Your Guide to Digital Cooking with 3D Food Printers

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Posted: Sep. 26, 2016

This week, Lavu is participating in Experience IT NM week, hosted by the New Mexico Technology Council. To celebrate that, we’ll devote this week’s articles to restaurant tech. Today we’re looking at the newest and most controversial technology on the market: 3D food printing.

Are you ready for digital cooking? Using three-dimensional food printers (3DFP), technology may soon turn food prep into an automated activity.

Think about how a pizza is made. The dough is kneaded, left to rise, and then spun and rolled until the pie crust is the right size and thickness. Tomato sauce is prepared on the stove and then spooned over the dough, after which toppings are added.

That this process can be performed by a 3DFP seems surreal, yet the technology to print pizza does, in fact, exist. Using a 3DFP, the dough is first printed out to specific measurements. The dough cylinder is exchanged with one containing tomato sauce, and then the same machine prints tomato sauce out on top of the dough. Cheese and oregano are then applied by hand.

It is a science-fiction idea come to life, and confectionery giants like Hershey’s and Nestle are interested in the technology. Someday there may even be 3D-printed pizzas in space.

How does 3D food printing work?

Three-dimensional printing of food works in a similar fashion to a regular 3D printer: Materials are extruded through a print nozzle onto a surface. So long as the design fits the spatial limitations of the printer—and is within the laws of physics—a food can be printed. A designer or chef will first design what he or she wants using a software program; the design is then printed out by the machine. Ready-to-use molds are also available.

Because the food comes through a print head, the ingredients must first be puréed to have the right viscosity, and then inserted into syringe-like containers. The limitations of puréeing leave certain ingredients out of the equation (like steak). Even so, flavor profiles run the gamut: 3D-printed foods can be salty, sweet, or even spicy.

Types of Ingredients Used in 3D-Printed Food:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Doughs and batters
  • Wheat and grains
  • Proteins (like ground insects)
  • Sauces
  • Dairy products
  • Candy
  • Chocolate
  • Sugars
  • Algae

A common question is whether 3D-printed food is safe to eat. Although strange, 3D food is safe when made from fresh, natural ingredients like those you would find in the grocery store.

The Pros of 3D Food Printing

Companies have different visions for 3D food printing. Some, like Foodini and Pancakebot, want to bring the technology to a consumer level. Others consider it to be ideal for mass-market food productions. Once a mold is created and the recipe determined, 3DFPs have the capability to print out food quickly and with less waste.

3D-printed food can be made more nutritious by adding special ingredients to recipes. In connection to this, unusual ingredients that are high in nutrition can be converted into 3D-printed ingredients, such as algae, insects, and beet leaves. A great deal of stress is put on the environment by food production, which would be alleviated by using such untraditional—but nourishing—ingredients.

Another benefit of the technology is helping seniors who have difficulties eating hard vegetables. German company Biozoon Food Innovations is developing special recipes for the niche market using 3DFPs to create food that is softer to chew. The printed food could also be customizable eventually (such as airplane food), a feature that is very expensive to manufacture right now.

The Cons of 3D-Printed Food

As you may have already surmised, the three biggest problems producers have with printing food are:

  • Imitating texture
  • Creating dishes that are presentable
  • Creating great taste

The technology’s restraints can make all three difficult to achieve. For instance, all food ingredients must be turned into a paste or melted, limiting what can be created. Until 3DFPs can print out fragile sugar structures, texture will always present some kind of issue.

Food printing is also slow. In theory, the right technology would produce food at a much faster rate than what we currently have, yet as it is, the technology is unable to meet fast production times. And time is one things chefs don’t have.

Purchasing specialized food 3D printers is costly. While regular print nozzles can be used, specialized 3DFPs are better for the needs of major food manufacturers or restaurant kitchens.

Although the food is safe to eat, there is a small concern with keeping the machine itself clean and safe for food preparation.

Who are the players?

3D-printed food is already present in the food industry. It’s used by haute cuisine restaurants and molecular kitchens, by confectionery and baked goods manufacturers, and in the specialized market for seniors.

The research and development methods of several innovative companies will determine the future of printing 3D food. Their pursuits are varied, offering a rich scope of possibilities.

NASA Partners with Systems and Materials Research Corporation on Astronauts’ Meals

One problem NASA seeks to solve for Mars missions is how to provide nutritious, quality meals for the astronauts onboard. The Mars missions alone could take one to three years to complete, and NASA believes that with a specialized 3D food printer, wholesome and tasty food can be prepared onboard easily. The agency is working with Systems and Materials Research Corporation to do this. They have already devised a 3D-food-printing system for pizzas, made up of a combination of powders containing essential nutrients.

Supermarket Pancakes in the Netherlands Are from a Food Printer

Microwavable pancakes found in Dutch supermarkets are printed out from food printers. Dutch 3D-food expert Dr. Kjeld van Bommel revealed this in an interview at the South Australian Food Summit: “Commercially, you don’t really see a lot of food being printed. However, in the Netherlands, for example, all pancakes that you find in the supermarkets that you put in your microwave, they’re all printed. It’s not 3D; it is a single layer, so it doesn’t count as 3D, but they come out of a printer, an ink jet printer similar to what you have at home and they print one million a day of these.”

Dovetailed Has a Method to Print Fruit

Design studio and lab Dovetailed has created a specialized 3DFP aimed at “chefs, foodies and anyone interested in making creative dining experiences.” Through a unique molecular-gastronomic technique called spherification, individual liquid droplets are combined with different flavors to create a fruit in any desired shape. Dovetailed markets the printer as a new way to get fresh fruit on demand, and even indicates that the technology allows for new types of fruits to be created.

Insects au Gratin Turns Beetles into Flour

Insects au Gratin is an innovative project helmed by Susana Soares that combines the nutritional benefits of eating insects with 3D food printing. It’s long been known that insects such as grasshoppers are packed with protein, but entomophagy has never taken off as a popular diet. Insects au Gratin grinds insects into a protein-rich flour to print out healthy and nutritious breads.

Natural Machines Attempts to Print Healthy Foods

With the exception of Biozoon, which makes healthy senior food alternatives, the majority of printed foods tend to be on the sweet, sugary side of the food spectrum. Natural Machines wants not only to bring 3D food printing into home kitchens, but to provide healthy, green foods too.

Their concept is out of this world: A flour is made with fruits, vegetables, and gelatinous paste and then printed out into a biscuit. On top of the biscuit, another layer is printed out, consisting of seeds, spores, and yeast. After waiting five days, you will find that greens are sprouting from the biscuit. The entire item can be eaten. The company claims that if you give the item more time to grow, the taste will become further enhanced, turning the food into a more delicious dish.

Melt Icepops Makes Customizable Frozen Ice Desserts on a Stick

Dutch company Melt Icepops uses lemonade as its base to create fun and tasty ice pops. Using a specialized 3DFP, they are able to print out almost any shape or form. Melt Icepops are available for bespoke customizations and events, and they can be produced in mass quantities.

For more on restaurant tech, check out our article on restaurant automats and robots.

Posted: Sep. 26, 2016 | Written By: Emma Alois

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