was something in the distant future and not an actual reality. However, I have come to realise how close this future actually was. A technology so advanced to fulfil a fundamental human need that we hold so close to our hearts – food. 3D printing food is no longer an idea of the distant future.
What is 3D printing food all about?
3D printing food is essentially about using food ingredients and sculpting them layer by layer (also called ‘print’) into a form. As this is done without the use of a mould, the final shape is determined by how the layers are stacked on top of the each other. The configuration of this is done by the printer’s 3D modelling program.
What food can be ’printed’?
When it comes to food, the 3D printing technology is still in a rather nascent stage. Besides mixing various ingredients, the molecular structure of ingredients fed to the 3D food printer does not change much. However, there is no real heat involved in 3D printing food. Thus, printing out a hot plate of pasta is unfortunately not possible (yet). What is possible though in food science, is printing raw pasta pieces. The raw pasta dough is put into the 3D printer and shaped accordingly. Other types that are currently fit for 3D printing food include pizza, corn chips, chocolate, confectionery as well as sugar candy.
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Using pizzas to illustrate the process, a 3D printer would print pizza bases that are perfectly even in thickness and uniformly spread with tomato sauce. The rest of the ingredients are then added to the base separately by hand and baked. The same functions of the 3D printer can be applied in manipulating the shape of a corn chip dough, liquid chocolate, sugar and flour to expand the geometric possibilities of sculpting these ingredients.
Is 3D Printing Food Safe and Good to Eat?
During the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival held in Austin Texas in 2014, Mondelez made headlines with their 3D printed Oreo cookies. SXSW attendees who got a chance to taste these futuristic cookies reported them to taste like the original cookie, but slightly more crumbly.
One should know that 3D printed food consists of the same food ingredients as the original, but just manufactured layer by layer. It is understood that the printed food is safe to eat, tastes the same, but has a different structure and texture. Should you ever get your hands on 3D printed food, go ahead and take a bite.
Who is developing what?
By understanding how 3D printing food is done, we can see that one of the main selling points of 3D printing food is the ability to sculpt food products into whatever shape we fancy. This gives companies plenty of creative opportunities to manufacture foods that need to be shaped with relatively high precision. This holds especially for confectionary goods that don’t require baking or cooking. It possibly explains why the majority of players who invest heavily in 3D printing food technology include Hershey’s and Mondelez (the folks behind the Oreo cookies). Of course NASA has also been one of the major driving forces in the research and development of 3D printed food. They started their initiative for 3D printing food to feed their astronauts with a better food system and sustain longer space missions. If that isn’t food science, then I don’t know either.
One of the forerunners of 3D printed confectionary is the architecture-trained team behind 3D Systems. Their 3D printers called Chefjet are able to turn sugar into beautiful geometric confections. Besides bringing cake frosting to a whole new level, 3D Systems’ Chefjet has developed Sugarlab, which 3D prints candies in various wild shapes, colours and flavours. The people behind 3D Systems collaborated with Mondelez to pursue more innovative forms of confectionary. Perhaps old-fashioned lollipops will be history, as children get used to intricately sculpted snowflake candies in the near future.
Some of us might be happy to know that the world’s top pasta seller Barilla, has also decided to jump on the bandwagon called 3D printing food. They have been working with the Dutch tech company TNO Eindhoven to develop 3D pasta printers that will create customised pasta. Should 3D pasta printers become a success, chefs could bring exciting new horizons for the ancient world of pasta.
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What is available in the market presently?
Some 3D food printers have already made their way into the market. Most of them were launched in 2014, but we won’t find them in the supermarkets just yet. A pioneer for the sale of 3D printers and printed food would be ChocEdge. They are the first company to launch the 3D chocolate Printer. Based in the UK, their latest 3D chocolate printer resembles a sleek coffee machine and costs up to S$8,000.00. Their printers are already available for shipping worldwide. Chefjet by 3D Systems was also launched last year, selling for S$6,000.00.
Another contender, to be soon out in the market, is the Spanish start up Natural Machines. Their prototype is called Foodini and is designed to print pizza bases, pasta raviolis and chocolates. Their initial food tests have been received well and we can be quite certain that there is already an order list for the printers.
3D printed food itself is also starting to be commercially available, with their first wave being intricately sculpted confections that even involve movable parts. However, because the scale of 3D printing has not yet reached an industrial level, 3D printed food, remains for now more of a marketing device than an actual commercialised product.
Where is 3D printing food headed?
3D printing food can potentially grow far and fast, when looking at the Dutch food and concept designer Chloé Rutzerveld. She has been making groundbreaking developments by exploring 3D printing with living organisms. Instead of creating food directly, 3D printers are used to print cracker-like structures of seeds, yeast and spores that can be used to cultivate fresh greens and mushrooms. The food technology is touted to revolutionise the food industry through empowering people to print and grow their own vegetables.
Not only will this technology shorten the food chain production, it will also mean less arable land needed to grow fresh food. That said, Rutzerveld estimates that it will take eight to ten years before her 3D food farm printing technology can be developed at an industrial level. Her technology can potentially be used to promote organic, natural and fresh food produce.
The idea of creating food in every imaginable shape has only previously appeared in books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. We have seen that the idea is no longer just an idea. The myriad of the shared 3D printing videos only shows that the world of whimsical food creations is just starting to unveil itself. Hopefully it will open up a new world of food products that are made with creativity and passion. 3D printing food can potentially revolutionise the food industry and the food consumption experience. The remaining question is, when will 3D printing food be possible in Singapore?