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3D Printed Food: Gimmick or Game Changer?

Today, 3D printers are a common sight in workshops, hackspaces and even in some homes – though, they’re rarely spotted in kitchens. But as 3D food printers become more sophisticated, could that be about to change?

How is 3D printing a revolutionary way to approach how we shape our food? And just how much of an impact could it have on the way we eat? 

To find out I asked Antonio Derossi, a scientist working on developing 3D food printing technology, about 3D printing edible creations and why he thinks this technology is the future of food.

What makes 3D printed food different from traditional food production?

"3D food printing is a new kind of technology. For the first time you can start with a digital image and create whatever shape or structure that you want."

"For example, with 3D food printing you can even design the internal structure of your food! Think of it as designing a building. Traditional methods like creating molds really only allow you to design the outside. 3D printing allows you far more control over the inside too, so you can insert ‘rooms and corridors’ wherever you like!"

How do 3D food printers help you create new products?

"By changing the “infill level” I can control the stiffness of our 3D printed snacks - a higher infill level means you’ll have a stiffer snack. A stiffer snack matters because researchers at Harvard found that chewing activates a feeling of satiety, or fullness. So by controlling the stiffness of a product using 3D printing, you can make someone feel fuller while eating less food – it’s a perceptual illusion. Think of it as a high-tech rice cake, but one that actually fills you up."

So why aren’t food manufacturers using 3D printing?

"It’s not currently possible to 3D print a large number of complex pieces at low cost. The biggest barrier is time – right now, producing a small 5x5x5cm piece takes around 4-5 minutes. So if we start thinking about large food-producing industries then time, and therefore cost, are the biggest challenges to scaling up."

Are 3D food printers used in any sectors of the food industry?

"It is used in some restaurants already, but only for very important, high-profile events because it’s so expensive. For example, 3D printed pasta can be of very high quality, but a kilo costs around 20 EUR. In the future, I believe we can speed up the process with fast printers, which will reduce the cost and make 3D printed food more affordable."

Do people use any special or interesting ingredients in 3D food printers?

"People 3D print all kinds of inventive ingredients. For instance, many parts of foods that contain a lot of nutrients but are not usually eaten - like the skins of apples and oranges, or the bottom part of asparagus stems, or the outer leaves of artichokes - can be turned into a powder or paste, and 3D printed in combination with other ingredients. In this way, 3D food printers allow us to save those nutrients and reduce food waste."

What are some other potential uses for 3D food printing?

"3D printing gives huge potential for customization – it’s the only technology that really allows people to create truly personalized food. You can modulate precisely the levels of each nutrient or vitamin to include exactly the amount that you need, which gives you a completely different level of control compared with conventional technology."

But how is it possible to personalise our food with 3D printers? 

"We do need better software to really make the most of 3D printers when it comes to personalized food, and so we also need better medical data. In the future, I expect that people will be using apps on their smartphone to connect to their medical data, get personalized recipes using tailored ingredients, download digital designs and then 3D-print personalized foods at home."

Apart from personalisation, can 3D printed food help us improve our diets? 

"Yes! With 3D printing, I can get the antioxidants from broccoli (which my child hates) but make the other 50% banana (which he likes) so that he eats it! Rather than just mixing things together we can create gels with a carefully crafted balance of nutrients that still taste nice and look appealing, leading to much wider acceptance of healthier foods."

"It can also help prevent food waste and improve portion control by customizing serving sizes. If I want 50g of dessert, I can do it, rather than having to buy 100g of dessert in the supermarket because that’s the standard serving size. Or, I can print my girlfriend a small cake just for us two, rather than a large ½ kilo cake from a patisserie!"

Will we be seeing 3D food printers in supermarkets and homes soon? 

"We are in the first stage of acceptance of this technology. It’s true that most people probably wouldn’t be ready to transition to 3D food printing their own products at the moment, but if people start seeing the technology in action in supermarkets, then in time I personally think they will see the benefit to printing their own food at home. It’s a new kitchen gadget, but it’s not really all that strange – I’m sure microwaves felt strange 20 years ago and now they are completely normal!"

Our Food and Technology Editor Aran Shaunak dives deeper into 3D printing our food in the latest edition of our Future of Food newsletter. Sign up here to get it straight to your inbox, along with insightful content and top picks from our editors with our regular newsletter.

Big thanks to Antonio Derossi, Caporizzi Rossella and Severini Carla, who are researchers at the Lab of Emerging Technology and Food Formulation - Dept. DAFNE - University of Foggia.

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