The Next Frontier for 3-D Printers is Healthy Food

3-D printers are all the rage in the high-tech food world, turning out gorgeous sugar polyhedra and chocolate rosebuds – but if they’re to address world food problems in the future, they’re going to have to move into far more nutritious fare.

That’s the idea behind Dutch designer Chloé Rutzerveld’s Edible Growth project. Rutzerveld produces “living biscuits” – that is, 3-D printed, meat-ball-sized h’or d’oeuvres that are healthy, nutritious, natural, and – well, alive. They look a bit like little whiffle balls, but with sprouts and mushrooms.

Rutzerveld’s biscuits start with a squishy matrix made from dried fruits or vegetables, nuts, or Agar Agar, a paste made from algae. This is infused with seeds, spores, yeast, and “good” bacteria, and encased in an outer crust of edible protein or carbohydrate – that is, a sort of crunchy pie dough. Yeast and bacteria initiate fermentation, which changes the taste and texture of the matrix, while seeds and spores sprout to produce an array of tasty microgreens and miniature mushrooms.

It generally takes about five days for a living biscuit to reach maturity, though the idea is, consumers will harvest their 3-D snacks whenever smell and taste reach the point that suits them best.

edible 3-D food prototype

Courtesy of Chloé Rutzerveld

Rutzerveld’s biscuits may just be the latest example of the food we’ll all be sharing in the future – made at home with our handy countertop food printers. As Mary Beth Albright pointed out (see How 3-D Printers Could Change Our Diets), printing food sounds like something out of Star Trek – but it may be coming this year to a kitchen near you.

While 3-D printing technology dates to the 1980s, the food-printing industry is relatively new. In 2010, researchers at the Cornell Creative Machines Lab announced that they’d devised a new form of printing called Solid Freeform Fabrication (SFF) in which syringes, loaded with jelly-like hydrocolloids and flavoring agents, combine to create a wide range of synthetic foods – such as rocketship-shaped scallops, two-color cakes that slice to reveal company logos or initials, and hamburger patties with embedded layers of ketchup and mustard.

From Fab@Home, these printers aren’t quite yet the equivalent of the food replicators on Star Trek’s Starship Enterprise – those snazzy boxes which, when Captain Picard demands “Tea. Earl Grey,” respond instantly with a perfect cuppa. Hydrocolloids have their limits: they’re far better at imitating processed cheese spread than – say – simulating carrots, tomatoes, or medium-rare prime rib.

Still, the Star Trek comparison isn’t all that far-fetched: A prime intended use for 3-D printed food is in space. NASA, in conjunction with Anjan Contractor of the Systems and Materials Research Corporation in Texas, has come up with a 3-D printer that just may provide yummy food to the astronauts on board the International Space Station and for the teams of the Mars One mission, slated to launch in 2024.

How it works: freeze-dried ingredients are stored in powder form in ready-to-use capsules within the printer. When a hungry astronaut pushes a button, the powders are mixed with water and pushed to the print heads. With Contractor’s prototype printer, it takes just 70 seconds to print cracker-sized cheese pizzas. Check it out below.

And the U.S. Army envisions 3-D food for soldiers. Food technologist Lauren Oleksyk of the Natick Soldier Systems Center imagines soldiers equipped with sensors that monitor their ongoing nutritional state. (Do they need more potassium? More iron? Less cholesterol?) The sensors then interface with a 3-D printer that, using nutrient-dense powdered or liquid matrices, produces an optimized food patty or power bar. For future soldiers, a 3-D printer may be a standard item of field gear. (See more here on military food.)

The problem? Most of this 3-D stuff isn’t what most of us think of as food. These are edible synthetics, suitable for people in limited circumstances or dire straits – the high-tech equivalent of the 19th century’s much-reviled portable soup.

More on designer Chloe Rutzerveld’s wavelength may be Foodini, a microwave-sized 3-D printer produced by Natural Machines, designed for use as an everyday kitchen appliance.

Unlike its space-program relatives, Foodini – which can download recipes from the Internet – uses real food. The printer has five stainless-steel food capsules to be filled with fresh ingredients. These are then blended or layered during the printing process, turning out – at the press of a button – spaghetti and sauce, mini-burgers, custom ravioli, or cool little spinach quiches shaped like dinosaurs. It’s an ideal solution, points out company co-founder Lynette Kucsma, for would-be healthy eaters who simply don’t have adequate time to cook at home. According to the manufacturers, Foodini may be available to the public – for a cost of $1300 – sometime in 2015.

3-D-printed food is more than just a slick technological trick. Author Thomas Frey in The Coming Food Printer Revolution predicts that 3-D food printers will change our entire relationship with food, allowing us to move from a limited number of food options – those available now from farms, gardens, and the environment – to an unlimited number of options via technology.

Eventually, says Frey, we’ll be able to order “a 13.2 percent  fat cheeseburger with 2.7 grams of potassium and 3.6 grams of calcium, coupled with a hint of almond and banana flavoring, on a sesame seed bun with exactly 47 sesame seeds on it” simply by pressing a button and demanding a cheeseburger. (Our personal information clouds will handle all the details.)

In this sense, 3-D food printers may be godsends to those with special dietary requirements, such as vegans and vegetarians, or people suffering from gluten or lactose intolerance or food allergies.  They may also eventually be key players in the solution to the at-home problems of unhealthy diets and massive food waste, as we calibrate them to provide us with proper food quality and quantity.

On the other hand, as Michael Pollan points out in In Defense of Food, there’s a big difference between nutrients and food. Food is complicated, and – though we know a lot about what’s in it – we don’t know it all. The entire history of baby formula, Pollan reminds us, has been an often disastrous series of miscalculations as manufacturers found that they’d left one essential ingredient after another out of the mix. Nutrient-dense matrices, in other words, may not be as foolproof as we hope they are.