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Can 3D food printing help improve our diet?

In the next few years, 3D food printing could be used to design customised meals based on specialized dietary requirements

Scalability and an inability to create good-looking food are the challenges currently limiting 3D food printing.
Scalability and an inability to create good-looking food are the challenges currently limiting 3D food printing. (Unsplash/Rob Wingate)

Just when you think that the food industry couldn’t get any weirder, with Metaverses and virtual food immersion experiences, you come across someone, somewhere, who has used a 3D printer to pump out something resembling food that you can eat. Yes, , I’m talking about that infamous 7-ingredient “cheese cake” that engineers just created. At the moment, 3D printing is like the Wild West, where the sky is the limit, and almost anything you can dream up can be an inspiration to program into the printer.

Also read: When food industry meets the world of virtual reality

Out of interest, I took a little journey around Google to find the strangest things that 3D printers have been involved with, and by far, the craziest was a pair of successfully working mouse ovaries. If this seems too far-fetched, I encourage you to look up the article “Strangest Things That Were 3D-Printed in 2017” by Live Science, which details this incredible scientific discovery. You’ll also find references to microscopic race cars, 3D-printed bikinis, and wall-climbing robots. Considering that, a cheesecake doesn’t sound so wild, just a little unappetizing.

We now have ChatGPT, which can write essays and create meal plans, and 3D printers can make treats to eat. But what would be the point of developing this technology? According to an article in Science Direct titled “Printing the future of food: The physics perspective on 3D food printing”, the field of 3D food printing “is poised to revolutionize the gastronomic landscape by offering precise and customized food creations.”

There are a great many minds who are working on the next degree of detail that the 3D food printer could accomplish, which are 4D interactive food displays, such as a chocolate egg that, when you pour hot chocolate sauce, opens up into intricate shapes and designs to enhance the theatrical side of your dining experience.

But there must be something more—if we can create spare parts, working gadgets, or even homes out of a 3D printer, indeed, we can do more with this technology than having fancy, laser-cut designs in our desserts or incredibly technical home appliances that can print out our exact meal specifications according to taste and dietary requirements. Hopefuls and early adopters behind this technology posit that 3D printing can revolutionize the world, and here are just some of the uses of 3D-printed food.

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Revolutionize Space Travel  
Scientists are working towards sending humans to space for extended periods of time, not just a year or two, but on long space missions that require constant human refueling with space rations that have expiry dates decades in the future.

NASA, for instance, is looking to find solutions that allow for the right mix of vitamins and amino acids to provide the necessary nutrients for astronauts, with the ideal proportions of carbohydrates, sugars, and proteins. The tubing 
required to hold these nutrients packs much smaller than traditional food, so more could be carried in cargo for much longer, making long-haul space flight a more viable option for humankind.

Enhance Army Nutrition 
It’s not just out in space, here on earth too, armies are looking to 3D print food for soldiers so that battalions have shelf-stable, long-life food that is customised to the precise nutrition needs of each soldier. It imagines that soldiers could wear sensors that track their daily activities and vitamin levels and recommend personalized nutritional requirements for their 3D-printed food. These would be perfectly calibrated to replenish any depleted dietary requirements in their fighting soldiers—and of course, they’d be light and small enough to take a load off the backs of soldiers.

Disaster Relief
3D printers are already hailed as potential heroes in disaster relief situations, as rescuers can assess the needs on the ground and customize tools and resources on the spot. It doesn’t take a gigantic leap in logic to hope that 3D food printers could be enhanced enough to bring much-needed food and dietary solutions to people in disaster zones and areas where food rot, and waste are relatively high.

3D food technology could also extend to personalized nutrition, fresh and complex visual food presentation, unique textures, creation of allergen-free food, free of cross-contamination, savings on food materials energy, and reducing transportation needs. 

Also read: Mindful eating: a key to avoiding binge eating and improving health

How it is actually done
With every high hope, a list of challenges exists. For example, when talking about space or military expeditions that require longevity, shelf-stable and precision nutrition requirements, on the list of priorities isn’t necessarily yummy, good-looking food.

The reason is that food is initially placed into the printer using a food-grade nozzle and a syringe pump to create the food, layer by layer, which means that extruded and slurry-based food inputs (mousses, ganaches, purees and other viscous foods) are required to create the final shape and structure. This is probably why a large amount of the food available by 3D printers has been chocolate based confectionary items, and pasta shapes.

Barilla, the pasta maker which spearheaded the creation of bespoke 3D-printed pasta shapes, has highlighted the issues in production. “When the project was first launched, the time needed to make the pasta was much longer – it was 20 minutes to print one piece of pasta and today we can print four pieces in about two minutes,” said Fabrizio Cassotta, R&D research manager for meal solutions at Barilla.

With this slow and complex production rate, it seems far-fetched to assume that 3D food printing will be available anytime soon to mass-produce many of the types of food required for disaster relief or to make any realizable dent in the global food waste issue. 

And let’s not forget what 3D printing is not: it doesn’t cook the end product, which still needs to be done once the printing is complete. That’s an entirely different process. At the moment, 3D printing is both a novel idea and a novelty and the best places for them are in research labs and gourmet bakeries or kitchens, as it is not a scalable solution. The science to get it done exists but it cannot be done to meet our expectations for solving humanity’s food crisis problems, at least, not yet. 

However, with this technology, it’s easy to let these challenges get in the way of a hopeful future. Research is underway, and the rate of innovation will be defined by the collaboration between culinary arts, engineering and materials science. But it is apparent that 3D food printing has graduated from the realm of science fiction and is seeping into the mainstream, and it’s only a matter of time before it is here for good. 

Jen Thomas is a master women's health coach

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