Personalized nutrition via 3D printing can be a revolution in food technology

It can be a tricky concept, though.
Deena Theresa
3D printers enter the kitchen.
3D printers enter the kitchen.

Creative Machines Lab 

Chances are you've already eaten 3D-printed food.

"If you've ever put ketchup or mustard on a hotdog or put frosting on a cake, that's 3D printing, in a way, except that you're manually doing it. Picture the same with a machine - an application of additive manufacturing," Jonathan Blutinger, a Ph.D. student in the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, tells Interesting Engineering.

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Lynette Kucsma, CEO and co-founder of Natural Machines (manufacturer of Foodini 3D food printer), agrees with a similar perspective. 

"If you eat anything from a food manufacturer - processed or packaged in the supermarket - you're already eating 3D printed food; we just don't call it that," she tells us.

"A food manufacturer takes food, pushes it through machines, shapes, and forms it. We have adopted the same concept and created the kitchen appliance, but the big difference is you control the ingredients going into it, and you can customize your foods," she explains.

Customization to the point wherein you could even manufacture food with the precise amount of nutrients you require.

Customization is key

Personalized nutrition via 3D printing can be a revolution in food technology
Natural Machines' Foodini focuses on using fresh ingredients.

This aspect of 3D food printing is huge. Researchers at the US Department of Defense's Combat Feeding Directorate, which develops military rations for the US Armed Forces, are already looking at a 3D printer to adapt rations to particular needs. 

For example, caffeine could be added for soldiers undertaking missions during which sleep isn't an option. Similarly, adding a dash of creatine could help with muscle recovery. For such personalization, Lauren Oleksyk, Team Leader, Food Engineering at US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, and her colleagues are creating 3D-printed energy bars for optimal performance and addressing the requirements of soldiers. 

"Printers that create such supplementary rations could one day be synced with wearable sensors that detect a person's physiological profile and nutritional needs in real-time," she said in an ACS Central Science publication. 

Customized nutrition with 3D food printing can be a tricky concept. "Not only do you have to work with the technology that's available, but you have to work with the health and the biology of people," says Kucsma.

It gets better

If successful, such customized 3D-printed food could also be a boon for patients in hospitals. In 2018, The Department of Food Science at the University of Copenhagen took part in a new research collaboration wherein customized meals could be created with the right nutrition and energy content for the individual patient's needs. 

"The core point is that 3D printing technology can be used to produce tailored meals. This is of great importance because each patient needs a particular diet, both in relation to his or her disease and nutritional requirements as well as adapted to their taste preferences," Lilia Ahrné, Professor of Ingredient and Dairy Technology at the University of Copenhagen, had said.

Senior principal dietitian Gladys Wong at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital in Singapore told The Straits Times that 3D-printed food also aid in feeding the elderly or those with chewing or swallowing abilities. The texture and appearance of pureed foods in not attractive, resulting in many patients rejecting them. 

However, it is possible to print foods with a softer texture but still have an appealing appearance and contain all of the required nutrients.

Wonderful, isn't it?

But there isn't a catch.

Printing peanut butter isn't the same as printing plastic

Personalized nutrition via 3D printing can be a revolution in food technology
Foodini's Frida Kahlo-inspired lentils, rice and veg dish.

Though 3D printing has been around for a while, and you can purchase a wide variety of 3D printers for home use, printing edible materials is a different ball game. 

"First, it is inherently multi-material—most food is made of multiple ingredients," Hod Lipson, a roboticist and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University, told ASME.org. 

"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," said Lipson. 

This means that the current 3D printing devices would need a major revamp to print food. Both the hardware and software are being developed specifically to print food of various consistencies. 

"We created our own software, known as the Foodini Creator. The thing with 3D printing software is that you have to be an engineer to use it - it is not the easiest. Considering ours was a kitchen appliance, we couldn't rely on that type of software. Ours is very different from using a plastic printer which has a certain melting point and print speed. We had to optimize a lot of those variables for a bunch of different types of food and textures. We created a software that accommodates all that and can be used by anyone," says Kucsma.

A supporting ecosystem in the works

On those lines, I ask Blutinger, a graduate student in Lipson's lab, when I would be able to make or access 3D-printed food at home. 

"Technologically speaking, it's already here. But I think one of the hardest parts is suiting and wrapping it [the printer] up into a presentable product. Right now, the printer behind me looks a bit like a torture device," he tells us. 

Also, there needs to be an entire ecosystem that surrounds the technology, including supply chains for creating food cartridges, continued Blutinger.

"It's almost the same problem that normal 3D printers face right now. You could buy a plastic printer from Amazon for a couple of hundred dollars, which is great. But if you buy one, and you're not an engineer, what are you going to do with it," he asks.

For most people, the options for home use are limited right now. "Besides making little toys or trinkets," interjects Bluntinger. "People are yet to find a use case for it, and there needs to be a supporting ecosystem. So, maybe in the next 10 years [people will be accessing 3D-printed food]," he says.

Your 3D-printed chicken and cheesecake are here. And it is perfection

Personalized nutrition via 3D printing can be a revolution in food technology
Researchers at work at the Creative Machines Lab.

Lipson was among the first to explore 3D printing with food. In fact, back in 2006, Lipson co-launched the first open-source 3D printer called [email protected], which sparked a revolution in consumer 3D printing technology.

Recently, Lipson's team printed a seven-ingredient slice of cheesecake with a detailed structure. Last year, they experimented with lasers and printed chicken samples, assessing moisture retention, color development, cooking depth, and flavor differences between laser-cooked and stove-cooked meat, ultimately discovering that laser-cooked meat retained double the moisture content and showed a similar flavor profile to conventionally cooked meat.

"Making the chicken was more about cooking, but the cheesecake was about seeing how far we could push the machine and create intricate designs and geometries. At the time, the machine could only handle seven ingredients. So we considered maxing it out and coming up with a cool arrangement that tastes and looks good, and was familiar. That's how we landed on the cheesecake," he says.

Their machine can now combine and print up to 18 ingredients.

Tasting the printed cheesecake was a unique experience, says Blutinger. "We took liberties with the term cheesecake and used ingredients like peanut butter. But what was super unique about it was the way it was layered," he says.

"On such a small level, you could taste the food in waves. It hits your palate differently; you could taste every single ingredient," he says.

Taking tradition to a different level

Personalized nutrition via 3D printing can be a revolution in food technology
A chef's plate - appearance is an important part of the overall eating experience.

However, cooking is a time-honored tradition, and 'meddling' with techniques and tastes people are familiar with may not go down well for many. 

Blutinger agrees.

Lipson's work is primarily the reason Blutinger works with 3D-printed food. "He had told me 'You have got to make sure you're really behind this work before you join because [3D-printed food] is a very contentious and controversial topic'. I didn't know what he meant until now...when I tell people about my work, there's a lot of pushback. And that's because people are really emotional about food. And I think it's a cool topic for that reason," says Blutinger.

"As someone who cooks every day, I don't think it's something that I will ever stop doing," he continues. "I think there's a real joy in creating your meals. But I think 3D printing food will make people more conscious of what they're eating - it creates a more transparent process as you can see all the ingredients on the machine and craft it to your needs," he says.

Kucsma says that it's similar to the time when food processors came out. "Eventually people understood that it's automating their knife skills; it wasn't taking away anything from homemade cooking. We grow into using kitchen appliances that are available as we learn their functionalities," she says. 

Kucsma also uses the analogy of microwaves. "There was resistance in the beginning - people didn't understand the technology with a microwave. There were questions like is that safe? What does it do to my food? But later, it was at a critical mass-market adoption level," she continues. 

Close to a food-tech revolution 

"We're trying to build a food repository, a list of possible ingredients we can pick from. Nutrition is something that we haven't incorporated into any of our models. Changing the macro and micronutrient profile has not been integrated yet into the machine," says Blutinger.

The machine could incorporate such functions once different algorithms are included, Blutinger says, but there are several more steps to get to that point.

"Right now, we're focusing on getting robust software that can convert these designs into printable files," he says.

Blutinger is sure that people will find their use cases with 3D-printed food. "But I think the idea of food as a medicine is a cool concept. It becomes like preventative care - being able to tailor your nutrition over a longer period as opposed to just using the medicine only when you're sick," he says.

There's also a lot of talk about sustainability and solving world hunger

"It's like a hammer and nail scenario. We have a really good hammer, and we're looking for the right nail. Like what problem can we solve?," says Bluntinger.

With 3D-printed food, it's a little harder to kind of extrapolate that sort of thing, he says. "I see this as less of solving a problem and more of creating an opportunity," adds Blutinger.