3D printed food – just because we can, doesn’t always mean we should

Recent food technologies such as 3D printing have allowed us unprecedented control of flavour, colour, texture and nutritional content of food. Its adoption is evolving rapidly in the restaurant and baking scene and is now expanding into the health and aged care industry. These innovations and technological advancements, however, require us to explore their implications on society and answer important commercial and ethical questions.

What is 3D printed food?

3D printing is a form of additive manufacturing. Initially focusing on plastic polymers for consumer and industrial applications, the focus has shifted to 3D printing of foods. This opens up a great deal of freedom for manufacturers, not only in the shape of the food, but in its composition – nutrients, colour, flavour and texture.

From ‘immunity booster’ and other health type juices and shots, through to whole meal substitutes, there is a trend towards a nutritionally engineered diet.

How is the technology being used and how may this evolve?

Nowadays restaurants exist that offer 3D printed five course meals. It is a step towards the technology no longer being seen as a conceptual, sci-fi pursuit, but potentially a viable future of food. There are two key uses which much of the 3D printing interest has centred around.

Firstly, there is interest from haute cuisine and artistic pastry chefs. The creative freedom afforded by 3D printing means especially creative and elaborate desserts and cakes can be constructed. Chefs at the cutting edge, who experiment with new edibles are interested in the ability to control the colour, flavours and texture of foods humans have not yet eaten for their dishes. Both of these uses centre on the artistic and creative exploration of the technology, to enhance the dining experience.

The second focus has been in a health care context. As an example, Isala Hospital in the Netherlands partners with a food provider to develop 3D printed meals for their aged care patients. Printing of the foods allows for better control of texture and nutritional content, especially important for advanced age patients who may have difficulty chewing and with specific nutritional needs.

It is not hard to imagine the possibilities afforded by 3D printing technologies – ordinary pastas give way to elegantly printed shapes, cake decorations give way to printed cakes whilst meeting the growing trend of personalisation and customisation. Then, the ingredients can be tweaked – add B12, less sodium, substitute with an insect protein. Now, tweak the experience and taste – flavour it to taste like meat, or to my mood. The creative freedom in food composition and precise control of inputs opens a huge number of doors.

The ethical and societal implications

Human nutritional needs have been shaped and met by eating whole, natural foods. These contain trace elements, microbial flora and fauna we are continually discovering the significance of. This limited understanding means we may never be able to engineer a truly perfect food profile and brings with it a risk of specific deficiencies both of known and unknown substances. Research into the influence of intestinal flora has established links to conditions such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, depression and obesity. Probiotics have been successfully cultivated and administered for centuries now, but always in accompaniment with whole and raw food sources. If a large portion of diets were made up by 3D printing, the risk of unknown malnutrition may rise.

Food engineering and 3D printing could also have a profound impact on our meat consumption levels. The technology has the ability to use synthetic animal or insect proteins to create meat without the associated farming. The technology is only in its infancy, and it is not inconceivable that once advanced, could reduce our reliance on animal farming and have positive environmental impacts, as well as offer an ethical alternative to natural meat.

The recent surge in the craft movement across all types of food and drink has prompted the discussion about our cultural relationship with food and the loss of human agency in mass production and consumption. Humans evolved to hunt and collect food as a social activity. In modern times, communal enjoyment of food is still a key part of our culture. Is the automation of our lives for convenience beneficial psychologically? Preparation and sharing of natural foods is so hardwired into us biologically, do we really know what the impact of removing this will have?

There are a number of forces acting on the food industry and the role which technology will play. The prevailing forces, with the most scale and applicability, will impact the lives of humankind on a multiple-times-per-day basis. As technology advancements in 3D printed food and nutrition open up new and exciting doors for us, the ethical trade-offs and choices we need to make will become more complex too. The natural environment, humanist issues, nutritional risks and our very relationship with food are likely to change drastically as we play with the dynamics of this six million year relationship.


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