Oct. 6, 2014 | By Alec

'Hungry? Why not print yourself a nice meal?'

That is what forms the basis of one the biggest challenges in the world of 3D printing technology. Is it possible to develop a desktop (well, kitchen top) 3D printer that is capable of printing diverse, edible, affordable and even tasty meals? It would not only reach a new level of convenience, but it would also be a wonderful solution to paradox that is the combination of world food shortages and the wasteful consumer market prevailing throughout the west. (And, of course, it would also allow 3D printing to reach the minds and wallets of the complete consumer market, rather than just a segment of it.)

Therefore, a number of companies have been doing wonderful work in developing the necessary technology to 3D print wholesome, edible, tasty and long-lasting meals. And while some wonderfully innovative initiatives have been made, all of them are currently falling woefully short of the ideal 3D printer. Especially the cooking phase remains problematic for many projects, while most are limited to just a handful of ingredients like sugar or chocolate. We recently reported on the intriguing F3D Printer, that is capable of combining and baking 3 ingredients to make an edible pizza, but while impressive it is not exactly healthy or diverse. Meanwhile, the Foodini initiative is promising, but still a long way away.

All this makes the Edible Growth project, by the young but very talented Dutch industrial designer Chloé Rutzerveld, extremely interesting. Throughout 2014, she worked on a 3D food printing project that turned all questions and assumptions upside down. Rather than asking herself, 'what food can be printed with available technology?', her starting point was entirely natural, healthy, nutritious food that provides everything (or most) of what the body needs. Can this be created using additive manufacturing without being absolutely artificial or unnatural and, crucially, be tasty and inviting as well?

Rather than convenience, health and nature are thus key in the Edible Growth project, which really lets you think differently about 3D food printing. While the project has not yet moved beyond the research & development stages due to technological and monetary constraints, this alone is makes it a very intriguing concept that is definitely worth checking out. Perhaps the real future of 3D food printing can be found in it.

As Rutzerveld explained to 3ders.org, 'The concept of Edible Growth shows that we can create healthy, natural and sustainable food when combining science – design – technology and food. People always think that food coming from the lab, or from factories is unnatural, not tasteful and unhealthy, which does not have to be the case! Edible Growth shows real growth, an intensifying flavour and structure and makes smart use of natural activities (fermentation – photosynthesis etc. ) to lower the use of resources.'

The idea is thus to create an edible product that is both natural, nutritious and delicious. As she rightly told us, 'the future of 3D printing food does not only have to be about printing with sugar or other unhealthy sweets or pasta.' By making food printing diverse and actually good for us, we can lower the amount of resources needed for the food industry. 'To reduce the entire food chain, to reduce food waste and start feeding people instead of filling people. […]. In theory these novelty foods will be even more natural, fresh, sustainable, animal-friendly, tasty and exiting than the food we know today. Edible Growth addresses current food trends, shortens supply chains and increases the eating experience.'

Of course, this is a wonderful and promising concept, that little could find fault with. But how, we can hear you think, can this be realised and what kind of food would it produce? Of course, the danger is coming up against the usual problems associated with food printers. How can you keep things fresh, diverse and nutritious when several ingredients need to be combined?

For this, Rutzerveld came up with an ingenious solution: why not print a combination of seeds, spores and yeasts to create an environment of natural growth wherein living organisms develop the food on-demand? 3D printing is an exceptionally suitable technology to achieve this, and not just because it can automatically combine these elements into a nice shape. As she explained to us:

Using 3D printing techniques makes the production very sterile – to prevent the seeds and spores from contamination and unwanted fungi. It also enables specific localizing of the layers, so that the spores don't meet the seeds and vice versa. On top of that, the product can be personalized, of course in shape, but also in size and in nutrition values.

The achieve the proper mix of nutrients and taste, the printed food will consist of 3 different elements. Firstly, an natural and edible matrix, such as dried vegetables or fruits, nuts, clay or Agar Agar (a gelatinous substance made from algae, that is used in various Asian dishes). These are already nutritious substances that can easily be printed by FDM 3D printers.

However, the second element, micro-organisms such as seeds, sprouts, fungi, yeast and bacteria, can then add an extra level to this snack. The yeast and bacteria can modify the used matrix to add probiotic benefits (like disease prevention), while the seeds and fungi can use it as soil to grow edible mushrooms and plants like cress or alfalfa.

All this is can then be covered in an edible protein or carbohydrate crust. This can consist materials similar to those used by the F3D printer to make a pizza crust, but can also easily be made from insects, as was done in this project. Combined and given a chance to grow, all of these elements can result in a healthy, nutritious and (hopefully) tasty meal. The 'multiple layers containing seeds, spores and yeast are printed according to a personalized 3D file. Within five days the plants and fungi mature and the yeast ferments the solid inside into a liquid.'

A prototype insect crust.

Alfalfa growing on Agar Agar.

And what's more, the consumer can then 'harvest' his or her meal when the product's 'structure, scent and taste' are to their liking: 'Depending on the preferred intensity, the consumer decides when to harvest and enjoy the delicious, fresh and nutrient-rich edible.'

As mentioned earlier, this project has not yet moved beyond the research & development phases, though she was already able to test a variety of different substances and shapes to test their usefulness in such a form of food production. All this even lead to the creation of several promising – inedible and edible – prototypes.

The Edible Food prototypes

As she explained, the living foods of her concepts soon took up 'round, organic shapes that would exist of multiple layers, each containing a different organism. I wanted the crust to be an open structure, so that when the organisms would start to grow, they would stick out of the crust, showing physical evidence of natural growth.'

And after creating several 3D printed (and some hand-made) prototypes of their appearance, she was even able to develop two test meals that daring test subjects were welcome to try. However, practical limitations resulted in two snack sizes not unlike restaurant 'amuses'.

3D printed prototype

Both versions were built with the same ingredients. Dried, crushed black olives, mixed with a bruschetta of cooked vegetables was used as an edible matrix. 'Planted' in it was cress and Philiote mushroom fungi. All of this was literally topped off with a crunchy pie dough. For safety reasons, the fermentation element was skipped in this prototype.

Tested at several events on curious passers-by, the general reaction was reportedly very good. And based on the pictures, who can be surprised? These food constructs look particularly edible, and if the ingredients are anything to go by, should be quite tasty as well.

While it's very unfortunate that Rutzerveld has so far been unable to move to the actual printing phase, this project is very impressive and promising despite some of the complications that have arisen. As she explained in a paper on the subject, 'it turned out that the realisation of Edible Growth is even more complicated as we though. The idea of 3D printing an edible biotope is great, but with the current additive manufacturing technologies impossible to realize. Also the safety aspect is a big issue.'

However, once the 3D printing technology catches up, this Edible Growth project does certainly light the path upon which it should proceed. Not only does it provide a natural and nutricious source of food, it has the potential to also minimize agriculture's footprint on the land. And thanks to 3D printing's effective use of materials, it could also drastically reduce the amount of food that is wasted. We therefore hope to hear a lot more about Edible Growth in the near future.

A schematic overview of the advantages of the Edible Growth food project.


All images credit: Chloé Rutzerveld

Posted in 3D Printing Applications

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