3D printing could unlock custom textures, flavors and nutritional content in foods, but cost, capacity and lack of printable ingredients is currently holding the technology back from taking over the market, according to a food expert.
Dr. Robert McGorrin, professor at Oregon State University, tells NutritionInsight that “3D printing of foods at present is prohibitively expensive and not cost-effective for food manufacturing on a large scale.”
“Capital costs and slow production speeds are the major hurdles at present to overcome.”
In order for the technology to be available for home use within the next 15 years, McGorrin says a few things are necessary. Namely, designing the print heads for easy cleaning by the layperson, flexibility of printers to make a more extensive range of products and, importantly, source of food ingredients that are designed to be used for the 3D printers.
The need for these printable food ingredients represents a gap in the market for 3D-printed personalized nutrition.
Last October, Colorcon Ventures flagged the potential for 3D printing to create personalized nutrition for consumers.
On the cusp of a food tech revolution
3D printers build pre-designed shapes in a layer-by-layer process via a nozzle that deposits materials onto a surface. When 3D printing was in its infancy, the primary material of choice was plastics. However, researchers have been looking into printing foods for a while.
Apparently, thick pastes such as frosting or peanut butter have been the easiest to 3D print. But experts are now exploring other foodstuffs, like powders, solids, gels and liquids. If experts can successfully harness 3D printing tech to make food, the possibilities and economic opportunities for the alimentation industry are myriad.
So far, the R&D process has been challenging, as unlike plastics and similar materials, the properties of foods are not always “linear,” and minute temperature fluctuations, for example, can completely alter how food materials flow.
Currently, the US Department of Defense’s Combat Feeding Directorate is looking into making 3D-printed nutrition bars to serve as rations catering to the needs of soldiers under different conditions.
Columbia University researchers say they have made a slice of cheesecake that has an “elaborate internal structure” and releases flavors in waves. Also, the company Redefine Meat is attempting to reproduce the structure, flavor and texture of beef steaks with plant-based fibers via 3D printing.
In 2020, researchers at the Singapore University of Technology and Design developed 3D printed dairy ingredients.
Logistical constraints abound
However, many barriers remain as food manufacturing plants typically need to run on a high-volume scale to maintain affordable costs.
At present, 3D printers for food applications would need “considerable” technological advances to overcome the costs and manufacturing speed constraints, according to McGorrin.
He elaborates the major issues with 3D printing are production speed, volume and cost of manufacturing and equipment compared to traditional food manufacturing processes. He also highlights that the 3D printers would need to undergo routine cleaning and sanitation to ensure no residual build-ups of unprocessed food ingredients.
He says this could spoil the equipment and production line, causing microbiological growth and food safety risks.
“I expect that the routine equipment maintenance costs for 3D printers used for high-volume food processing could be high.”
McGorrin explains that “food products such as snack goods need to be retailed at a low or affordable cost to be competitive. The opportunities for 3D printing are for expensive food products that retail at very high cost.”
“For example, I am aware that 3D printing has been applied to low-volume specialty products like custom 3D-printed chocolates with a reproduced image of the sender or the recipient printed in 3D.” One such example of this is Barry Callebaut’s 3D-printed Mona Lisa chocolates.
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