Is 3D printing the future of food manufacturing?

Kerry Voellner

28th February 2017

3D printing has taken the world by storm. Many industries have benefited from using 3D technologies including automotive, aerospace, construction, defence and some consumer products.

The food industries, you would be forgiven for not necessarily associating with 3D printing, although they are always at the forefront of emerging technologies. However, some food companies are starting to look at 3D printing and the value it could potentially bring.

3D food printing has advanced in recent years. Its uses are set to expand further as food manufacturers allow their designers to combine their current knowledge with 3D design, as they experiment with edible textures and shapes that were previously thought too intricate to be created by the human hand or traditional machinery.

What are the benefits?

3D printing does have some major benefits. According to 3D Printing Industry News, it’s environmentally friendly, as proteins can be derived from insect and algae and converted into edible food.
It is also believed that 3D printed food could be a major solution to the global food crisis. Extreme weather conditions combined with lack of resources and arable land have contributed to extreme under-nourishment.

A recent article in Eurasia Review, proposes the potentials of 3D printing as a solution to providing nutrition in countries where climate change and natural disasters have wreaked havoc, resulting in severe food shortages, leading to chronic malnutrition. Countries that would benefit from 3D printed food would include Laos, the Philippines and Cambodia.

How does it work?

3D printing technology, also known as AM (additive manufacturing), is achieved by adding successive layers of material, until the desired object is produced.

The process starts with a digital file, and the printing results in a 3 dimensional object.

The layers are exceptionally thin and when placed on top of one another in large volumes, forms the 3D shape.

The 3D food printer works similar to a regular 3D printer. Material is squeezed through the printer head onto a surface. As long as the food doesn’t go beyond the limitations of the printer, any shape or sized food can be printed.

However, 3D printed food does differ from traditional, plastic printing due to the fact that the food has to have a certain type of viscosity (a measure of liquid thickness, for example, honey has higher viscosity than water) and needs to run through a syringe-type instrument to be expelled

Is it safe?

It sure is. The only difference with 3D printed food is that it is processed differently by the extrusion of the food (which is natural ingredients) passing through the nozzle onto the surface of the (food-safe) printer.

How does it taste?

With the printers using fresh ingredients, the food will taste just as good as ‘normal’ food. However, as it has been passed through a ‘syringe-type’ instrument, the texture is different.

How is it currently being put into practice?

German-based, Biozoon Food Innovations are already using 3D printing to produce more enjoyable meals for pensioners who need to eat a pureed diet. Fresh ingredients, such as vegetables and chicken are broken down and and printed into the same shape as the original ingredient, forming its three-dimensional shape. However, it will have a softer texture, allowing for the food to be enjoyed as ‘food’ rather than a paste-type substance, but soft enough for their dietary needs.

Restaurants are also taking advantage of 3D printed foods, saving time and money on labour costs.

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