We love our food to be made in layers. Whether it’s a tiramisu, lasagne, or a Twix bar, the medley of combined tastes gives a satisfying sensation. Now, thanks to 3D printing, we can take the layers down to the microscopic level. Last week we reported Asda are bringing 3D printing to a store in York, now it seems 3D printing could well supply us all with supermarket ready food in the near future.
It’s unclear if the word “printing” will be a turn-off; it’s difficult to imagine eating something that has been printed. Even the most devoted supplier of cartridges would have to consider if it was a good idea. However, if you head into a well-appointed supermarket you’ll readily find edible 2D printing – you can have any image you like printed onto a cake. All the 3D food brigade are proposing is an extra dimension.
You can already order magnificent sugar creations that will garnish any wedding cake with a breathtakingly beautiful (and, incidentally, edible) 3D design. Remember when we were all wowed by those caramelised sugar corkscrews and bird cages? They are going to look very last millennium soon. This is pretty frivolous stuff compared to the life-transforming applications of 3D printing being pioneered by NASA. You may remember the Mars 500 project that was carried out a few years back, where volunteers were “isolated” in a Moscow facility for 500 days to get a hint as to what the psychosocial effects would be of a round-trip to Mars. On of the immediate conclusions was that humans place great importance on the variety of flavours and textures we have in our Earth-based lives, and that reproducing that in space has wonderful effects on morale.
Everything that blasts off from Earth requires fuel, so the absolute minimum of food is required. Volume is an important issue, which is why space food has traditionally been flat-packed, dried, and packaged so the maximum nutritional value can be squeezed into the minimum space. You can’t take a crate of apples and some pork chops. But what if you could scroll down a digital menu and choose any meal you like? That’s the potential of 3D food printing. In theory, the possibilities are limitless. As long as you have the basic flavours, the three primary colours, a host of essential nutritional components, and some binding ingredients, anything can be made. Here’s what could end up occupying the shelves of your local supermarket.
Bioprinting: The Future?
Something as simple as a piece of fried bacon is a highly complex thing. Take the texture alone: it contains the muscular structure of a naturally grown pig and benefits from the effects of curing and heating the meat, with extra crispiness provided by contact with the frying pan and the hot oil. To reproduce that means going down to the molecular level, something 3D printing is, as yet, incapable of.
Complex texture is still best achieved by growing organically; perhaps the optimum 3D food printer will use a combination of biomass and layers to produce food that most closely resembles that we’re used to on our plates. However, there are companies such as Modern Meadow who are commercialising “bioprinting” technologies. These look like having the potential to create nutritional “animal” products without all the food, water – or slaughter.
When is meat not meat?
Speaking of meat, there are numerous issues surrounding this key element of the human diet. First, there are ethics. Millions of people opt for a meat-free diet for compassionate reasons; some do purely for health reasons. Adherents to Judaism and Islam forgo any meat from the pig; many Hindus don’t eat beef. But what are the ethical issues surrounding “pork” and “beef” that are actually a blend of proteins, fats and colourings and have never been part of a living, breathing creature? Whether avoided through respect or disgust, these foodstuffs are beef and pork in name only, and would cease to resemble the meats they emulate if their recipe was tweaked a little. Whether people eat 3D printed – or artificially cultivated – pseudo-tissue will ultimately be down to the reasons behind any misgivings.
A huge part of taste has to do with the aroma of food, a fact scientists are still learning about. What we do know is to successfully emulate familiar foods, or even to create new ones, we can’t rely purely on taste, texture, and colour. We need to somehow introduce aroma into the blend. Whilst some aromas will occur naturally, others will need to be artificially introduced. While some aromas will occur naturally, others will need to be artificially introduced. We’re going to need quite a few cartridges in our universal food creation printer, by the sound of things.
Will it really catch on?
At the moment 3D printed foods are not just viable, they are here, but they rely on purees, solutions, and powders of foods that already exist. Technology is constantly refining, and foods made from the basic building blocks of nutrition – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and various other elements – will surely one day be considered normal parts of a healthy, varied and interesting diet. Whether it will still be described as being “printed” will depend on lexicography and technology. Our current methods of printing food might look to future eyes like stone tablets look to ours – a necessary stepping stone, a proof of concept, that can be worked on.
Maybe one day after a particularly good meal in a restaurant, we’ll ask the waiter to give our compliments to the printer.