The first 3D printer came about in the 1980’s for the sole purpose of creating prototypes more efficiently. In the past decade, 3D printers have become a serious contender for commercial use. We have been trying to 3D print everything from building blocks for construction, to highly customizable retail products, and even to our food.

So far, 3D printing technology in food is still limited, but future possibilities are exciting: Altering molecules to customize nutrients in a recipe, creating fresh and more palatable space food, even building Star Trek-esque food vending machines that can print customized meals. Many are of the opinion that 3D printers have the potential to disrupt the food industry and challenge traditional food consumption habits. A quick search for “3D food printers” reveals a few developments that will soon become available to the public.

Pilcrow Shoe Burger

1) TNO and Barilla have partnered up to create a pasta printer, first showcased at EXPO2015. This pasta printer uses classical, additive-free pasta recipes to build unique pasta shapes that cannot be made through traditional methods.

2) Foodini is a versatile food printer that aims to become the next-generation kitchen appliance with the ability to create any sweet or savory dish.

3) Bocusini is a Wifi food printer campaigning on Kickstarter that uses prefilled, natural food-based cartridges — designed by food scientists and chefs — to print patterns designed on an accompanying web interface.

Implications for the Future

Current obstacles aside, adopting 3D printed food into our regular eating habits may have some very positive implications for the future of world nutrition and our environment. The fact that 3D printing is an additive process instead of a subtractive one means that nothing gets thrown away; dishes are created using only what is needed. According to UNEP, citing a study called Food Wastage Footprint: Impacts on Natural Resources, the amount of food wasted annually adds “3.3 billion tonnes of greenhouses gases to the planet’s atmosphere,” and uses up “a volume of water equivalent to the annual flow of Russia’s Volga River.” In reducing the amount of food waste through the use of 3D printing, we may be taking a big step towards controlling global warming and a more sustainable society.

With the advent of such detailed food customizations, food scientists are already looking into tailored nutrition in our daily meals.

With less food waste, does that also mean more food for the poor? Could 3D printing be a solution to curing world hunger? According to Anjan Contractor, in his interview with Quartz, we’ll need to reconsider our definition of food if we want to feed a future population of 12 billion people. Of the many potential innovations possible with 3D printing technology, Contractor is currently exploring an idea that may, one day, lead to our ability to create customized and nutritious meals purely from a combination of food powders and oils. He envisions a world where food powders can be purchased at any corner store, much like ink cartridges. These powders, dry and sealed, will have a long shelf life (up to 30 years), and so will not need to be replaced until they are completely used up.

Pilcrow Moleculaire

With the advent of such detailed food customizations, food scientists are already looking into tailored nutrition in our daily meals. And robotics engineers, like Hop Lipson, are working towards the realization of a time when we’ll be able to get our 3D printer to print meals with the exact combination of vitamins, fats, etc. required by our bodies. Undoubtedly, the ability to obtain exactly the right balance of nutrients needed by our bodies will help fight malnutrition and many chronic diet-related diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. We may even be able to fulfill our nutritional needs from more sustainable, though not necessarily mouth-watering, substitutes (i.e. protein from insects) — packaged by a 3D printer into delicious, eye-pleasing meals.

Road to Sustainable Living

Development of 3D printing technology is slow going, but its disruptive potential is vast and seemingly only limited by the imagination. With the world population expected to reach 8–10 billion by 2050 and life expectancy increasing with each generation, 3D printed food may be the key to lessening our demands on the earth and creating a more sustainable way of living.