3D Food Printer

Who doesn’t know the scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey when astronauts Frank Poole and Dave Bowman eat precisely portioned, indefinable flavor pastes while watching the nightly BBC news? Whoever imagines our future diet as such isn’t completely wrong but has yet to think boldly enough. As of late 3D printers are capable of printing not only plastic artworks, organs and replacement parts for quasi-automatic weapons, but real, edible food as well.

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The first 3D printers came about in the early 1980s. American inventor, Chuck Hull, developed the technology in 1983, referred to at the time as “stereolithography.”  They were mainly used to create models and replacement parts in industry and managed to find their way into art and private households. How it works is pretty basic: a nozzle sprays fine layers of liquid synthetic resin, ceramic or metal on top of one another, which then set and gradually solidify into a fixed form.

Now “bioprinting” has appropriated the same principle. The crucial difference, however, is that the printer in this case creates layers of living cells. “Tissue engineering” technology manipulates a biochemical gel comprised of cells in such a way that they form independently into tissue. In the future, this technology could be employed in medicine to print organs, thereby saving patients the long wait for a suitable donor organ. If a bioprinter can print organs, then according to that logic, food, at least meat, could also be printed.

A company called Modern Meadow has been working on this for years. In order to counteract the immense use of resources in animal slaughter and meat production, they want to bring printed meat up to the level of mass production. Ethical vegetarians can take a deep breath and treat themselves to that burger they’ve gone without for so long. Granted they have enough pocket money. The estimated price for a printed cut of meat is currently around € 50,000. It could take a while until we can actually buy man-made meat at the grocery store.

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If you think that’s too expensive you can get a Foodini for the house instead. A Spanish company developed the first food printer for private use. It will cost about € 1,000. Here the printer doesn’t use the “tissue engineering” principle, it instead goes back to the original 3D printer technology. In other words: you buy groceries, chop them up, put it all in cartridges, press the on button and wait until it comes out in more amusing forms than when it went in. Certain ingredients such as meat have to be cooked after printing. The range of possible dishes spans from pizza and pasta to cookies and burgers – flat foods, that is. The idea is to relieve modern, always-pressed-for-time workaholics of involved cooking processes, offering them instead a healthy, equally time-effective alternative to fast food.

More generally, printing food seems on its way to becoming the golden calf of the food industry. NASA recently hired an engineer to develop a pizza printer as a way of offering ISS astronauts a bit more culinary variety. The ingredients in this ready-made pizza consist primarily of powdery, non-perishable extracts that would last a lifetime. Pasta giant, Barilla, is currently collaborating with a Dutch company on a printer that would allow customers to print pasta in their favorite shapes.

As it stands, we’re involved in a phenomenon in which various motivations are at play. Scientific research, for one, is set on improving and simplifying life on Earth on sustainable terms, while the food industry simply wants to take profits. Those who can afford it and desire to do so can enhance their kitchens with gadgets and gizmos, yet in their current infantile state, they’re much more of an embellishment than a real help.

Until we can beam our food right onto our plates, I’d rather keep watching 2001…

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Text: Marlon Schröder
Images:  starnewsonlinecityoftonguesponoko

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