This year is poised to be the inaugural year of instamatic cuisine, with 3-D food printers hitting the shelves any month now.
Food printers work just like the non-culinary 3-D printers already on the market: Choose the design for an object (say, an iPhone case, or a bracelet) on your computer, hit “print”, and the machine creates the object by layering a raw material (currently, plastic) into thin coats. 3-D printing recently made news by spitting out working handguns and a prosthetic human ear (thankfully unrelated). Next up…pizza. (See “3-D Printers Are Saving Lives and Serving Pizzas.”)
Sounds like something out of Star Trek? The field heated up when NASA got in the game last year, granting $125,000 to create a food printer for long-term space missions. The contractor is developing moisture-free cartridges filled with nutritionally balanced powders which, when inserted into a printer connected to a computer, can create a variety of foods. According to NASA, its current food system can’t support the shelf life required for human travel to Mars, which some estimate could occur as early as 2023.
For those who aren’t applying for Mars One, pizza at the touch of a button (not speed dial) can be yours. Sort of. The $1,300 Foodini, debuting later this year, still requires fresh ingredients. Foodini is connected to the Internet through your computer. Insert fresh dough and cheese filling into Foodini, push a button, and your computer orders Foodini to print freshly formed ravioli or pizza. (See “The Promise of 3-D Printed Meat.”)
The manufacturer’s website claims that Foodini is “getting people to eat less pre-processed food,” floating the much sought-after health halo and making the ironic argument that 3-D printers will get people back in touch with food. While eating well is an issue across the socioeconomic spectrum, it’s unclear that someone with $1,300, an Internet connection, and fresh pasta dough needs a Foodini to steer clear of processed food.
Less exciting to the home cook but perhaps more indicative of where the future of food printing lies, this year 3D Systems rolls out ChefJet, which creates intricate geometrical confectionary shapes suitable for Howard Roark’s birthday cake. The large machine costs $10,000, and the small will set a buyer back half that. But while the printer’s ingredients are limited to chocolate, sugar, and water, the level of detail is extraordinary.
And extraordinary detail is needed for food printers to have impact beyond trophy appliance. On a much larger scale, imagine that 3-D printers could use shelf-stable ingredients found in nature – beans and grains, for example – to game-change food security and improve the sustainability of our food systems as the planet groans to feed almost 9 billion people.
Eighteen months ago, Paypal cofounder and billionaire investor-in-neat-ideas-that-could-change-the-world Peter Thiel put cash into Modern Meadow, a company specializing in “bio-printing.” You may recall bio-printing as the discipline working to generate human organs with 3-D printers. Morning Meadow is developing a high-end edible meat substitute to simulate different cuts from pork chop to rib eye steak through one printer. Debate rages over exact numbers regarding meat’s contribution to global warming, energy consumption, etc, but experts agree that meat is extremely resource-intensive to produce. But the average consumption of meat has increased over the decades, and developing countries generally develop a taste for meat along with economic prosperity. Something’s gotta give and Modern Meadow sees culinary-grade 3-D meat substitute printing as part of the solution.
Chatter about 3-D food printers may seem remote for people who lack access to electronic devices and the Internet, and basic infrastructure. But 25 years ago, 2014’s technology seemed remote to influence global citizens’ interactions. In this blog we’ll discuss which developments today will influence how we will eat tomorrow, and how people who care about the future of both good food and feeding a hungry planet can responsibly marry food and technology to influence not only our own plates, but plates around the world. From discussing high-tech food printers to the effect of rising global temperatures on maple syrup makers to sustainable farming, I hope you’ll actively join me every week on this blog.
This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.