Dig in! 3D-printed cheesecakes show futuristic potential of device

3D food printing will not only create new experiences but also let people have better control over their nutrition intake.
Deena Theresa
Strawberry frosting being deposited onto a layer of graham cracker paste as part of a seven-ingredient printed dessert.
Strawberry frosting being deposited onto a layer of graham cracker paste as part of a seven-ingredient printed dessert.

Jonathan Blutinger / Columbia Engineering 

The cheesecake before you looks distinct and more layered than the ones you're accustomed to. It tastes just as good as any other cheesecake, but the experience hits differently - every single ingredient makes its presence known. What is this sorcery? 

Welcome to the future of food. For the past several years, a team at the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University has been industriously working to refine the modern kitchen's latest appliance - a 3D printer replete with lasers to cook and customize whatever your stomach desires. 

While the idea and product sound tempting, will everyone want to use a 3D printer to sustain themselves? Can 3D-printed food be more healthy and nourishing? How difficult is it to commercialize such a technology?

In a new Perspective article published today by npj Science of Food, lead author Jonathan Blutinger, a postdoctoral fellow in the lab, delves into these questions and discusses the advantages and drawbacks of 3D printed food with Professor Christen Cooper, Pace University Nutrition and Dietetics.

Dig in! 3D-printed cheesecakes show futuristic potential of device
Ingredients that were used for the seven-ingredient printed dessert.

A 3D-printed device that constructs seven-ingredient cheesecakes

For the longest time, 3D food printing has been limited to a few uncooked ingredients and nowhere close to the cheesecake you just savored. Under the guidance of Hod Lipson, a roboticist and Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Columbia University who was among the first to explore 3D printing with food, Blutinger and team designed a 3D-printing device that printed a seven-ingredient dish cooked in situ using a laser. The system constructed cheesecake from edible food inks such as peanut butter, Nutella, and strawberry jam. 

According to the team, "precision printing" of multi-layered food items could not only produce more customizable foods, but could also improve food safety and allow users to control their nutrient intake.

"Because 3D food printing is still a nascent technology, it needs an ecosystem of supporting industries such as food cartridge manufacturers, downloadable recipe files, and an environment in which to create and share these recipes," Blutinger said in a statement. "Its customizability makes it particularly practical for the plant-based meat market, where texture and flavor need to be carefully formulated to mimic real meats."

Dig in! 3D-printed cheesecakes show futuristic potential of device
Isometric cut view of the final iteration of a seven-ingredient printed dessert.

Better tailoring of "nutrition-personalized nutrition"

The team went above and beyond to demonstrate the potential of their device. Cheesecake designs that consisted of graham crackers, peanut butter, Nutella, banana puree, strawberry jam, cherry drizzle, and frosting were tested. 

Their takeaways? The strongest design used a graham cracker as the foundational ingredient for each layer of the cake. Peanut butter and Nutella excelled as "supporting layers that formed pools" to contain softer ingredients such as banana and jam. 

In essence, the ingredients that formed structures followed similar principles to building architectures; "more structural elements were needed to support softer substrates for a successful multi-ingredient layered print," the release says.

One could say that 3D food printing churns out processed food, but "perhaps the silver lining will be, for some people, better control and tailoring of nutrition-personalized nutrition," said Cooper. " It may also be useful in making food more appealing to those with swallowing disorders by mimicking the shapes of real foods with the pureed texture foods that these patients—millions in the U.S. alone—require," he added.

Laser cooking and 3D food printing could allow chefs to create new food experiences. And because the system employs high-energy targeted light for high-resolution tailored heating, cooking could become more cost-effective and more sustainable.

"The study also highlights that printed food dishes will likely require novel ingredient compositions and structures due to the different way by which the food is "assembled'," said Lipson. "Much work is still needed to collect data, model, and optimize these processes."

Study Abstract:

To date, analog methods of cooking such as by grills, cooktops, stoves and microwaves have remained the world’s predominant cooking modalities. With the continual evolution of digital technologies, however, laser cooking and 3D food printing may present nutritious, convenient and cost-effective cooking opportunities. Food printing is an application of additive manufacturing that utilizes user-generated models to construct 3D shapes from edible food inks and laser cooking uses high-energy targeted light for high-resolution tailored heating. Using software to combine and cook ingredients allows a chef to more easily control the nutrient content of a meal, which could lead to healthier and more customized meals. With more emphasis on food safety following COVID19, food prepared with less human handling may lower the risk of foodborne illness and disease transmission. Digital cooking technologies allow an end consumer to take more control of the macro and micro nutrients that they consume on a per meal basis and due to the rapid growth and potential benefits of 3D technology advancements, a 3D printer may become a staple home and industrial cooking device.

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