Solving World Hunger with 3D-Printed Food

Mar 8, 2019

by Mark Crawford, ASME.org

Food is a major global issue. Numerous concerns include food quality, nutritional value, climate change, environmental impacts, and having enough to feed everyone. These growing concerns about global food security and sustainability, as well as consumer demands for customized food products, have led to the adoption of new technologies, including 3D printing food.

3D printing is an ideal technology for food manufacturing because it can produce 3D constructs with complex geometries, complex textures, enhanced nutrition, and realistic flavors.

According to a new market intelligence report by BIS Research, the global 3D food printing market is expected to reach $525.6 million by 2023, rising at an annual rate of about 46 percent through 2023. This growth is attributed to the rising awareness among the food innovators about the need to elevate food manufacturing systems to meet these global and consumer needs.

Engineers have created a machine that can both 3D-print food and simultaneously cook it with infrared laser. Image: Columbia University

How to 3D Print Food?

Food 3D printing differs from 3D printing with engineering materials—metals or plastics—in several ways, said Hod Lipson, professor of mechanical engineering and data science at Columbia University, who conducts research in this field.

“First, it is inherently multi material—most food is made of multiple ingredients,” he said. “Second, the materials are much more complex—the rheology of peanut butter, for example, is much more complex than of ABS plastic. Third, these materials interact with each other chemically while printing—that is an essential part of cooking but adds further complexity. Finally, food printing ultimately involves cooking while printing, such as with a laser.” Top Story: Fight Climate Change, Build the Wall Technologies used to 3D print food include selective sintering, selective hot air sintering and melting (SHASAM), liquid binding or binder jetting, and hot-melt extrusion.

Recently, South Korean engineers have developed a 3D printing platform that uses a fused depositional process to create food items with microstructures that replicate the physical properties and nanoscale texture of real food. These can then be tuned to “allow the customization of 3D-printed food on a personal level,” said lead researcher Jin-Kyu Rhee, associate professor at Ewha Womans University.

Out of What to 3D Print Food?

Materials for 3D-printed food are ordinary food ingredients—water, oil, flour, butter, and eggs.

“However, the rheology and chemical interactions of these materials is very nonlinear,” Lipson said. “The combination of material deposition patterns and cooking patterns via laser can yield very novel textures.”

The “food ink” is deposited by a nozzle guided by an STL file derived from CAD data. The ink must have the proper consistency and viscosity to be extruded smoothly from the nozzle, as well as to maintain its shape after deposition. Multi-nozzle printers allow more design complexity: a multi-nozzle print head, for example, can automate pizza-making by depositing dough, sauce, and cheese.

Bioprinters can 3D print layers of living animal cells that are built up to create meat. Modern Meadow, for example, bioprints 3D-printed meat without killing animals. The process starts with a draw of stem cells from a cow via a biopsy. The cells are stimulated to produce muscle cells, which are then deposited in multiple layers on a special surface by a 3D bioprinter. The cells fuse together, forming muscle tissue, or meat.

More on High-tech Food Production: 5 Ways How Digital Farm Technology Is Transforming Agriculture

A key consideration with 3D-printed food is consistency and texture. Dr. Amy Logan, a senior research scientist at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in Canberra, Australia, who is researching ways to improve these properties of 3D printed food. Her team studies how 3D printed foods react under force, including how they deform or flow under pressure when being chewed.

“We don’t want to be serving up a pile of goo,” Logan said. “Instead, our structured foods will be based on real foods and prepared with appealing textures, tastes, and smells. We use human testers to describe products on the basis of smell, taste, or feel in order to ensure we’re getting it right.”

What’s Next for 3D-Printed Food?

An exciting possibility for 3D-printed food is its ability to be customized. Inks can be formulated with extremely high precision to create foods with specific nutrient content for individual needs. Textures can also be modified so the food is easier to swallow.

“Various foods, including pork, chicken, potatoes, pasta and peas, are first cooked and then pureed before they are extruded and printed into recognizable shapes,” reports GE on its website. “3D printing allows for food presentations that are visually appealing and therefore appetizing.”

3D-printed food may have an impact on relieving hunger around the world, using abundant and easily sourced food types such as algae, which are rich in protein and antioxidants.

The reach of 3D-printed food is even out of this world: NASA is developing a 3D food printer for deep space that will create meals from powdered proteins, carbohydrates, macronutrients, and micronutrients.

More on 3D Printing Breakthroughs: Artificial and 3D Printed Skin Advances for Robots and Humans

“There are many innovations in progress, from modeling and simulation of food printing, and the chemical interactions, all the way to ways to deliver energy to cook the food while printing, such as lasers,” Lipson said. “For example, our lab is working on modeling and simulation of food, as well as laser cooking.”

Food printing, Lipson stressed, is not just about making conventional foods using a new technique. “It is about exploring new foods that were not possible to make before,” Lipson said. “I believe that humanity has been stuck in a small corner of ‘food space’ due to our very primitive cooking techniques—we still cook over an open flame like our ancestors did millennia ago.Food printing is about marrying cooking with software. And we know that once software enters a field, we never look back.”

Mark Crawford is an independent writer.

Read More Exclusive Stories from ASME.org: Global Talent Makes American Industry Stronger New Window Film Reduces Energy Costs The Bionic Mushroom

Materials for 3D printing food are much more complex—the rheology of peanut butter, for example, is much more complex than ABS plastic.Hod Lipson, Columbia University