Print your cake and eat it too

How the 3-D food printing industry is going pro and planting seeds in multiple economies

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Courtesy of Thomas Vaccaro

Electronic devices do everything for us; smart phones comb over the world’s news to deliver us personalized feeds and we can connect with friends instantaneously using watches. Now, engineers are building printers capable of replicating mom’s homemade recipes.

These programmable appliances, supported by investors like NASA and Dutch research company TNO, are able to fabricate meals to an operator’s content in shapes and textures not achievable by hand using two basic functions: a digital interface (often connected to the Internet) and a mechanized extrusion system (e.g., syringebased) that manipulates food. Developers around the world began experimenting with edible printing materials, like sugars and purées, after patents for more advanced 3-D printing technology expired last February. While the concept of printing food is materializing internationally, the industry is still in its early stages. And the Culinary Institute of America, NASA and start-ups around the world are testing the waters.

The Culinary Institute is introducing food printing to students with the help of digital design company 3D Systems, who developed a professional confectionary 3-D printer by harnessing the methods practiced by Los Angeles’ made-to-order 3-D bakeshop, The Sugar Lab. The printer, ChefJet Pro, is capable of creating bite-sized candies and sugary décor like cake toppers at high speeds. In January, 3D Systems began working with the Culinary Institute to introduce the ChefJet Pro to upcoming chefs.

The machine can synthesize 8-by-8- by-8-inch dessert accompaniments in any color using open-source computer aided design (CAD) software, which acts like a chef ’s drawing board, says Thomas Vaccaro, the Culinary Institute’s dean of baking and pastry arts.

“The [ChefJet Pro] allows the chef to get a printed outcome of, really, whatever they wanna design…” Vaccaro says. “We’re not saying we’re replacing everything we’re doing by hand. … We’re looking to elevate that.”

Recipes can be filed and manipulated in the printer’s open-source “digital cookbook,” according to a Culinary Institute press release. The Culinary Institute opened a 3-D food printing lab at their headquarters in Hyde Park, New York two months ago to let students experiment using the technology, Vaccaro says. 3D System’s CocoJet, a 3-D chocolate printer, will also be introduced to the lab.

“Student reaction up to now has been very positive,” he adds.

The institute will offer a fellowship program in the baking and pastry department for graduates who want to work in the printing lab and printing classes will be incorporated into the curriculum by next year, he says.

Vaccaro sees big changes in the culinary industry’s future as 3-D printing comes full circle — enabling Culinary Institute students to tailor everything from wedding cakes to silverware to a sous chef’s liking, he says.

But not all molecular gastronomists think these food synthesizers should become a part of every restaurant’s repertoire. Homaro Cantu, former owner of the Michelin-starred restaurant Moto, used robotic lasers to customize food for patrons and even retrofitted a Canon i560 inkjet printer to print 2-D sushi. He served organic, lowprocessed foods grown in Moto’s indoor farm, and encouraged chefs and families to do the same.

“I don’t see how [3-D food printing] makes our food better,” Cantu wrote in an article for Crain’s Chicago Business. “Better food exists when we handle it less and bring it, as close as possible to its purest form, to the dinner table.”

Nonetheless, Cantu did support the idea of food printers in space — a possibility NASA is exploring. That’s because meals ready-to-eat (MREs) consumed by astronauts and military personnel aren’t the healthiest; prepared foods lose micronutrients like vitamin C and omega-3 fatty acids immediately upon packaging, says design group System and Materials Research Corporation’s (SMRC) director of research David Irvin. In 2012, NASA granted SMRC $125,000 to construct a 3-D food printer capable of delivering astronauts proper nutrients in foods that produce less waste on flights spanning several years, like a trip to Mars. The group is able to adjust the levels of micronutrients in personalized printed dishes as missions progress to meet astronauts’ dietary needs, Irvin says.

“It’s a good morale booster for the astronauts to have … a freshly cooked kind of meal after awhile,” Irvin says.

The printer, using the open-source 3-D printing software RepRap, mixes powdered foodstuffs containing macronutrients like proteins and fats with water or oil to a desired texture, while adding separately stored micronutrients and flavors into the emulsion. Food prints are created through a process called additive manufacturing: Emulsions are sprayed from the printer onto a heated plate one layer at a time, like a pizza. And in 2013, SMRC programmed their first prototype to bake just that.

“This will eventually lead itself into the medical field,” Irvin says, “controlling the micronutrition of … either patients in hospitals or … elder care facilities.”

And applications could extend even further. Food printing enthusiasts claim such machines could provide underdeveloped communities with a stable, affordable source of food and personalize nutritional content according to a user’s medical needs. TNO claims printed foods could be made with lesser-known sustainable ingredients like lupine seeds and mealworms, too.

So, when will a food printer appear in family kitchens? The start-up Natural Machines, birthed in Spain, will be releasing an early version of their 3-D printer, Foodini, later this year and plans to mass market to everyone from homemakers to pâtisseries by 2016. Instead of relying on a CAD program, Foodini allows users to upload and download recipes to the machine’s online network from any device, says CEO and founder Lynette Kucsma.

“A 3-D food printer is … actually like having a mini food manufacturing plant … in your kitchen…,” says Kucsma. “Longer term, it can be used in many different ways and solve many different issues.”

The first international 3-D food printing conference was held in the Netherlands in April, where research groups and business leaders deliberated the future of this novel effort and the promises it holds for advancing cuisine.

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