Future of Food, Part III: Your Next Meal, Layer by Layer

Third in an occasional series. (See part one and part two.)

The bizarre contraption looks like something out of a mad scientist’s lab. A platform hooked up to bundles of brightly colored wires and a rubber pulley automatically moves back and forth, side to side—seemingly randomly—while a nozzle suspended above deposits layer upon layer of narrow chocolate ribbons.

In time, the chocolate strata begin to take on a recognizable form, accumulating to reveal a work of food art: a stylized version of a man’s face, courtesy of a 3D printer following an electronic blueprint.

3D printing is poised to revolutionize entire fields from medicine and apparel to vehicles, robotics, construction, and computing. But the high degree of precision and uniformity made possible by 3D printers isn’t limited to the realms of technology and industry; more and more, it promises to change how we produce and prepare what we eat.

The technology “combines three things that are normally difficult to get together: Printed food is convenient, healthy, and low-cost,” said Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering at Columbia University, in an email interview. “Usually, it’s ‘pick any two.’ Add to this that you can get a virtually infinite variety of recipes, and it has clear advantages.”

One of those advantages is food being prepared on demand with fresh and healthful ingredients, rather than the “one-size-fits-all that you get in the supermarket,” according to Lipson. But even more importantly, as we learn more about the human genome and nutritional science, 3D printers could customize foods to individuals in order to help meet their specific health and dietary needs.

“Food printers can provide the missing link between data-driven health analytics and the food that’s on your table,” Lipson said. “Right now, biometrics and genomics and AI analytics can provide personalized recommendations, but then how do you translate all that information to the food that you eat? A food printer can fill this gap.”

At a more basic level, for instance, 3D printers can produce more appetizing and palatable foods for those who suffer from dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing. A soft food that can be brought back to its original shape and appearance presumably would have more appeal than a plate of pureed mush.

Other potential applications are virtually endless: Think about military cooks or astronauts who could make “a relatively large variety of healthy food on demand from a small set of ingredients, without skill or effort or training, [which is] useful for places with limited resources,” Lipson said.

Still largely confined to the lab, the technology isn’t—and may never be—at the point where you can simply walk up to an alcove and conjure “tea, Earl Gray, hot” into existence from nothing. But that won’t stop us from dreaming.

Indeed, there is a demand for such innovations. The IFIC Foundation’s 2015 Food and Health Survey found that 69 percent of adults were “excited to try a 3D printer that could make any food from scratch.” Enthusiasm was even higher among Millennials, at 79 percent.

“Younger generations are more comfortable with software and robots taking over things like driving and cooking,” Lipson said.

“I think that in the next decade we’ll see food printers become a common appliance, as common as home espresso machines."

(Image: screen cap via YouTube)