You Are What You Print: 3D Printing and Food

3D printing is one of those technologies that I am fascinated by but have yet to find a practical day-to-day application for (read: I do not need another flat surface on which to pile and eventually accumulate so much paper that it is disturbingly reminiscent of a hoarder). As I continue to follow the technology, though, one of the applications that really resonates with me is printed foods. While I already consume more than enough processed foods, 2013 has been a pretty big year for movement in this space and I wonder what the remainder of the year (and 2014) will hold.

Adam Mann, author of Wired‘s “Feeding the Final Frontier: 3-D Printers Could Make Astronaut Meals,” wrote about the mechanics of 3D printed food this past February, noting that

The Fab@Home team at Cornell University has developed gel-like substances called hydrocolloids that can be extruded and built up into different shapes. By mixing in flavoring agents, they can produce a range of tastes and textures.

The telling quote came a couple paragraphs later when Jeffrey Lipton, the engineer who leads Cornell’s effort, remarked, “We quickly ran into the yuck factor.”

In late May, NASA (with interplanetary travel in mind) awarded a $125,000 grant to Arjan Contractor to develop a 3D printer for foods. The grant garnered a fair amount of press coverage, but Chrisotpher Mims, who broke the story  with “The audacious plan to end hunger with 3-D printed food” in Quartz, considers the technology in the context of a larger system of recipes and the “food-based powders” that such a system would use (ref. Lipton’s quote above).

Things, for me, got a little trippier when I watched Andras Forgacs TED Talk “Leather and meat without killing animals” just last month. While I am still trying to get used to the idea of a company that is working to print human tissues and organs also producing the meat for my hamburger (there is a product recall here that is the stuff of nightmares…), Forgacs “biofabrication” is fascinating and could open the door to a world of 3D printed food that extends beyond Lipton’s “yuck factor.”

Then, just a couple days after Forgacs TED talk was posted, A.J. Jacobs — author of The Year of Living Biblically and The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment — had a great piece in The New York Times about his experience with trying to live a wholly printed life for one week. In “Dinner is Printed,” Jacobs enlists the aid of Cornell’s Hod Lipson to help him create the “the ultimate high-tech romantic dinner date.” My favorite quote:

“These oregano flakes are killing me,” Mr. Lipton said with a sigh, fiddling with the dial on the air compressor.

Jacobs ambitious effort aside, there already are printers for simpler foods out there. Take, for example, the Choc Creator, which prints designs in chocolate:

Aside from the fact many of the people I know would be more interested in a syringe full of chocolate than the printer, I assume — like the astronautical engineer quoted in Mann’s piece — that significant progress in printed foods will be made over the course of the next five to ten years. It will be interesting, during that time, to see what kind of an ecosystem sprouts up alongside and around the application of the technology. For example:

  1. When do leading manufacturers of 3D printers like Flash Forge or Makerbot begin releasing components with food preparation applications in mind? Similarly, when do 3D printers begin to integrate more cooking elements (e.g., convection ovens, microwaves)?
  2. What might a recipe-oriented version of Thingiverse, a Web site devoted to sharing models for 3D printers, look like?
  3. How might the “filament” for food evolve? Current work is on powder and pastes, but might a product like Soylent, possibly coupled with artificial flavors, move into this space? If you are not familiar with Soylent, check out the interesting and entertaining series from Ars TechnicaArs Does Soylent.”
  4. Could you create something akin to the Filabot to take food wastes that would otherwise be thrown out or composted to create the raw materials needed for printing more food in the future?

Further reading:

Check out’s Food page to see the most up-to-date examples of how 3D printing might be applied to the food we eat.

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