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3D-printed food: bon appétit!

04 August 2015

Fancy a more chewable pasta or high protein biscuits made with insects? The 3D printing of food is not just for astronauts, say some of the big food producers.

If the research work of large food processing companies is any guide, 3D printers are likely to become a household kitchen appliance, helping people save time when preparing meals or adding specific nutritious ingredients to their diet.

For some four years now, Italian pasta and pasta related products specialist, Barilla, along with the Dutch research organisation TNO, has been testing additive manufacturing prototypes to produce new shapes of pasta. According to Barilla's deputy head of R&D, Michela Petronio, a prototype that allows us to print pasta in shapes that otherwise can't easily be replicated, has already been developed. "3D printing opens a largely unexplored horizon in the field of food design,” says Petronio, who concedes there is still quite a long way to go before these machines grace our kitchen worktops.

For home equipment, the first appliance to come to market may well be the 'Foodini' from Barcelona based Natural Machine, who is hoping to sell it in a limited pre-series by late 2015 for around $1,500 per machine. Lynette Kucsma, co-founder and chief marketing officer at Natural Machine says her company's aim is to ease the way to prepare homemade healthier food - with an extra bit of fun on top, she adds.

What makes Foodini different is its ability to enable users to print not only one type of food, such as chocolate or sugars, but also to fill capsules with various sorts of ingredients.

Both Barilla and Foodini use the same technology: fused deposition modelling (FDM), which, in the case of Barilla, means producing a pasta dough layer by layer, to create a specific shape.

Another technique is powder bed printing, which is based on a layer of powder that is ‘wetted’ by a liquid; for example, water or fat that functions as a sort of 'glue'. Even selective laser sintering - a process normally reserved for creating metal objects from metal powders - might have a role in the 3D-printing of food.

FDM is the closest to market, according to TNO's Daniël van der Linden, though he concedes powder bed printing offers more possibilities with regard to shape and scaling of the technology. However, speed of production is likely to be the deal breaker, as far as industrial scale producers are concerned.

The advantages of 3D printed food are not to everyone's taste. Ferran Adrià, the famous chef of the three-star Michelin restaurant El Bulli in Spain, known for his deconstructivist cuisine and his avant-garde spirit, is not particularly keen on having a 3D printer in his kitchen.

“We have never used it,” he says, “and our research is heading in other directions at the moment. I am not able to say now how this kind of equipment can affect professional catering, but I think that for home use it will be the price to pay for making a difference. For now I'm not planning to have it as part of my equipment.”

Giorgio Calabrese, a doctor and nutritionist who teaches at several Italian and US universities, also harbours some doubts. “I think we need to consider that when eating we always look for something appetising,” he says. “So, it's one thing to prepare a small amount of food that consists of a mix of lyophilized nutritious ingredients aimed at keeping a handful of astronauts alive, but quite another to prepare a meal to feed a family every day. I don't rule out that it will happen at some point, but I think we are a long way off still.”

And what about those insect-laden, high protein biscuits? It may sound disgusting but a growing population means a greater demand for proteins that can also come from insects, algae or other plants instead of meat or fish,” says van der Linden. 3D printing might be a way of preparing these 'raw' ingredients and transforming them into a more palatable form for Europeans.

Adapted from an article that first appeared on the website, 4 August 2015.

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