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3D-printed cuisine

Scientists have developed the technology to 3D print and cook food

Jonathan Blutinger alongside his digital chef. Photo by Jonathan Blutinger

3D-printed cuisine
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The joy of cooking looks a little different at Columbia University’s Creative Machines Lab, where researchers first 3D printed food in 2007. Now scientists have broken new ground by creating the first technology to simultaneously 3D print and cook food, according to a recent paper published in npj Science of Food.

3D food printing is an automated process in which food paste is squeezed through a nozzle and deposited layer by layer. Paste materials include doughs, cheeses, mashes, raw meats, frostings, and melted chocolate. “It’s similar to when you’re frosting a cake, when you use the frosting gun and you’re manually depositing it to write out words or decorations,” explained Jonathan Blutinger, the lead author of the article.

“Take that same principle, except you’re having a machine do that. Not just with frosting, but with a bunch of different ingredients. So you’re creating foods from the ground up.” The printer is directed by a digital blueprint created by computer-aided design (CAD) software. Blueprint options are seemingly endless. You could print your face in chocolate, design a hamburger in the shape of a shoe, or create pasta that blooms into a rose when placed in boiling water.

By combining the Creative Machines Lab’s 3D printer with blue and near-infrared lasers, Blutinger and colleagues successfully cooked 3D-printed chicken breast. The researchers used a food processor to blend the chicken into a consistent paste before feeding it into the 3D printer’s nozzle. They were pleasantly surprised to find that cooking the chicken helped it to regain its original texture.

Compared to conventional range-cooked chicken, the laser-cooked chicken retained double the moisture content and shrank 50 percent less. The lasers’ millimeter-scale precision allows for more controlled heating. Whereas range cooking provides uniform heating, laser beam wavelength and scanning patterns can be altered to achieve variable heating at different depths. This means lasers can simultaneously provide surface browning and penetrative cooking without overcooking.

Blutinger compares the on-demand customization of laser-cooked 3D-printed food to that of ride-sharing apps such as Uber. “When you can control things using software, you can be much more precise in how you deposit certain nutrients, certain flavor profiles,” he said. “So you can customize it on a per-person basis a lot more easily.” One commercial application he envisions is syncing the food printer with your Fitbit or smartwatch. The printer could cook up a meal tailored to contain the exact nutrients and calories lost during a workout.

The technology for 3D printing food still has a few kinks to work out. While a handful of companies sell 3D food printers for at-home use, they are expensive: Natural Machines’ Foodini, which can print a variety of food types, costs $4,000. FoodBot’s S2, advertised as a chocolate 3D printer, runs to about $2,500. Blutinger pointed out that the cost of the most expensive component, the laser, can be driven down with increased supply. “When Blu-ray Discs became a lot more prevalent, the price of blue lasers went down significantly just because there was a lot more supply,” he explained.

Currently 3D food printers also lack the resources needed to make them fun and easy to use. He believes adopting a model like that of meal kit companies such as Blue Apron would make 3D printers more accessible to the everyday cook. He imagines subscribers would receive recipes with prefilled food cartridges and access to a digital recipe database. The 3D food printer without these resources, he says, is “like having an iPod without music.”

Blutinger remains optimistic about the future of 3D-printed foods. His team is now assessing the nutritional value of laser-cooked 3D-printed foods. If the lasers don’t zap key nutrients, the dual technology could help design meals for special diets and make soft foods more palatable to hospital patients.

Heather Frank

Heather is a science correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute, the University of Maryland, and Carnegie Mellon University. She has worked in both food and chemical product development, and currently works as a research chemist. Heather resides with her family in Pittsburgh, Pa.


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