Is 3D printing the future of food?

PhD candidate Luke Craven takes a look at the possibility that 3D printing might change the ways we manufacture, process and think about food.

For the past couple of years, a good friend of mine has (almost continuously) badgered me about the transformative and disruptive potential of 3D printing technologies. I’ve remained largely ambivalent and probably far too ignorant. In truth, my exposure probably didn’t extend far beyond what I learned from an (excellent) episode of The Big Bang Theory.

But 3D printing has come a long way in the past couple of years. And a small group of researchers is working on how large-scale, personalised food production using 3D printers can be made possible. This goes far beyond the odd chocolate or piece of chewing gum. We’re talking 3D printed meals. Intrigued? I certainly was, so when I had the opportunity to attend the 3D Printshow’s Gastronomy Conference in London recently, I jumped.

The Conference itself was fascinating and the following, complete meal whipped up by chefs from FabLab Maastricht was surprisingly delicious. Indeed, had I not known in advance I was eating a 3D printed meal, I probably would not have known at all. From 3D printed pasta to 3D printed berries, it all seems strangely futuristic – but here we are! The real question, beyond the simple joy of novelty, is whether 3D printing has the potential to solve the problems that are endemic in our food chain? Can it be nutritious? Is it environmentally-friendly? What about waste?

In theory, 3D printing food could be a viable green alternative to certain parts of our industrialised food system. Potentially wasted food is easily converted into printing material. Personalised meals mean that much less would be wasted overall. Giant strides have already been made in printing using insect- and algae-based proteins. And, crucially, these innovations are being developed with nutrition in mind.  Experts believe that food printers could help people cut down the amount of chemical additives in their food, or even allow customisation at the macronutritional level, allowing users to individualise the amounts of calcium, protein, omega-3, and carbohydrates in their meals.

So far, the proponents of the technology are focussed on rather niche – and strangely diverse – sectors: fine dining, nursing homes, professional sports clubs, and business class fliers. But perhaps the niche is a good place to start. Whether and how these innovations have the potential to scale up is, for the most part, an open question. Below the radar, though, many of these niches are booming. Over 1,000 German nursing homes already serve a 3D-printed food product called Smoothefoods to elderly residents who have difficulty chewing. Compared to the alternatives, pureed foods, Smoothefoods offers a nutritious, dignified alternative. Its almost instantly popularity suggests as much.

Many of the presenters were confident that the common kitchen printer is not too far over the horizon, but of course, it is wise to be wary of their vested interests. There are barriers galore. In particular, the technology we have now is too slow, doesn’t print liquids (but were not far off), and the resulting foods can be somewhat dubious in terms of texture. Taste isn’t easy either. Printing a something as chemically complex as a carrot is years away. But the technology is getting better every year, and part of what they promise – sustainability, less waste, personalised nutrition – is surely worth the pursuit. Perhaps, then, 3D printing should also start to be part of the discussion about how food system reform might be achieved? Writing it off as niche or Star Trek nonsense doesn’t do any justice to the potential it holds and, in any case, it would be just one part of a reform toolbox. Just how important a part? That, only time will tell.

Luke is a PhD student at the University of Sydney and the Sydney Environment Institute. His interests lie in the application of social and political theory to contemporary policy problems, with a focus on food politics, policy, and system reform.

Image: Mika