Restaurant Technology

Today we’re looking at the newest and most controversial technology on the market: 3D food printing

Are you ready for digital cooking? By using three-dimensional food printers (3DFP), technology may soon turn food prep into an automated activity.

Think about the steps to make a pizza. The dough is kneaded, left to rise, and then spun and rolled until the pie crust is the right size and thickness. Tomato sauce is prepared on the stove and then spooned over the dough, then you add toppings.

That a 3DFP can perform this process seems surreal, yet the technology to print pizza does exist. When using a 3DFP, the dough is first printed out to specific measurements. The dough cylinder is exchanged with one containing tomato sauce, and then the same machine prints tomato sauce out on top of the dough. The printers can’t do it all though, cheese and oregano still need a human to add them to the pizza.

It is a science-fiction idea come to life, and confectionery giants like Hershey’s and Nestle are interested in the technology. Someday there may even be 3D-printed pizzas in space.

How does 3D food printing work?

Three-dimensional printing of food works similarly to a regular 3D printer: Materials extrude through a print nozzle onto a surface. So long as the design fits the spatial limitations of the printer—and is within the laws of physics—food can be printed. A designer or chef will first design what he or she wants using a software program; the design is then printed out by the machine. Ready-to-use molds are also available.

Because the food comes through a print head, the ingredients must first be puréed to have the right viscosity and then inserted into syringe-like containers. Due to the limitations of puréeing, certain ingredients get left out of the equation (like steak). Even so, flavor profiles run the gamut: 3D-printed foods can be salty, sweet, or even spicy.

Types of Ingredients Used in 3D-Printed Food:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Doughs and batters
  • Wheat and grains
  • Proteins (like ground insects)
  • Sauces
  • Dairy products
  • Candy
  • Chocolate
  • Sugars
  • Algae

A common question is whether 3D-printed food is safe to eat. Although strange, 3D food is safe when made from fresh, natural ingredients like those you would find in the grocery store.

The Pros of 3D Food Printing

  •   Consistency in quality
  •   Multifunctional machinery for flexibility in food design
  •   Test new food product designs
  •   Create delicate designs with ease

Companies have different visions of 3D food printing. Some, like Foodini and Pancakebot, want to bring the technology to a consumer level. Others consider it to be ideal for mass-market food productions. Once the printed has created a mold and the recipe is determined, 3DFPs can print out food quickly and with less waste.

3D-printed food can be made more nutritious by adding special ingredients to recipes. In connection to this, unusual ingredients that are high in nutrition can convert into 3D-printed ingredients, such as algae, insects, and beet leaves. A great deal of stress is put on the environment by food production, which using such untraditional—but nourishing—ingredients could alleviate.

Another benefit of the technology is helping seniors who have difficulties eating hard vegetables. German company Biozoon Food Innovations is developing special recipes for the niche market using 3DFPs to create food that is softer to chew. The printed food could also be customizable eventually (such as airplane food), a feature that is very expensive to manufacture right now.

The Cons of 3D-Printed Food

As you may have already surmised, the biggest problems producers have with printing food are:

  • Imitating texture
  • Creating presentable dishes
  • Creating great taste
  • Time constraints

The technology’s restraints can make all three difficult to achieve. For instance, all food ingredients must be turned into a paste or melted, limiting what 3D printers can create. Until 3DFPs can print out fragile sugar structures, the texture will always present some issues.

Food printing is also slow. In theory, the right technology would produce food at a much faster rate than what we currently have, yet as it is, the technology is unable to meet fast production times. And time is one thing chefs don’t have.

Purchasing specialized food 3D printers is costly. While foodservice businesses can use regular print nozzles, specialized 3DFPs are better for the needs of major food manufacturers or restaurant kitchens. See how you can budget for a 3D Food Printer with Lavu’s accounting advice.

Although the food is safe to eat, there is a small concern with keeping the machine itself clean and safe for food preparation.

Who are the players?

3D-printed food is already present in the food industry. It’s used by haute cuisine restaurants and molecular kitchens, by confectionery and baked goods manufacturers, and in the specialized market for seniors.

The research and development methods of several innovative companies will determine the future of printing 3D food. Their pursuits are varied, offering a rich scope of possibilities.

NASA Partners with Systems and Materials Research Corporation on Astronauts’ Meals

One problem NASA seeks to solve for Mars missions is how to provide nutritious, quality meals for the astronauts onboard. The Mars missions alone could take one to three years to complete. NASA believes that with a specialized 3D food printer, astronauts can prepare wholesome, and tasty food onboard easily. The agency is working with Systems and Materials Research Corporation to do this. They have already devised a 3D-food-printing system for pizzas, made up of a combination of powders containing essential nutrients.

ChefJet’s Confectionary Creations

The CIA (Culinary Institute of America) began beta testing the use of 3D printers for dining establishments in 2014 in collaboration with ChefJet. As an authority in the foodservice industry, this research shows that professional kitchens are taking 3D food printing seriously.

German Nursing Homes Create SmoothFood

In Germany, nursing homes have created SmoothFood, which is a type of edible glue suited for the elderly. These foods are becoming more popular than ever and are available in over 1,000 locations across Germany.

Supermarket Pancakes in the Netherlands Are from a Food Printer

Microwavable pancakes found in Dutch supermarkets are printed out from food printers. Dutch 3D-food expert Dr. Kjeld van Bommel revealed in an interview at the South Australian Food Summit: “Commercially, you don’t really see a lot of food being printed. However, in the Netherlands, for example, all the pancakes that you find in the supermarkets that you put in your microwave, they’re all printed. It’s not 3D because it is a single layer, so it doesn’t count as 3D. But they come out of a printer, an inkjet printer similar to what you have at home, and they print one million a day of these.”

Dovetailed Has a Method to Print Fruit

Design studio and lab Dovetailed has created a specialized 3DFP aimed at “chefs, foodies, and anyone interested in making creative dining experiences.” Through a unique molecular-gastronomic technique called spherification, individual liquid droplets are combined with different flavors to create fruit in any desired shape.

The marketing for Dovetailed indicates a way to receive fresh fruit on demand, and create new types of fruit with their 3D Food Printing technology.

Insects Au Gratin Turns Beetles into Flour

Insects Au Gratin is an innovative project helmed by Susana Soares that combines the nutritional benefits of eating insects with 3D food printing. It’s common knowledge that insects such as grasshoppers provide high levels of protein, but entomophagy has never taken off as a popular diet. Insects Au Gratin grinds insects into a protein-rich flour to print out healthy and nutritious bread.

Natural Machines Attempts to Print Healthy Foods

Except for Biozoon, which makes healthy senior food alternatives, the majority of printed foods tend to be on the sweet, sugary side of the food spectrum. Natural Machines want not only to bring 3D food printing into home kitchens but to provide healthy, green foods too.

Their concept is out of this world: A flour is made with fruits, vegetables, and gelatinous paste and then printed out into a biscuit. On top of the biscuit, there is a second printed layer, consisting of seeds, spores, and yeast. After waiting five days, you will find that greens are sprouting from the biscuit. You can eat the entire finished product. The company claims that if you give the item more time to grow, the taste will become further enhanced, turning the food into a more delicious dish.

PixSweet Makes Customizable Frozen Ice Desserts on a Stick

Dutch company PixSweet uses lemonade as its base to create fun, and tasty ice pops. Using a specialized 3DFP, they can print out almost any shape or form. Melt Icepops are available for bespoke customizations and events, and now they are easy to mass-produce.

For more on restaurant tech, check out our article on Tech Terms You Need to Know.