The future of food is 3D printed
Think Italian cuisine, and you're probably imagining pizza, pasta and ossobuco – but in Rome, the 3D printing movement is bringing something new to the table.
Rome Maker Faire is playing host to a gathering of Makers, tinkerers and open-source champions – and among them are a group of pioneers who want to change the way we think about food.
In the future, 3D printers will be as common a kitchen fixture as the microwave oven, and you'll print everything from ready-made meals to fresh fruit on them. It sounds like something out of Star Trek – and in fact, the first people to try out 3D printed food will likely be astronauts.
When the Moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie
Anjan Contractor is working with NASA to develop a food printer that can be used by astronauts; he's already produced a 3D-printed pizza complete with tomato sauce and cheese. Though it may not rival Rome's street food, it's a vital step towards long space missions such as a manned flight to Mars. At present, NASA uses Meals Ready-to-Eat; packaged foods that are heated up aboard a spaceship.
"That has a very short shelf life," explains Contractor. "It goes for 18 months. It's unhealthy; there are very limited choices. It may have preservatives, it may be tasteless. NASA wanted something that has longer shelf life, with personalised nutrition. Going to Mars takes around 5 years – that's not even landing, that's just going into orbit and back."
Contractor's 3D food printer uses freeze-dried, powdered ingredients that contain micro-nutrients; they're combined with oils and water to produce finished wet foods. They're printed out using a modified RepRap 3D printer, and then heated.
3D printed food has potential benefits for us Earthbound folks, too; with an increasing population, printed food could reduce food waste, and provide personalised nutrition to combat obesity.
3D printed food doesn't have to involve powdered, processed food, either – indeed, it could help to remove unnecessary additives from our diet, according to Lynett Kucsma of Natural Machines.
Her company has created Foodini, a 3D printer that uses fresh ingredients; you fill the printer's food capsules with your own choice of produce. Why would you want to pipe out pureed food when you could slice a carrot, you wonder? The idea isn't to print out a salad or a stew; instead, Kucsma envisages the Foodini printing out fresh versions of the processed, packaged foods that we keep in our cupboards today.
"Look at the pre-packaged foods and the pre-made foods you eat. A lot of them have additives and preservatives to make these foods last for months or years; that's not natural, that's not eating healthy," she says. "We don't know what we're eating, and when we do know what we're eating, we don't know exactly how much of it we're eating. We're eating way more salt, oil and sugar that we would if we made these foods at home."
The Foodini lets you print those pre-made foods that you don't have time to put together yourself. Foodini stores its ingredients in five individually-heated food capsules; you control it using an Android-powered touchscreen interface. It's designed to be as easy to use as a microwave; you create recipes by selecting a shape to print, and then a canister to print from; Kucsma shows off a spinach toastie in the shape of a dinosaur.
Of course, you can also download recipies from the internet, should creativity desert you; you need no longer pore over Granny's old cookbook for her family jam tart recipe. "We like to think about 3D food printers as a mini-food manufacturing factory in your kitchen," says Kucsma.
Fresh 3D printed food is all very well, but you're never going to get fresher than a fruit plucked from the tree – or are you?
Dovetailed is a 3D food printer firm that's worked out how to print "berries" – droplets of liquid sealed in a fruit-like skin, clustered together in a structure like a raspberry. "We're depositing very small droplets of liquid in a very controlled way," explains Dr. Vaiva Kalnikaitė, creative director and founder of Dovetailed. "This is the first printer in the world that we know of that can actually create structures using droplets."
Of course, you can just go and pick a raspberry – but Dovetailed's printer can do far more than just replicate the fruits of the forest. Kalnikaitė shows off some out-of-this-world creations that she's conjured up on their printer, including a honeyberry – a hexagonal structure made up of liquid honey droplets – and even a strawberry-and-cream-berry.
3D printed food may seem like a novelty now – paging Heston Blumenthal – but it's clear that its advocates have grander ambitions. "This is real food, 3D printed," says Natural Machines' Lynett Kucsma. "In the future, you're going to see 3D food printers as a common kitchen appliance."