All the food that’s fit to (3D) print

By Marissa Fessenden

Things are getting bizarre on the vanguard of food production.

Liquid meals, complete with all your nutritional requirements, are already available in the form of Soylent. This product isn’t named for the foodstuff in the 1973 science-fiction film, but rather for the 1966 science-fiction novel about unchecked population growth and its consequences. At the other end of the spectrum is molecular gastronomy, which allows you to partake of such delights as soy sauce air and smoke-filled sugar globes.

Or you can peek beyond and look into the future. “Those higher-energy-density foods that we have not successfully reduced in calories will use fat blockers, which will enable us to eat a gooey, frosted cinnamon roll without it being absorbed,” Brian Wansink, a food marketing researcher at Cornell University told Eating Well. “My guess would be that technology will prevent these foods from being broken down into molecules that are small enough to be absorbed.”

Or bioterrorism will drive us, predicts Anthony Pometto, the director of NASA’s Food Technology Commercial Space Center, in the same article. “There’ll be a salad that has been treated with some antimicrobial, antibacterial dip that gives it a long shelf life,” he says. “Plum extract will save the world: it’s a fat substitute, it’s full of antioxidants and it’s antimicrobial because of its phenolic compounds.”

So maybe it all sounds like dystopian science fiction. But in fact, one staple from sci-fi is already here: 3D-printed food. 3D printers, or fabricators, tend to work by extruding out a paste. Layer by layer, the paste builds up until the full object has been printed. Then, some kind of setting process—heat or simple solidification, perhaps—makes the object complete. (As an aside: the Star Trek replicator isn’t actually a 3D printer; the fictional machine dematerializes matter and rematerializes it in the desired form.)

The technology is having somewhat of a heyday in terms of enthusiasm. It seems we will try to 3D print anything: priceless Americanabackyard castlesasteroids, warheads (nbd), all the things from Amazon (or at least about 200 of the things), sex toys, a 7-year-old boy’s prosthetic hand, even lingerie. And these are just some of the things the Daily Dot has written about; more 3D printed stuff is out there—including food, something that even its creators occasionally regret.

Since printers put material within material, they seem ideal for a future that contains lab-grown meat.

The free-standing cube of milk was a little gross, admits Jeffrey Lipton, a Ph.D. candidate at the Cornell University Creative Machines Lab. This lab group, led by Hod Lipson, has boldly gone where no one has gone before in the realm of 3D-printed foods: cookies calibrated to contain the exact caloric amounts left over for individuals at the end of the day, a space shuttle made of cheese food—think Cheez Whiz and more. The 3D milk may have been unsettling, but that’s what happens when your plan is a couple of steps ahead of the curve.

"Foodini" 3D food printer creating a "curry sampler"
Foodini 3D food printer creating a “curry sampler” container out of rice cream. Courtesy Natural Machines

Before he dove into fabricating food, Lipton worked on the Fab@Home system, developed by Lipson and Evan Malone at Cornell. Like most 3D printers, Fab@Home uses a robotic arm to lay down successive layers of a material that will later harden into to the final structure. It’s also open-source, so the idea is that anyone can use the relatively inexpensive printers and programs to share ideas and help build the future. But instead of using prefilled cartridges of various types of plastics, users can load in syringes filled with whatever material works.

According to Lipton, once the first Fab@Home adopters got done experimenting with silicones and epoxies—typical 3D printer materials—they started looking around the house for other pastes. Lipton first saw 3D-printed chocolate at a high school science fair. “We kind of smacked our head and said, ‘Why didn’t we think about that?’” he says.

Right about now you might be wondering: Why 3D-print food? We already extrude food, mold it. What can 3D printing offer the realm of culinary creations? To answer this, you’ll need to go for a ride through the wild, odd, and sometimes visionary world of 3D-printed food.

Food for the world

“In many other worlds bioprinted meat has replaced live meat or vat grown meat- particularly popular for barbecues is Pribabs – printed kebabs with a sturdy central bone to hold the meat more easily when eating, or perhaps Prillets, entire animals printed without any bones at all, often premarinated. — from “The Diversity of Food” in the multi-authored science fiction universe of Orion’s Arm.

As more people around the world adopt developed-world, largely Western-inspired food preferences, they are upping their consumption of meat. The debate about meat has many sides, but critics claim that unless we change the way we grow that meat, which they say is very resource-intensive (in terms of water, fossil fuels, feed, and land used) we won’t be able to feed the whole world.

3D printing might present a solution for dealing with food waste.

But the answer to this is complicated. Take beef. Americans each eat about 54 pounds of beef per year, which is actually 40 percent less than we did in 1976. Demand like that can’t be met with grass-fed beef, as former Panorama Meats CEO Mack Graves told National Geographic‘s Robert Kunzig in a recent article:

“Can’t be done,” says Mack Graves, former CEO of Whole Foods Market supplier Panorama Meats. “Demand is going to keep going up. It’s going to have to be beef raised as efficiently as possible, and grass fed isn’t efficient compared with feedlot.”

Kunzig concludes that it is difficult to parse what we should do about our desire for meat. He writes: “There’s no doubt that eating less beef wouldn’t hurt me or most Americans. But the science is unclear on just how much it would help us—or the planet.”

That view hasn’t kept some people from trying to cut animals out of the equation altogether with lab-grown, 3D-printed meat. In Orion’s Arm‘s “The Diversity of Food,” the authors describe such hypothetical popular favorites as “Pribabs”—”printed kebabs with a sturdy central bone to hold the meat more easily”—and “Prillets”—entire animals printed without any bones at all, often premarinated.”

Cultured beef
Cultured beef. Photo by David Parry/PA Wire, courtesy of

To be sure, lab-grown meat has made amazing strides, but researchers are still looking for ways to make it indistinguishable from the real thing. One of the primary criticisms has been that the texture is hard to nail—ground beef is one thing, but a marbled steak is another. And it is expensive. The first lab-grown hamburger, unveiled in the summer of 2013 after two years of work, cost $325,000, according to the New York Times. In a 2014 interview with the Guardian, the researcher who created the burger, Mark Post, explained: “It’s a proof of principle. It’s done in an academic lab by people with relatively high salaries, made by hand, fiber by fiber.” If the whole process was scaled up, he said, the cost could be about $50 per pound.

Eventually we may order special, customized creative or celebratory shapes that a home 3D printer or one in a restaurant can churn out just for use—pasta à la me.

3D printers could help the cost by outsourcing labor from human hands to machines. They can also address the texture. Since printers put material within material, they seem ideal for a future that contains lab-grown meat. A startup called Modern Meadow is on it. “We can uniformly distribute the fat so that [the meat] is perfectly marbled,” Andras Forgacs, the company’s CEO and cofounder told “We’re not at the level yet where we can enhance the nutriceutical profile of the product, but that’s very much in our plans.”

Another sustainability-minded angle that 3D-printed-food enthusiasts are tackling is how to feed more people with the same food. David Irvin, the director of research at Systems & Materials Research Corporation in Austin, Texas, told the 2014 Agricultural Biotechnology International Conference that 3D printing might present a solution for dealing with food waste.

“According to the United Nations Environment Program, roughly one third of the food produced in the world for human consumption every year—approximately 1.3 billion tons—gets lost or wasted,” he said. “If just half of that waste could be dried, transported, and processed via 3D printing, it would result in three times the amount of food production required to feed the population of sub-Saharan Africa.”

Food for you

If the ideas of printed lab-grown meat and recycled food don’t set your taste buds a-tingle, perhaps this next option will be better. Since the source of the proteins and fats doesn’t change what they look like as a 3D-printer-ready paste, some of the ingredients in future food could be weird. The Netherlands-based TNO wants to print food using ingredients like algae, seaweed, grass, lupine seeds, beet leaves, and insects, according to a promotional video. They’d also like to personalize your food based on the nutrients you require.

An elderly man, a pregnant woman, and a high-performance athlete all require different things, nutritionally. 3D printers could make meals for all of them that look the same but have different levels of proteins, fats, and other nutrients.

One thing that 3D printers are really good at is producing on-demand, customized products, explains Lipton. “I can produce a pizza, and your slice can be different than for another person,” he says. Imagine you log your activity into your smartphone. Then, your device meshes that information with your medical records and calorie inputs for the day and sends the calculations to your food fabricator. The fabricator can then churn out a food with the exactly correct amount of calories for your body at the time you hit print.

Lipton has already done this with his advisor, Hod Lipson. They got two identical-looking cookies for a snack at the end of the day, but one was nearly full-calorie and the other was super lean. Lipton sees this as a way to outsource the need to stick to a healthy diet. “[The machine] kind of forces its will on me when my motivation is weakest,” he says.

“I can produce a pizza, and your slice can be different than for another person.” —Jeffrey Lipton

There are other ways 3D-printed foods can adapt to the consumer. A German company called Biozoon has developed a way to print food for senior citizens and other folks who prefer food they don’t need to to chew. The company’s “Smoothfood” starts as fresh ingredients that are pureed and then bound together with a safe-to-consume food binder. Next, they are printed in shapes that resemble the ones they once had, but with a softer texture. The resulting soft food “tastes like normal food. It is made from fresh ingredients, so the taste doesn’t change,” Sandra Forstner, a project manager at Biozoon, told the Wire. “One of our goals is not to change the flavor; the texturizing system doesn’t change it.” Biozoon has made food from such ingredients as cauliflower, peas, chicken, pork, potatoes, and pasta.

Turkey medallions, carrots and potatoesTurkey medallions, carrots, and potatoes. Courtesy of Smoothfood

And the realm of totally not gross, almost normal 3D-printed food, there’s the innovative shapes that these machines enable. Lipton has printed an intricately latticed shape from corn dough that allows oil to penetrate deep within the structure for a more perfectly fried food. And Barilla held a contest for 3D-printed pasta designs. Eventually we may order special, customized creative or celebratory shapes that a home 3D printer or one in a restaurant can churn out just for use—pasta à la me.

Food for the extremes

Space: the final frontier for 3D-printed food. No one has been more interested in the practical side of 3D-printed foods than NASA except possibly the military, and its reasons are the same: Fresh foods on the front lines of battle or in space is a tricky prospect. Both institutions are interested in finding out if 3D-printed food can be nutritious, edible, and cheap.

At this point, the military is not squeamish about the origins of the food. “There’s synthetic types of meats, there’s real beef, there’s real meat,” Lauren Oleksyk, a food technologist for the Army, told NPR. “And we would see what that does in the printing process to that protein, whether it’s animal based or plant based.” (The reporter, Aarti Shahani, wrote that a jalapeño pepper jack-flavored patty tastes pretty processed. But then, the technology is still a work in progress.)

A meal on board the International Space Station before 3D food printers
A meal on board the International Space Station before 3D food printers. Courtesy of NASA

NASA already is close to sending a 3D printer into space to create replacement parts for the International Space Station. Next, the organization hopes to create one that can print a pizza. It already gave money toward this goal to the same company that wants to print recycled food. Anjan Contractor of the Systems & Materials Research Corporation told that NASA originally partnered with them to figure out how to feed astronauts on long-term missions.

“Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” Contractor said. “The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”

Pizza, with its distinct layers, is a simple food to print in 3D—even in low to no gravity.

And lastly, 3D-printed food also is pushing the boundaries of what we think is possible simply because it can make incredibly complex shapes. 3D Systems’ Sugar Lab has spun snow-white and psychedelic color sugar creations that look like sculptures and geometric abstractions, all in the name of novelty.

Still, it appears that 3D-printed food falls prey to the same constraints that all projects do, says Lipton. There are three qualities people desire: fast, good, and cheap. The old maxim is you have to pick two. The automation aspect of 3D-printed food can make it faster and possibly cheaper. But if the ingredients you input are cheap, they may not be high-quality. Can this idea ever break out of the realm of sci-fi and become practical reality? Only time will tell.


Photos via Joseph Nicolia/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and Ewen Roberts/Flickr (CC BY 2.0), illustration via Harrison Weir/Wikimedia Commons | Remix by Rob Price