Would you eat ‘printed’ food?

(07 /10 /2014)

Feel like some creamy pasta or how about some crunchy fries?  Why don’t you print it?  It’s no longer in the realm of “Star Trek” and science fiction novels; you can, in fact, print your food using one of those fancy 3D printers that are currently being used in the manufacturing space.  You do need to have a little bit of money of course if you want to purchase one, but some technologists are saying it won’t be long before every home has one.

But before we consider the pros and cons for the hospitality industry and humankind in general, here’s a quick technology lesson about 3D printing of food.  Basically, the food is printed in layers using pureed food ingredients as the ink.  And like any other 2D printer, you can print the ink in any shape you desire; it’s the layers that enable the shape to be 3D.  Remember that episode of Grey’s Anatomy where they printed a heart?  That was a pretty true rendition of how the technology works.  In the food space however, the software can give the pureed food texture; for example, you might want your potatoes in cubes but with the texture of roasted potatoes, while the shape of what you print is really only limited by the imagine.

So why would we want to print food for consumption rather than eat naturally grown and harvested foods?  Surely an apple picked from the tree is better than one printed from pureed apple?  Surprisingly, there are a number of very good reasons.  In Germany, a company is using 3D printers to print foods for nursing homes, particularly for elderly residents who are only able to eat pureed foods.  The printers allow the purees to be presented much more attractively and creatively while the “ink” can be made with the necessary nutrients, vitamins and flavours.  No more pureed steaks so-to-speak!  The technology is also being combined with “smart plates”- plates which contain a QR code detailing food requirements that can be scanned enabling an efficient ordering process.  And another area where the technology has applications is in sustainable, eco-friendly food production.  Instead of using intensive farming food products like beef, food environmentalists are looking at using leaves of trees or plants that are in abundance or insects or algae proteins for example, which can be given different flavours, textures and shapes making them a more attractive food option.  In fact, 3D printing of food has been touted as a possible method for reducing starvation across the world in the future.  The military are also looking at the technology for the production of ration packs or printing of on-the-move food using ingredients foraged from where they might be situated.

But let’s get back to hospitality and what 3D food printing could mean for food businesses.   The technology is really aimed at chefs or foodies who are interested in creative dining experiences.  Weird and wonderful shapes can be more easily and quickly created than what could be done by a chef.  Combine this with other quirky food processes – think Heston Blumenthal – and quite a unique food experience can be presented to the consumer.  But will 3D printing have an overall impact on hospitality?  In the short-term, probably not; at a cost of $5,000 – $10,000 per printer, it is more likely to be a novelty and restaurants or cafes that employ this technology, will need to promote 3D food as part of the dining experience.  In the future though, when we do need to think more about sustainable food production and the impact the hospitality industry has on the environment, it could be something to think about…“beam me up, Scotty”!


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