The man who confidently predicted a few years ago that there would soon be a 3D printer in every home turned out to be wrong. Global sales of consumer 3D printers fell last year for the first time, and they're still seen as a plaything for enthusiastic hobbyists.
But while they're rare in a domestic setting, businesses have been busy exploring their every capability, using many substances (from gold to plastics and gels to ceramics) to produce everything from firearms to human organs to entire houses. One quirky experiment was the 3D printing of food, and this has turned out to have unexpected applications; not just artistic, but nutritional and ecological, too. Some care homes, coffee shops and Michelin-starred restaurants now consider it the ultimate kitchen appliance. Might we be persuaded?
If you can squeeze something through a nozzle, you can print it. As a result, dough, sauces, raw meat, spinach, cheese and much more can all be piped into precise shapes by a 3D food printer. The question, of course, is why you would want to do such a thing, given that we've been managing perfectly well. Until now.
Getting away from prepackaged food
Award-winning chefs have been quick to see the potential of creating new effects that dazzle diners and confound the competition. From Catalonia to Australia, geometric desserts and precision-cut pastries are now being constructed by computers. "It's a precision tool," says Lynette Kucsma, co-founder of 3D-food-printing company Natural Machines in Barcelona. "Our 3D printer can do certain tasks faster than by hand, and that allows chefs to get on with other things."
While this is irrelevant to the vast majority of people, Kucsma believes that it could encourage people to shun prepackaged food and get them cooking. "You're effectively already eating 3D-printed food if you eat anything from a food manufacturer," she says. "All we've done is take that manufacturing facility and shrink it down to a kitchen appliance – and it allows you to use your own fresh ingredients."
For Kucsma, the health benefits are key: by simplifying cooking processes, food can be easily made without resorting to ready meals or processed produce. It’s about practicality. “People imagine it as a robot taking over, but it’s just the automation of skills you might already have. It’s still your food, and if anything it gets people closer to it, because it encourages them to know what’s in it.”
Customising what you eat
Practicality was certainly the watchword in 2013, when Nasa began looking into the possibility of 3D printing food for long space missions as a way of giving astronauts variety and nutrition while also minimising resources. The US military has also been working with 3D-printed food for soldiers to optimise their consumption. "When you 3D-print food you can customise the nutrition," says Kucsma. "So if I was deficient in Vitamin B12 and Vitamin D, I could up its content." At the end of last year, Research and Markets predicted that the demand for customised food products "tailored for individual dietary needs" would boost the 3D-printed food market to some half a billion dollars in the next five years. It represents a blurring of the line between food and medicine.
In hospitals and care homes, of course, food and medicine are inextricably linked, and 3D printers are finding their niche there, too. “If you have trouble swallowing and you get served a bowl of mush three times a day, it’s easy to understand how you might lose your desire to eat,” says Kucsma. “But when we print food, and it actually looks like normal food – chicken in the shape of a drumstick or salmon in the shape of a salmon fillet – people will actually eat it, and that’s so important if you’re sick.”
For people who suffer from swallowing problems – a condition that affects one in 17 people during their lifetime, according to the World Gastroenterology Organisation, figures show 3D-printed food offers some respite. It’s already being used in more than 1,000 care homes across the EU, according to official figures from the European Commission.
Any parent will be aware of a child’s tendency to prefer food in certain shapes and with certain colours and textures, but those preferences are still very much present in adulthood.
“We judge our food by what it looks like because eating is a very visual thing, and a very personal thing, too,” says Kucsma. And 3D printing has the potential to rehabilitate “ugly food” and that opportunity has been seized upon by Upprinting Food, a company in the Netherlands. Food that would otherwise have been thrown away is used to make a puree that is printed into shapes, baked and dehydrated to create a snack product with a long shelf life.
A future with 3D printed food?
Food waste and sustainability are becoming big problems in a world with a fast-growing population, but if leftovers can become palatable, so can unpalatable ingredients, such as insects. Some start-ups are already 3D printing substances that approximate meat, a potential boon in a future where meat consumption will inevitably have to be reduced.
If this all sounds faintly reminiscent of a dystopian science fiction novel such as Soylent Green, in which the population largely exists on preproduced wafers of dubious provenance, Kucsma offers words of reassurance. "We don't envision a future where 3D printing makes food unrecognisable compared to what we're eating today," she says.
Every kitchen appliance has to earn its place, and at the moment, it's not clear that we have room for a 3D printer alongside our cookers, microwaves, kettles and toasters. They're not proven in a domestic setting, they're slow and they're very expensive (Natural Machines flagship product, Foodini, currently costs about Dh15,000). But things are moving fast. "I can't really say where things will be 10 to 15 to 20 years from now, but I can tell you, things are going to advance quite quickly," says Kucsma. "When we have a 3D food printer that cooks, everything changes."
A machine that prints, cooks and serves fresh food to your nutritional requirements, in a form you like the look of, may give a whole new meaning to the words “convenience food”.