Foodies worldwide, rejoice. 3D printed food promises to transform how we perceive, prepare and eat food forever. Using a food 3D printer you can gift your friends sweets and chocolates in the shape of their face, create a delicious burger from scratch, or even 3D print heart-shaped pizza to celebrate your anniversary — all within a few minutes.
This article covers how 3D printing food works, the coolest current 3D printed food projects, which printable foods you can eat currently, how some Michelin-starred restaurants are already using food 3D printers, the health benefits of 3D printing food, and more.
- We have also written a separate article on the best food 3D printers.
- In addition, we have an article focused on chocolate 3D printers.
What is 3D printed food? And how can you 3D print food?
3D printed food means any type of food that has been printed via a food 3D printer. Most food 3D printers use a similar technique to FDM 3D printers, depositing a food-safe 3D printer filament such as chocolate onto a build plate based on a 3D printer model you can either download or design yourself.
Instead of plastic filament used in FDM printers, food 3D printers use edible, food-safe filaments such as chocolate, tomato sauce, and various other tasty flavors.
If you have ever iced a cake using a piping bag, these food printers are similar, except with robotic precision as they deposit edible filament in your desired shape. Once one layer of your edible model is finished, the food 3D printer starts on the layer above, creating a three-dimensional food model over time.
Food 3D printers extrude the food material out from a nozzle, though some use robotic arms, lasers, and other crazy inventions. Most food 3D printers currently focus on sugary desserts like chocolates and sweets, though some companies are creating 3D printed pizzas, spaghetti, and even burgers and meat.
But why choose 3D printed food?
7 Amazing 3D Printed Food Projects
Food Ink was a pop-up restaurant based in the hipster part of Shoreditch, London, bringing 3D printed food to the UK. Launched in 2016, the restaurant was entirely 3D printed; not just the food and desserts, but also all the restaurant’s chairs, lamps, and decorations.
Visitors were served nine small courses of 3D printed food printed on byFlow Focus food printers. Food Ink then brought their concept to Barcelona, with future planned launches in Singapore and Dubai. The Food Ink concept shows artistic 3D printed food could become the luxury dining experience of the future.
3D Printed Pizza for Space
Whether it’s enjoyed by ninja turtles or the cast of any NYC-based sitcom, pizza’s place within popular culture ensured that eventually someone would try and 3D print pizza.
Already assembled in layers, pizza was a natural fit for 3D food printing, leading to it being printed on many of the first 3D food printers. The concept later gained significant attention once 3D printing company Beehex began presenting their NASA-funded pizza at trade shows.
NASA tasked Beehex with inventing alternative astronaut food; something less boring than current astronaut food bars, but still compact enough for space travel. Beehex proposed rehydrating and 3D printing pizza.
Their pizza prints like any other 3D printed food: the dough, tomato sauce, and cheese are laid down in layers before the pizza is cooked conventionally. This core technology captivated fans and the company raised $1 million to bring their pizza 3D printers to market. These printers would 3D print entire 12-inch pizzas in under five minutes, ideal for home use as well as in pizza restaurants and takeaways.
NASA ended up not pursuing the project further, with their collaboration ending in 2017. Despite potentially disappointing some astronauts, Beehex had succeeded in proving that 3D printed pizza could be almost indiscernible from its frozen alternatives… and delicious. Several years later, Beehex have pivoted toward 3D printing cakes, cake decorating, and cookies. But pizza 3D printing ideas live on.
Outside of space travel, pizza’s next obstacle is the fact that currently only margaritas can be printed, with any additional toppings having to be applied by hand… unless puréed meat and vegetables are to your taste.
But the benefits are sure to excite. For example, at big sports events teams could 3D print pizzas with their team’s badge, and at promotional events companies could print their edible brand logo front and center. I’m sure we’d all love a pizza 3D printer to print our dinner while we relax and catch up on our favorite TV series.
Biometric 3D Printed Sushi
A project that has perhaps the most chance of changing the way we eat comes from Open-Meals, a company with a 100-year vision to completely digitize food.
The first step of this 100-year journey takes the form of their restaurant, Sushi Singularity, set to open in Tokyo, Japan.
When making reservations guests submit their biometric data, including samples of their DNA, urine, and stools. When the guest arrives, Sushi Singularity uses this information to 3D print them a meal that addresses their specific nutritional needs.
The restaurant planned to open in 2020, and still intends to open soon despite missing this date; so, we’ll have to wait a while longer to see whether 3D printed biometrically-matched meals will catch on.
Sushi Singularity isn’t the end of Open-Meal’s plans for 3D printed food. Their 100-year vision includes service in medical facilities by 2023, restaurants and cafes by 2028, their own retail 3D printer by 2030, an autonomous delivery service by 2035, and an AI-controlled 3D printer becoming our household’s only kitchen appliance by 2040. Similar to Beehex’s vision, they aim to make astronaut food the same as terrestrial food by 2100.
3D printed cruelty-free and environmentally friendly meat
- We also have an in-depth feature story about 3D printed meat.
A number of startups are in the process creating 3D printed meat that mimics the taste, texture and even smell of real meat, but with 3D printable and plant-based materials.
Companies like Novameat and Redefine Meat are working on 3D printable beef steaks and other products using unique plant-based compounds that taste like the blood, fat and muscle that make up traditional meat flavors. Plant-based oils mimic the taste of fat, while legumes and beans create the muscle flavor. These are then 3D printed together using specialist meat 3D printers.
Novameat founder Giuseppe Scionti aims to be supplying national supermarkets by 2021 with his meat 3D printers, and with massive ethical advantages arising from getting our meat without killing farm animals, this could be 3D printed food’s biggest sector in the coming years.
Recycled 3D Printed Biscuits Fighting Against Food Waste
Rather than looking to the future, Netherlands based company Upprinting Food believes that 3D printing can help combat our current issues with food waste.
Upprinting began as the graduation project of industrial design and food technology student Elzelinde Van Doleweerd. The company saves food from being wasted, and instead reconstitutes it into edible filament and biscuits.
Their process begins by collecting food destined for waste, most commonly due to ugliness or over-ripeness. Observing that bread is the most wasted product in the Netherlands, Elzelinde started with bread-based recipes.
After collection, the mixture is then puréed and fed into their 3D printer. 3D printing allows them to print intricate designs that are then baked and dehydrated, creating crunchy and long-lasting biscuits.
The company has seen much success since its launch in 2018. In addition to its own products, Upprinting offers design services to chefs, as well as training restaurants to utilize their own 3D printers and otherwise wasted food.
Sugar Lab: 3D printed sugary treats
A very different approach comes from Sugar Labs, a self-described team of LA-based “rogue chefs, architects-turned-designers, and tech geeks.” Using 3D printing, they have potentially created the most premium treats you’ll ever eat.
The company began in 2011 as the project of husband-and-wife team Liz and Kyle von Hasseln. Rather than using their 3D printer to print architectural models as it was supposed to, the pair began printing with sugar instead.
Speaking about the company’s origins, the pair explained:
“We both have a background in architecture. We bought our first 3D printer during grad school, then one day we printed a sugar tiara for a friend’s birthday cupcake. She loved it so much that it really got us thinking, maybe this could be a whole new territory for 3D printing. So, we kept experimenting with sugar.”Liz & Kyle von Hasseln
This experimentation would lead to what the company is now known for, sugar products so intricate that some are officially sold as “ornaments.”
Their process begins by mixing sugar, water, and vegetable starch with the dry flavorings of the specific recipe being printed. This mixture is then printed with their own 3D printer to create complex and geometrically inspired sugar treats, some of which would be almost impossible to recreate by hand.
The company re-launched in October 2020, beginning the process of making its entire catalogue available online. Though, with their products starting at $15 for six cubes, their prints may remain unaffordable for all but the keenest 3D printing foodies.
Paco Pérez — Michelin-starred 3D printed food
Five-time Michelin-starred chef Paco Pérez has adopted 3D printed food in some of his restaurants. The world-renowned chef has introduced several Foodini food 3D printers into his two-Michelin-star restaurant La Enoteca to “recreate form and pieces” of food that are “exactly identical,” thus allowing cooks to do other tasks concurrently.
If a chef with 5 Michelin stars feels 3D printed food is good enough, then it’s good enough.
Advantages of 3D printing food
The benefits 3D printed food offers over traditional food varies from health, to saving time, and convenience. Here are the six main benefits of 3D printing food:
3D printed food can be healthier
In the future, experts have theorized that we will eat 3D printed sustenance made of hydrocolloids — substances that form gels with water. These include algae, duckweed, and types of grass.
Though they are not currently widely eaten, they are full of vitamins and proteins key to staying healthy. These could replace the base ingredients of future food dishes, providing a natural way to get your carbohydrates, antioxidants, proteins, and more.
3D printing food can be quicker and save you time and effort
Some aspects of cooking are monotonous and repetitive, like chopping vegetables. Food 3D printers create food autonomously once you have selected the dish you want, freeing up time to read a book, watch tv, or learn a language.
Additionally, some aspects of cooking have fairly steep learning curves. For example, it takes many years to master decorating wedding cakes. A food 3D printer can create these geometric shapes easily with a 100% success rate, and do it while you relax. This infinite shortening of the learning curve is one of the huge assets of 3D printing food.
3D printing food in space is the future
By 3D printing food we may be able to keep astronauts fed as we prepare to voyage through deep space. 3D printed food filaments are pastes created from the original, fresh ingredients, and these pastes can be kept in the right storage for years without spoiling.
Astronauts can keep a silo of food paste and 3D print the exact amount of food and vitamins they need for each meal, wasting nothing and neither under or overeating.
Though we have come an extraordinarily long way in aviation and spaceflight within the last century, compared to the speed of light we still move very slowly. Since we can send signals and therefore messages and files out into space at the speed of light, we can send custom designs to the 3D printers on board far away spaceships.
This means that we can send new recipes to astronauts millions of kilometers away, and have their 3D food printer cook it for them minutes later.
Environmental benefits of 3D printed food
It is very likely that switching to 3D printed food would reduce fuel emissions. This is due to supermarkets switching over to selling ‘food cartridges’ rather than perishable foods which last months or years, rather than a few days. This reduces the amount of transportation undertaken by supermarket trucks, releasing less pollution into the atmosphere.
3D printing food saves money and reduces food waste
3D printers are some of the least wasteful machines around as additive manufacturing uses only what is required to print a model. A food 3D printer can print the exact amount of food filament required, with the exact amount of vitamins and supplements that you need for a meal. Not only is this efficient, but it saves you money compared to buying ingredients which may spoil and be thrown away.
Download your dinner
Remember ‘You wouldn’t download a car?!’ Well now you can download dinner. Most major 3D food printer companies have communities of people who take great pleasure in designing their own meals and geometric patterns of food design. Many are on the internet for you to download and print for yourself. If you need something special for a birthday cake, just search for it, it’s probably there!
Being a new revelation, there are limitations however.
Limitations of 3D printed food
Firstly, 3D printed food ingredients are currently restricted to dry, shelf-stable ingredients that do not spoil quickly. These ingredients are ground into a paste and then kept, ready to be 3D printed later.
Each of these ingredients are different chemically and thus have different melting points. When 3D printing with plastics like ABS and PLA this is never a problem as each plastic has a set melting point and thus a set extruder temperature. However, melting different ingredients at different temperatures can cause problems, resulting in uneven food textures.
Moreover, though the food paste is melted when it is extruded, it is not cooked during the 3D printing process, and food must be cooked afterwards instead. This is only a problem for food pastes that cannot be eaten raw — chocolate 3D printers are fine. However, there are companies who are working on incorporating cooking into the printing process currently, and this may change in the near future.