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3D printed food: science fiction becomes science fact

Professor Ralph Early

Ralph Early, Professor of Food Industry at Harper Adams University, describes the applications and ethical dilemmas posed by 3D food printing.

3D printed food: science fiction becomes science fact


Over the last century science fiction has demonstrated time and again the capacity to imagine inventions which, as a result of developments in technology, eventually manifest themselves as science fact.  Star Trek, the TV series which began life in the 1960s, sparked the popular idea of personal communicators (today’s smart phones), made famous by the lines “Beam me up Scotty”. Another concept imagined in the TV series was the food replicator capable of transforming energy into matter. These imagined devices produced anything from a cup of tea to a three-course meal, but like the Star Trek matter transporter we are not quite there with this particular development in the real world.  However, technology is moving in interesting directions when it comes to creating new and unusual food products instantly to order and in highly novel ways, if not exactly as Star Trek’s story-line writers envisaged.

Additive-manufacture, often termed 3D printing, is an innovation that was first commercialised in the late 1980s, with stereolithography used for prototyping products.  It has made great strides with scientific and technical developments since the early days, and the technique is now widely used in many industry sectors to create products such as small and large plastic parts for automobiles and titanium components for jet engines.  But where does food come into this?

Additive-manufacture is essentially a transferrable technology, which means that it may find many potential applications in the food industry.  Indeed, in the world of food this technology can be construed as an extension of the various extrusion processes already used, such as cooker-extrusion exploited in the production of diverse snack-foods packaged in brightly coloured gas-flushed, foil laminate packs.

The idea of 3D printed food has been around for some time, but the technology has now begun to reveal new possibilities and new market opportunities.  As with industrial component additive-manufacture, when used for foodstuffs a suitable feed material must be supplied to 3D printers which then create the object of desire according to design instructions delivered by 3D computer graphics software.  Industrial 3D printers are fed with, for example, a suitable thermo-plastic filament such as ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene) which melts in the printer extruder and then, through repeated addition, builds the final object layer upon layer.

In the production of additive-manufacture food products, suitable feed-stocks must be formulated, processed and prepared for use e.g. by being contained in plug-and-play cartridges that insert into 3D printers just as conventional ink cartridges fit into paper printers.  A wide range of feed-stock materials may eventually find application in additive-manufacture food production.  Sugars, starches, fats, and materials such as chocolate, tomato paste and fruit purees all have the potential to fit the technology, as do liquefied animal tissues recovered from meat processing operations.  It may even be that cultured meats – a concept technology that hit the headlines a couple of years ago – offer synergistic possibilities when coupled with 3D printing technology.  Some feed-stocks may be used to produce food products that can be consumed directly, for instance chocolate and fruit purees, while others such as meat will require cooking.

Although the concept of 3D printed food stimulates the imagination, the primary applications so far appear to be in food service and fine dining.  In gastronomy the technology can be used to produce e.g. sugar-based novelty desserts using FDM (fused deposition modelling), or novel flour confectionery goods such as artistically rendered cakes, pancake and chocolate constructions.  The food manufacturing industry will inevitably adopt additive-manufacture technologies for mass-producing products, ranging from pasta to confectionery and snack-foods.  However, the demands for speed, efficiency and high quality, as well as ease of cleaning and disinfection, will set relatively high initial investment costs until increased adoption brings adjustments.  For catering and domestic use, small-scale 3D food printers are expensive and the recovery of investment means that dining in restaurants serving 3D printed dishes is likely to be confined to those with deep pockets.

The possibilities entertained by 3D printed food are interesting, but the technology raises many philosophical questions concerning the nature of food, the food-socialisation of people as consumers and diet-related health.  For instance, is 3D printing really just a technology looking for applications, and food happens to be one?  Is it a technology that risks socialising people into consuming forms of highly processed, empty calorie foodstuffs with possible negative effects on dietary health?  Indeed, is it a technology that has the capacity to manipulate commercially valuable changes in people's food choices because it encourages sensory hedonism in food experience that overrides good sense in matters of nutrition and health?  Many questions will be provoked by this fascinating technology which is, in a way, transforming science fiction into science fact.  In the end though, some will inevitably ask the most basic of questions: Do we really need 3D printed food and what’s so wrong with good, old-fashioned food?