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A push of a button is all that is needed, and out pops a pizza topped with delicious tomato sauce, salami, red peppers, mushrooms and oodles of cheese – made not by a pizza baker but by a 3D food printer. Now the pizza merely has to be heated up for a short time in the oven, and dinner is ready!
Artworks made out of potato puree
One notable exception is the German start-up Print2Taste, a spin-off company of Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences in Bavaria in southern Germany. A food scientist at the university, Melanie Senger and her colleagues have been exploring ways to print food for many years. Her idea is to use potato puree or liquid chocolate to create individual artworks – like the Eiffel Tower, a bridal couple or some beautiful blossoms.
Different food types react differently in the printer
Senger and her team have spent a long time trying to discover which methods and technical aids would work best. After all, food printers do not have anything as simple as an ink cartridge, as different food types react differently – chocolate does not flow in the same way as potato puree. Even peas are not always peas: their starch content varies depending on the country in which they were grown, which in turn affects the way they respond in the printer. This makes it far from easy to come up with a viable 3D food printer for everyday use.
One printer for many different foods
Working on a project funded by the European Union, Melanie Senger and her fellow researchers from Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences have come up with a solution. Although other companies have also been producing 3D food printers for some time now, Senger and her colleagues have designed the very first universal food printer capable of printing out different types of food, including chocolate, fruit, vegetables, pasta, dairy products and jam. They prepare the foods in such a way as to make them suitable for printing.
The printer functions in much the same way as a confectioner’s piping bag, though it is far more precise. It can in fact be used with any type of food that has been converted into a pourable state. Which consistency is best suited to printing which foods? This is a question that Senger and her colleagues spent a very long time researching – until they finally discovered the right texture for printing a range of foods. The print head can be heated to a temperature of up to 60 degrees Celsius and can be fitted to a standard 3D printer. The print-ready foods are available in convenient cartridges that can be easily inserted and replaced.
Success thanks to crowdfunding
So how does a prototype get turned into a marketable product? The necessary funding is one key criterion. Senger and her colleagues quickly found investors by advertising their idea on the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, which allowed them to raise seed capital. In April 2015 their spin-off company Print2Taste was ready to launch the "Bocusini" model on the market. Professional chefs, caterers, confectioners and bakers are already using it to create small edible artworks. The food printer is also of interest to private individuals. As the fully-equipped version costs over 4,000 euros, however, it is by no means affordable for everyone.
Stuffed cabbage 2.0
Old people’s homes are another potential target group. Together with the north-German company Biozoon, Weihenstephan-Triesdorf University of Applied Sciences has developed a printing technique that produces pureed food with the same shape as the non-pureed version. The pureed food looks almost identical to traditional dishes such as a stuffed cabbage or a serving of peas. The taste remains unchanged, too. It is only the texture that is adapted, a special powder being used to shape the pureed food. For the residents of geriatric care homes, mealtimes are often the most important social event of the day. However, if people who find it difficult to chew or swallow are served up nothing but a mush of sausage and potatoes, the risk of their refusing to eat increases.
Healthy food from the 3D printer
The researchers from Bavaria are even going one step further: in the Mikroprint project (only in German) they are working on an innovative method that allows nutrients such as proteins, fats, vitamins and minerals to be added to the pureed foods. The aim is to prevent malnutrition and even diseases such as diabetes or obesity.
As far as food from the printer is concerned, it seems as if almost nothing will be impossible in the future. And who knows, perhaps a 3D printer for pizzas and burgers will even make it to the market one day.