Are 3D printers the next kitchen gadget?

3D printing is moving into realms that in theory, could solve future food woes. But Christina Wong can’t help but lose her appetite over the prospect.

A few years ago, I watched a segment on BBC’s Inside Out West on 3D printing and how two engineers attempted to print a bike. Though it didn’t quite work out, the idea was there. At the time, I thought how cool it was, but I didn’t see how a printed product would be just as good as a “real” bike. Fast forward a few years and the technology associated with 3D printing has branched into other industries – notably food – and with it, giving a whole new meaning to processed foods.

In the June 2013 edition of Digest, we looked at the feasibility of 3D printing food in space. How far have we come since then? Are we really about to see a Star Trek-esque replicator-like device in our own kitchens – or even restaurants? To my surprise, a quick Google of ‘3D printing food’ yields many results, showing that already, there are quite a few companies in this niche market.

Last year, Levi Lalla, founder of Austin’s piq Chocolates began experimenting with moulds and 3D printers, which led to inviting people to customise their own chocolate via piq’s website – a service limited to a selected few while it perfects its techniques (though they have a waiting list option).

And more on chocolate – earlier this year, North American chocolate conglomerate Hershey announced it would be teaming up with 3D Systems to create a chocolate printer. William Papa, Head of Research and Development at Hershey said: “Whether it’s creating a whole new form of candy or developing a new way to produce it, we embrace new technologies such as 3D printing as a way to keep moving our timeless confectionery treats into the future.”

3D Systems is no stranger to the edible printing scene; it recently unveiled its ChefJet series (which prints candy and chocolate) at the Consumer Electronics Show last January, and will be made available to purchase at the end of the year. But these devices don’t come cheap; they’ll be retailing between $5,000 (about £3,000) for the smaller model and $10,000 (about £6,000) for the ChefJet Pro.

How it works, and I’m oversimplifying here, is that a powder-like concoction is mixed with a binding agent and layered on top of one another until the desired 3D shape is formed. These shapes are customised on a programme from your computer; the possibilities of what you can manipulate and print are endless. But unlike the replicator, food doesn’t magically appear in seconds, it’s quite a meticulous process. The pro model prints about an inch every hour and the smaller model prints a little quicker. Similarly, the Foodini (developed by Natural Machines) is a 3D printer that can print from animal-shaped chickpea ‘nuggets’ and quiche, to ravioli and small pizzas. These printers will retail at around $1,300 (roughly £780) and will be on shelves in the coming months.

At this month’s South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, the future of food production seemed to be the dominant theme at its panels, addressing issues including feeding the world’s growing population with advances in agricultural technology and 3D printers. Participants were even treated to 3D-printed Oreos via vending machines using flavours trending on Twitter.

But is the real answer to feeding the population to be found in 3D printing? How can we be certain that what comes out is healthier, or that it’s any different from the processed foods found in the supermarket? It’s already been established that close to two billion tonnes of food ends up in waste every year, which is enough to feed the world’s 900 million hungry people. Perhaps we should be directing our attention to reducing food waste and changing the way we eat both at home and at the grocery store.

I had a chance to attend a workshop on 3D printing (though not on food) and was fascinated with the process and the final products. I could see its relevancy in technical sectors, but I’m still not convinced of its foray into food. Even technological innovations have their limits. The excitement accompanying these advances is understandable – I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t curious to taste printed foods – but I don’t think what comes out of a printer could ever be a substitute for a real meal, made from real ingredients, using just a regular pot or pan.

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