The New Homegrown

3-D Printed Food

by Emily Portman

3-D Printed Food

Alli Berry

The British rarely get credited for innovations with food. But in a 1931 Strand Magazine essay entitled “Fifty Years Hence” Winston Churchill argued that our methods of food production were highly wasteful. The solution Synthetic meat. “We shall escape the absurdity of growing a whole chicken in order to eat the breast or wing, by growing these parts separately under a suitable medium… The new foods will from the outset be practically indistinguishable from the natural products, and any changes will be so gradual as to escape observation.”

Over eighty years later, Modern Meadow, an American company, is intent upon making Churchill’s idea a reality by developing a process to 3-D print meat. It’s not quite as futuristic as it sounds—but it’s close.

In it’s simplest form, 3-D printing is a question of manufacturing. Most products that we come into contact with on a daily basis fall under the heading of subtractive manufacturing—beginning with a basic material and whittling it down to its final product. (Consider a block of wood shaped into a chair leg, or a piece of marble formed into a sink.) Conversely, 3-D printing falls under the banner of additive manufacturing, a process that builds up a product from its raw material. Traditionally used by engineering and aerospace firms, 3-D printing allows the manufacturer to create a product (say, a spoon or an iPhone case—heck, anything really) by printing its material in two-dimensional layers that build into a three-dimensional object. 3-D designs are created in Computer-aided Design (CAD) programs (many of which are free) and uploaded to the 3-D printer.

“With 3-D printing, you get a couple of unique benefits,” explained Jon Schwartz, product manager at Makerbot, one of the industry leaders in personal 3-D printers. “One is that you can make incredibly complex objects… things you would not be able to manufacture any other way.” But, most importantly, customizations can be added to basic products and shapes without the price increasing. He gives the example of the family dentist: “It would cost him no more to print out 50 different crowns for 50 different teeth than it would to print one crown 50 different times.”

According to Wired, the 3-D printing market grew nearly 30 percent from 2011 to 2012—$1.7 billion to $2.2 billion—and growth is expected to continue at a comparable rate. Thus far, the majority of printed material has been plastic, but with the recent surge of interest in the technology, there’s been experimentation with metal, wood, cement—and, yes, food.

When I met Chris Conners, the Computer Arts teacher at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS), the first thing he did was proudly hand me a Tupperware container. I opened it, and pulled out a sugar cookie in the shape of Martha’s Vineyard—ponds, inlets, and all. Chris explained that the cookies were the result of a collaboration between the high school’s technology department and its culinary program. Chris 3-D printed the cookie cutters, and students in the culinary arts program at MVRHS have been using them to make tiny, edible replicas of the Island.

Chris is interested in emerging technologies and has kick-started the interest among his high school students, and the students of his ACE class on 3-D design, “Design For Fabrication.” The high school now has its own 3-D printer, and his students have been experimenting with 3-D printing all kinds of objects (an electric toy car and camera mounts, to name a few). So far, the experiments have been relegated to the non-edible variety. But what if, instead of printing the cookie cutter, Chris was able to print the actual cookie?

It turns out that 3-D printing the cookie wouldn’t be too complicated, at least the way Hod Lipson, head of the Cornell Creative Machines Lab in Ithaca, NY, explained it. Cornell built its first 3-D food printer in 2005, and has been experimenting with all kinds of food mediums since then: chocolate, cookie dough, sugar. Aside from printing fried dough in just about every shape imaginable, Hod’s team has been able to print text inside a cookie, a topographic map of Italy in pizza form, and even space shuttle-shaped scallop nuggets.

In many ways, the reflection of 3-D printing in food will be very similar to the intersection of food and science that molecular gastronomy has pursued: challenging our notions of culinary convention. Ferran Adrià, a world-renowned chef who likes to play with his food, has successfully experimented to yield creations like passion fruit caviar and Parmesan marshmallows. In this same way, printing has the ability to manipulate texture, taste and geometry, although it can also act as a conduit for creating familiar products. (In case olive oil foam isn’t your thing.) Hod emphasized that with a 3-D printer, no ingredients are being altered at an atomic level. “A printer doesn’t create food material,” he said. “What you get is what you put in, and the printer will shape it into new things.”

Natural Machines is a new company that, like Hod, is trying to overcome the “Frankenfood” perception of 3-D printed food with their new food printer, the Foodini. The philosophy behind the Foodini is rooted in promoting whole ingredients, while simplifying labor-intensive food projects. Most importantly, the machine seeks to reconnect people to their food by encouraging ambitious cooking projects. So, in the case of ravioli, you could prepare the dough and fillings from your own pantry ingredients; the filling would likely involve puréeing whole vegetables, herbs, and cheeses, and placing each processed ingredient in a separate extruder. Once the dough and the fillings had been loaded into the machine, the Foodini would print the ravioli on its own—freeing you up to prepare a sauce, set the table, pour the wine, or (no judgments here), just take a nap.

Most companies experimenting with 3-D printing food are still in the research and development stage, but some companies are already putting products on the market. The Sugarlab is a small company that primarily deals with intricate sugar sculptures. Architecturally inspired, their cake toppers and stands look more like they belong in a museum exhibit than temporarily displayed on a wedding cake. And Barilla is working with the Dutch technology company, TNO, to make it possible for restaurant customers to enjoy custom-printed pasta shapes. As the industry steadily moves into the commercial food sphere—with the promise of all of the heart-shaped pasta you can eat—it’s not hard to imagine 3-D printed food becoming more than just a niche affair.

At this stage in the game 3-D printing can come off a little bit nerdy and a lot superfluous. While it sounds like a blast to print out homemade broccoli nuggets in the shape of farm animals—and it might even encourage healthy eating—we’re not exactly saving the planet here. At least, we aren’t yet.

For a place like the Vineyard, with such a rich local farming scene, my initial reaction was that farming and 3-D printing are fundamentally at odds with one another. But the reality of the burgeoning local foods scene might actually indicate the opposite. Although the Vineyard has over 40 farms to date and increasingly more people interested in taking the reins of a farming lifestyle, farming can be an extremely difficult financial undertaking. Even with the growing popularity of farm-to-table eating, the USDA estimates that 90 percent of farms in the U.S. are classified as small farms, bringing in less than $250,000 of annual income; and 60 percent of small farms bring in less than $10,000 annually. It may seems like a stretch now, but 3-D printing has the potential to reinforce local food chains by cutting down on distribution distances, encouraging the use of local products, and providing financial stability for farmers.

As it stands now, the options for free-range, organic meat options on-Island are unparalleled. But even if all the meat produced here was sold only to residents, there wouldn’t be enough supply to meet the total demand. Modern Meadow, Churchill’s unlikely brainchild, operates under the philosophy that current levels of livestock production are unsustainable economically, environmentally, and physically. They’re exploring ways to grow meat cells, and 3-D print them into high-demand consumer products: hamburgers, sausages, and steaks. The key ingredient is cells from living animals, and Andras Forgacs, the company’s founder, hopes the technology will enable the production of grass-fed, free-range, and organic meat in greater quantities than are currently possible. If current livestock populations on-Island worked in conjunction with a company like Modern Meadow, the two systems could feed off each other, making quality, local meat plentiful and affordable, and potentially eliminating the need to bring in meat from off-Island.

And Modern Meadow emphasized that this new system will not operate behind closed doors. Much in the same way that microbreweries provide a public space for people to visit, view the process, and taste the efforts, Forgacs imagines that there would be a similar place for a meat-printing facility, creating a transparent process that the community could be actively involved with and learn from.

3-D printers could also provide a way to create value-added products for farmers, while simultaneously cutting down on handling time. Value-added goods can double, or even triple the price of certain raw ingredients (and make use of slightly damaged crops), and, if a 3-D printer was able to handle the bulk of processing, the input would be very minimal for a large return. Whether it was in personal homes, or for public use in a community kitchen, 3-D printers could drastically improve commercial opportunities for farmers.

It may still sound utopic (or dystopic, depending on how you’re thinking about it), but the 3-D food-printing industry’s growing pace suggests it isn’t just a fleeting trend. It’s hard to make definitive claims about the direction the technology is moving in: Personal printers are just beginning to reach the markets, and they’re still quite expensive. However, instigating an early public discourse around this emerging technology will help ensure that the interests of the local food culture are considered. Like with all emerging markets, the more knowledge we have about 3-D printing as consumers, the greater influence we’ll be able to have in the direction the technology takes. If nothing else, we may just see a whole lot more homemade ravioli. And that wouldn’t be so bad, either.