Hungry? Just press print

What if you could watch a 3D movie and then eat some popcorn freshly printed from your 3D printer? The future of food printing may be closer than you think.

This octopus-shaped object is made out of bread using the Fab@Home 3D printer

Hod Lipson, the director of Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab, has been tinkering with inventive robots for many years. His ideas began to take shape with his first series of 3D printers back in 2006 called Fab@Home.

“3D printing has been around since the late 80’s, but it limited their availability because they were so expensive,” Lipson says.

“It’s a transition from mainframe to desktop,” Lipson says. “How people used it was up to them.”

That is where the idea for printing food really came into play, Lipson says. The printer is designed to handle multiple materials simultaneously. “Think black and white printer to colour printer,” he says. “When you move from one material to multiple, you can really do a lot of interesting things.”

Anything you can squeeze through a syringe, you can use in a 3D printer, Lipson says. The printer works by taking information from a computer design program and replicating that through materials in the syringe, using heating and cooling to maintain the foundation and structure of the object.

To some, the process may seem a bit unnatural—squeezing food out of a tube to build a meal instructed by a machine—but there are many opportunities for 3D food printing, Lipson says. It could offer someone with a dietary restriction a wider variety of meal options from relatively few ingredients.

The only problem is keeping it fresh, says Bénédicte Fontaine-Bisson, assistant professor at the University of Ottawa.

Fontaine-Bisson teaches an introductory nutrition class and sees how high levels of salt intake are gravely affecting the population. She hopes that, in the future, food can be tailored to people’s dietary needs.

“I think that in the future there will be some food specifically designed for some subgroups of the population who have some types of diseases,” she says.

With all the processed food piling up at the supermarket, Fontaine-Bisson says fresh is important.

But, so is variety.

“For example, we printed a cube of milk and also a cylinder that was pink and had the texture of a cookie, but tasted of broccoli,” Lipson says.

Although 3D printing does not have the ability to produce more food than fills the syringe, it can help diversify food options for anyone with a restricted diet by creating new and fun meals with limited ingredients. The printer can also keep a log of the calories, sugars and byproducts your body intakes during a normal food-printing day.

“Nutritional control is very interesting, the printer can adjust the levels of sugar in your food and track your daily intake. This would be very good for dieting restrictions or people who need to watch their weight,” Lipson says.

The biggest technical challenges for these printing prototypes is the material gumming up the syringe or laying down the material so it maintains its shape.

“Too soft or too stiff and it won’t work, it needs to be molten but harden at the right points and times,” Lipson says.

Turkey and celery are squeezed out of a syringe to print bite-sized snacks.

This means you have to really think about the ingredients and how they will layer up. One of Lipson’s students used an Austrian cookie recipe from his grandmother to print cookies with text letters printed inside them—it was a success.

Playing with the foundations of food can also get a little weird.

“For example, we printed a cube of milk and also a cylinder that was pink and had the texture of a cookie, but tasted of broccoli,” Lipson says.

For those who weren’t completely turned off by the oozing food out of a processor, they saw the opportunities social food information sharing could bring.

“You could print half a cake here and half a cake on the other side of the planet,” Lipson says.

Cake and chocolate aside, Lipson says he really wants to explore the nutritional aspects first and make food that is more useful. That means, creating and programing software that can design food as well.

“Up until now these two fields, food and information technology, have been fairly separate except for looking at things online,” Lipson says.

Lipson speaks more about 3D printing in his new book “Fabricated: The New World of 3D Printing,” co-authored by Melba Kurman. The book paints a futuristic picture of 3D printing robots building anything you need—from clothing, to food.

“It’s interesting, it’s creative, it’s entertaining, but it’s also healthy. And that’s one of the biggest opportunities,” Lipson says.

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