How complicated is printing 3D food? We have the answers

IE organized a Reddit Ask Me Anything with Dr. Jonathan Blutinger, a postdoctoral researcher in the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University.
Deena Theresa
A close up shot of a 3D printer recreating a piece of meat.
Conceptual image of 3D printed meat.

Zinkevych/iStock 

On August 29, 2022, Interesting Engineering covered 3D food printing as an opportunity for personalized nutrition or simply customized food design. One of our primary sources was Dr. Jonathan Blutinger, a postdoctoral researcher in the Creative Machines Lab at Columbia University, where he tinkers with digital cooking techniques using food printers and lasers. Last week, IE organized a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) with Blutinger. The session was a huge hit, with more than 100 Redditors picking Blutinger's brain about the hows of 3D-printed food.

The AMA has only increased our perception of the revolutionary technique, revealing interesting insights. For example, did you know that the hardest ingredient by far to print is marshmallow fluff? Turns out its elastic nature destroys the nozzles.

Here are a few other things we learned.

1. Anything that can be turned into a paste can be printed

That's right. Several Redditors were curious about the materials that Blutinger used to print food. "We print and cook with the same ingredients that you would normally cook in your kitchen. We're not synthesizing ingredients from scratch in our lab or coming up with new concoctions for chicken or anything," Blutinger answered.

Last year, Blutinger and the team experimented with lasers and printed chicken samples, assessing moisture retention, color development, cooking depth, and flavor differences between laser-cooked and stove-cooked meat. For this, all the team did was buy raw chicken breast from the grocery store, puree it in a food processor, and pack it into a syringe within the machine. "Any ground products you find at the grocery store (i.e. ground beef, ground chicken) are ready for printing because they have literally been printed before (out of a meat grinder, which is more like just extrusion)," he said.

Occasionally, the team uses guar gum as a binder for very thin ingredients like pureed vegetables. Guar gum is a natural thickener derived from legumes, "which you'll be surprised to find in a lot of the foods you eat", Blutinger wrote.

2. Printable food could be as healthy as real food

One of the Redditors had a valid doubt - if the 3D-printed plastic introduced contaminants into the food and whether it fell into the dynamic of 'highly processed food'. To this, Blutinger said that the word 'printing' does indeed create "associations with industrial materials like plastic". Instead, he asks us to think of the method as an assembly process of food pastes.

"The only "processing" that's happening is that it's being re-shaped into some 3D shape based on some user-specified design. All ingredients are purchased from the grocery store and we don't add anything to them to make them "printable" we just blend them into the paste at most," assured Blutinger.

3. Cross-contamination between prints can be a problem

One of our first questions in the AMA tackled the issue of cross-contamination. Blutinger agreed that it was "definitely a concern for multi-ingredient prints involving meat products in particular". But this is where laser cooking helps. "We can achieve food-safe cooking temperatures with chicken, which should also extend to other meats so we can print and cook in tandem to minimize bacteria formation," responded Blutinger.

His team is using lasers for cooking at the moment and "they have a penetration depth on the order of millimeters so the intent is to print.. cook.. print.. cook.. until you have a fully-cooked product throughout," said Blutinger.

4. The internal mechanics of a 3D printer is fairly simple, for now

How do 3D printers know what to create? At its base level, the machine is controlled by motors and belts which move around in a coordinated fashion dictated by a design file that’s created by a user, explained Blutinger. "You will basically start by designing food in some sort of modeling software, and then it will be passed to another piece of software that will create the “digital recipe“ that the machine then uses to move around and deposit ingredients accordingly," he said. The postdoc added that the machine is "very dumb" for now, but they are using it to deposit ingredients.

5. We do have normal cooking techniques, coupled with advanced and sophisticated cookware. What does 3D printing truly offer?

Cooking is undoubtedly an age-old tradition, but our methods haven't had any significant changes since the beginning. "We've been cooking like cavemen with a flame for thousands of years so we see this as a way to infuse software into our cooking, and once you do that you open up the door to so many possibilities," Blutinger wrote. It's less about problem-solving, and more about creating new opportunities.

And, "because we are using software to drive the process, we can dial in macro-- and micro-nutrient values on a per-person basis and selectively cook items to the exact temperatures required with a laser," he said.

And if everything goes well, we could have a 3D food printer in our houses, within the next 10 years.

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