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How 3D printing could help food security

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

When it comes to 3D-printed food, there is a best-practice "recipe" that overcomes some major manufacturing hurdles of this emerging sector, according to a new study.

Why it matters: The latest U.N. climate change report identifies the role of climate warming in exposing millions of people worldwide to acute food insecurity. Some are looking to untapped solutions.

How it works: 3D-printed food is made through an additive manufacturing process similar to standard 3D printing — except it's done using edible materials.

  • Across Europe, several restaurants and butchers are offering 3D-printed "meat" cuts, made from ingredients such as soy protein and chickpeas, manufactured by the startup Redefine Meat.
  • In the U.S., an LA-based digital bakery 3D-prints candy and a Columbia University lab just revealed a seven-ingredient 3D slice of cheesecake.

The big picture: Food is "becoming less available due to environmental challenges that we face today," says Ezgi Pulatsu, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Ottawa who researches food engineering and manufacturing.

  • She sees 3D-printed food as potentially helping to solve problems in global food production that drive food insecurity.
  • It also "will make the food system more efficient" and generate less waste, Pulatsu says.

Yes, but: There are a host of issues with practical application, both at the industrial level and for home use, in part from a lack of scientific research in the emerging technology.

Zoom out: Pulatsu co-authored a peer-reviewed study published Tuesday in the journal Physics of Fluids that seeks to fill in the gaps in information.

  • Optimizing processes that influence the quality and complexity of 3D-printed food can offer better results, control and speed, according to the study authors.
  • They identified extrusion-based 3D printing — wherein food paste is forced out of a syringe nozzle by direct or indirect pressure — as the "most applicable technique" for conventionally 3D-printing food.

What they're saying: 3D-printed food could be used to supply essential nutrients to those without access to fresh, whole foods because of a lack of affordability and availability, says Jonathan Blutinger, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University, who co-authored another paper on 3D cooking released this week.

  • "It mitigates the need to bring in food from other places, so it allows you to work more with your local ingredients," says Blutinger, who works as an engineering consultant at Redefine Meat. "You're able to get more out of your food because you can print just what you need."

Of note: There are ethical and cultural considerations to exploring 3D-printed food as a solution to food insecurity.

  • One example: Making synthetic steak from muscle stem cells from a cow embryo — which raises issues such as nutritional risks.

Between the lines: The likely timeline for mass adoption of 3D food printing is at least several years away, according to Blutinger.

  • The price tag for an at-home 3D food printer is steep, and on a larger scale materials such as ingredients are hard to come by.

The intrigue: The Department of Defense’s Combat Feeding Directorate is exploring 3D-printing food by developing 3D-printed meal bars that enhance performance and address soldiers' nutritional needs, per C&EN.

  • Plus, in a project funded by the Department of Defense's DARPA, a startup is working on creating food out of plastic using 3D-printing techniques — with a goal of aiding in disaster relief operations.

The other side: Investment in these kind of solutions, however, risks neglecting basic unmet needs in disaster recovery, says Joe Gilliom, founder of Unity in Disasters, which provides food and supplies to overlooked communities after a disaster.

  • "For us to start with manufacturing food, without even providing the basic milk, cheese, bread, wheat and fruits? I think we're making a leap, and that leap will probably be viewed as being ignored."

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