There's no question that humanity is going to have to rely on the food industry to continue to come up with new ways of feeding the world's growing population. From increasing agricultural efficiency to finding different ways of achieving the same nutritional goals, the need for innovation is critical and ever increasing.
But this year, we may have seen the advent of what may end up being the most promising new food technology in human history: 3D food printing. And already, the technology is changing the way food producers and food entrepreneurs are thinking about business.
Straight out of Star Trek?
For science fiction fans, the 3D food printer is a familiar concept, although few of us may have thought we'd live to see something like it in our lifetime. For those not familiar with the protein re-sequencer (a.k.a. "food replicator"), the chance to eat a piece of cheesecake materialized out of seeming thin air may be a heretofore unimaginable, but near-term reality.
Are we there yet? No. We're not quite to the one-in-every-room stage. But they can print tasty pastry. And the connection to space exploration is all too real.
Is there pizza on Mars?
It would have made for an odd David Bowie title, but the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is hoping to make it a reality on future Orion missions to the Red Planet. Last year, the space exploration agency contracted with Systems and Materials Research Corporation (SMRC) to develop a small 3D printer that could be installed and used in space vehicles, where space and weight requirements are tight.
Anjan Contractor, the aptly-named senior engineer for the SMRC project, received a $125,000 grant to make his food printer an extraterrestrial reality. He has printed chocolate in the past; now, he is focused on pizza. Contractor's printer relies on nutrients — carbohydrates, proteins and essential vitamins and minerals — rendered down to powdered form and stored in cartridges, which would afford them 15 years of shelf life.
"The system will start by 'printing' a sheet of dough, followed by a layer of tomato 'sauce,' which will consist of the powder mixed with water and oil," reported Space.com's also aptly-named Denise Chow.
"Instead of traditional toppings, the 3D-printed pizza will be finished off with a layer of protein, which can be derived from animals, milk or plants."
There has been as-yet no word on whether NASA plans to institute a 30-minute-guaranteed-delivery-or-it's-free policy for customers ordering from our next-door solar neighbor (we'll have to wait and see if they can figure out warp drive first). Regardless, we certainly hope NASA names its signature, printed pizza sauce the Valles "Marinara"s.
3D food printing isn't just about boldly going. It's also about boldly presenting.
Food printing is unquestionably intriguing for its ability to solve food production shortages and food portability challenges. But it also offers chefs and food entrepreneurs increased capacity for experimenting with presentation and on-the-plate artistry.
Take, for example, the Choc Creator, from Choc Edge. Available for the not-so-low price of 3,200 pounds sterling (that's a little over 5,000 Yankee greenbacks, at publishing time), the Choc Creator can be used by culinary professionals or ridiculously-serious-about-sweetcraft home users to print amazing, edible, cocoa-tastic art.
The Choc Creator's maximum line print volume is 175 mm x 150 mm x 35 mm, but it can print 2,000 mm per minute and can translate standard STL files directly into CNC machining language. It runs on an easy-to-use, intuitive software platform that ensures simplicity of set up and smooth operation by kitchen staff.
Food printing may also help to alleviate feeding difficulties.
Some people— such as patients with dysphagia, or denture-wearing senior citizens— have difficulty chewing or swallowing solid foods. This can take the joy out of the dining experience and decrease a person's quality of life.
3D food printing may offer an appetizing solution. A German company, Biozoon, has developed a 3D food printer called Softfood, which is specifically designed to meet this challenge.
Softfood prints out "melt-in-your-mouth food," reported The Wire's Polly Mosendz, using standard ingredients that have been puréed and bound with a proprietary, safe-to-eat binding agent. The result, she said, "looks like food, tastes like food, but has the consistency of purée [which] prevents residents from choking."
Moreover, the machine can make the printed purée look like the non-puréed version.
"The food purée is injected into the printer as 'ink,' and out comes the final product. The printer is controlled by software that determines the shape and you can set the shape to match the food," Mosendz wrote. For example, "carrot purée is printed in the shape of diced carrots."
The machine can also be programmed to produce food in whimsical shapes, such as dinosaurs, which can be swallowed without the need for chewing. Biozoon is targeting a 2016 release date for the Softfood, and denture wearers the world over are chomping at the bit.
3D printing is an amazingly versatile new food technology.
There are many potential uses for it. As the technology becomes cheaper, it could find its way into the standard restaurant kitchen, or eventually, to most home counters. In the meantime, we're eager to see what new food innovations the world will see in 2015.