3D-Printed Food: For NASA, the US Army and You

The concept of 3D-printed food might sound like something from the future, but we're on the precipice of a food revolution. With interest from some of the largest organisations in the world, now is exactly the time to start looking forward.

Feature by Connel Soutar | 15 Mar 2016

3D-printed food could sound like a dream to some and a nightmare to others. Lessening the human component in the kitchen could bring us closer to an Orwellian dystopia or a Star Trek utopia. Although 3D printing gets more popular by the year, food hasn't quite caught up. Now with requests for 3D-printed food from large organisations, it may be right about time to pay a little more attention to this weird and fascinating technology.

The idea of instant food, perpetuated by science fiction, has always been a far-off futuristic idea. Computers crafting exquisite food is a concept that can be found in everything from Star Trek to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, although, akin to other forms of automation such as self-driving cars, some people don't like the idea of a computer doing the work for them. An array of 3D food printers are already available and some say they're the future of culinary expertise. So, are we heading towards the instant beverages of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or the curiously-sourced Soylent Green?

3D printing technology was invented in 1983 by Charles Hull and was first revealed to the public by its patent in 1986. From these somewhat surprisingly early beginnings, in 2016 we find ourselves at the beginning of commercial and personal 3D printing. However, being at the beginning doesn't exclude off-shoots that lead to huge developments. Last year at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, 3D Systems, which Hull co-founded, revealed the Chefjet and Chefjet Pro: the world's first consumer 3D food printers.

Chefjet Pro
The Chefjet Pro 3D printer – Image: fabbaloo.com

These 3D food printers create shapes from chocolate and sugar that would be almost impossible by hand. Using the same print head as a normal printer, these devices can layer sugar and water – the water allowing the sugar to recrystalise – to create geometric sweets that Willy Wonka would envy. The first 3D-printed sweet shop (the sweets are printed, not the shop) opened in Dubai in late February and it's widely thought to be the first of many.

3D Printers: the Foodini

Although first revealed last year, there has already been a rush with many new systems in a small amount of time. New concepts like the Foodini, which can print both sweet and savoury foods, up the game once again. The Foodini boasts that its creations are 'real food', made from fresh ingredients, although its main goal is to streamline food preparation.

With the Foodini it's possible to add any ingredients you want to create awe-inspiring dishes. This sounds a little complex but it's actually surprisingly simple. Here's a video by Natural Machines that will give you a brief idea of how it works.

With an expected price of $1,500, the Foodini (like other current 3D food printers) is likely to target early adopters, paving the way for more affordable options. This affordability isn't as important to high end restaurants.

The Foodini is being raved about as a fundamentally forward-thinking step for high end dining. In a matter of minutes, the Foodini allows high end eateries to create fancy flourishes and intricate designs that would take even a master chef far longer. As mentioned earlier, the thing that sets the Foodini apart from other 3D printers is the focus on fresh ingredients. It would be far less likely for 3D printers with set materials to have had an impact like this on such a high end level. Catalonian chef Paco Perez, a recipient of five Michelin stars, has adopted the Foodini at his restaurant La Enoteca at the Hotel Arts in Barcelona, and creates the centerpiece for his Sea Coral dish by using the device to pipe seafood puree into a fascinating and intricate design. Although it seems that 3D-printed food hasn't appeared in any Scottish restaurants so far, it's only a matter of time.

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There may be skeptics that say it is simply too early for this type of technology to catch on and have a lasting effect. Multiple branches of the US government seem to disagree.

In February this year the US army formally pushed plans to create customisable 3D-printed food for soldiers. The idea behind this request is built upon their other goals of infantry-mechanised exoskeletons. This may sound like something from the Marvel universe, and many agree as its been dubbed their 'Iron Man' suit, formally known as TALOS (Tactical Assault Light Operator Suit).

The suit, or a different wearable, will perform a variety of functions and in this case, measure the soldier's nutritional status. This data will then be sent back through a server to their base camp, to be incorporated into the soldier's next meal. For instance, if they had low sodium levels, the 3D printer could create a drink or meal with extra sodium to correct the soldier's levels. This idea would be revolutionary for the soldiers involved and it's fairly easy to see how this could help anyone in modern life. For many being able to regulate their levels of vitamins and essential oils automatically, for instance, would be a huge time saver as well as improving their general health.

A space odyssey: 3D printed food and NASA

The US army isn't the only American organisation chasing this particular holy grail. NASA has been actively pursuing 3D-printed food since 2013, when they awarded their Small Business Innovation Research contract to a company in Austin, Texas. NASA has been invested in 3D printing for much longer and have been printing small tools on the International Space Station since 2014.

3D-printed food is an obviously useful idea for crews spending a long time off-planet. It would be far better to send fundamental ingredients and vitamins that can be made into anything the astronaut would prefer, rather than standardised dinner sachets. Currently, those on the ISS eat solely pre-packaged foods that last a long time – it's not exactly the Ritz. With 3D printing it may possible to have astronauts eating food they enjoy all the way to Mars, which in the long term is their goal.

Pasta salad, printed using the Foodini 3D printer – Image: naturalmachines.com

3D-printed food in space also feels just kind of right. It's like something from the future and fits in with our memories of sci-fi technology like the 'replicators' in Star Trek. NASA, in conjunction with Gene Roddenberry's much-loved franchise, has recently started a competition to design a non-edible, food-related object to be printed in space in 2050. Although this isn't 3D-printed food, it's a fascinating example of how sci-fi can help progress funding for space research. Star Trek has captured the minds of all ages for decades and it's fitting that this would come back around to helping NASA create genuine future technology.

3D-printed food looks like it's going to be a major part of food preperation in the future but it's also having an effect on medicine. Specifically, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, has been experimenting with personalised 3D-printed pills. Designed specifically for each patient, it would provide similar benefits as personalised food for soldiers but could truly effect the public. All of these aspects of 3D printing are no brainers. Of course it would be better to do customisations automatically but how far in the future is this going to be? How well will this work? The answers to all these questions lie in the next few years. The way we consume food, medicine, anything may change in the next decade. It's not impossible that children of the future will look up to their parents and ask, “You used to make your own food!?”.