3D food printers are the future of food; this is according to mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor of Systems & Materials Research Corporation (SMRC), which has a 3D food printer that single-handedly whipped up a pizza at the 2013 SXSW Eco Conference. Earlier in the year, NASA awarded the company a Small Business Innovation Research Phase 1 contract in order to explore the possibility of 3D food printing in space.

“I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” Contractor previously told business news blog Quartz. “We eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

Contractor’s vision has been met with a mixture of excitement and scepticism, while some plainly disapprove. In February 2014, Amy Leech, senior policy officer at the Soil Association, wrote in the Guardian: “3D-printed food helpfully highlights the failings in our current approach to feeding our population in sugar-coated Technicolor. However much food we produce, if it continues to be processed food high in fat, sugar and salt, then we will fail to feed ourselves sustainably and healthily.”

Fresh 3D-printed food?
Admittedly, the idea of printed meals from cartridges of powders and oils that last up to 30 years doesn’t necessarily whet the appetite, though some would disagree that 3D-printed food is “processed food high in fat, sugar and salt”.

Spanish start-up Natural Machines is all about “fresh, healthy food”, says CMO and co-founder Lynette Kucsma. Its 3D food printer is known as Foodini. It is its commitment to fresh food, as well as offering the choice of sweet and savoury that makes the Foodini different, she says.

“A lot of other 3D printers out there are really focused on what our old business model was – the chocolates and sweets or what have you,” says Kucsma. “We’re also very different in that we’re allowing fresh food to be put into the capsules so you’re not forced to buy prefilled capsules.”

While the company is currently working with retailers on prefilled “Foodini-ready” capsules as well as capsules with longer shelf lives, they will do so under “the restrictions that we do want it to have no preservatives or very little natural preservatives”, says Kucsma.

Where it all began
Founder of industry leader 3D Systems, Chuck Hull was responsible for creating the first working 3D printer in 1984. Hull’s 3D food printers, ChefJet and ChefJet Pro, concentrate on the production of sweet food.

“Confections are simply the first area of exploration for 3D printed edibles. Given the tendency of dessert to embrace elaborate design and embellishment, confections are a good area of introduction based on the complexity 3D printing allows,” says creative director of food products at 3D Systems Liz von Hasseln. “3D printing is also highly promising for personalised nutrition applications and will expand in application in the future.”

Both the ChefJet and Foodini are expected to enter the market soon. Due for the second half of the year, 3D Systems’ ChefJet and ChefJet Pro will target niche markets with price tags “in the sub-$5,000 range” and “the sub-$10,000 range”, respectively. “The ChefJet will inspire culinary innovators and artists, professional bakeries, confectioneries, restaurants and entertainment companies,” according to von Hasseln.Meanwhile, Natural Machines’ Foodini is expected to be available to the public in January 2015 at approximately $1,300, which the company’s website states is “equivalent to, for example, a high-end food processor, on the lower side of the price scale for a 3D printer”.

The Foodini will have two different target markets – home-kitchen users and professional-kitchen users. According to Kucsma, the different chefs with whom they are working, from those who “own one restaurant” to “Michelin-starred chefs who are really into 3D printing”, see the 3D food printer as a “high-tech kitchen tool that will help them create new designs, help them differentiate their restaurants and help them create entirely different dishes”.

Natural Machines envisions a 3D food printer that is “part of the internet of things”, enabling the company to provide updates “so that your appliance always evolves with the new 3D technologies”. Users may one day be able to browse recipes and share them online. “We see in the future that, let’s say that I printed a dinner tonight and I think it’s fabulous, I can push it directly to you on your Foodini, and maybe your Foodini will talk to the refrigerator over the internet of things and know you have all the ingredients,” says Kucsma.

Not just your average kitchen appliance
Kucsma sees the 3D food printer one day becoming a common kitchen appliance. “People are going to have different uses for it but we think the adaptation is going to happen a lot faster, just because of the way 3D-printing technology is evolving,” Kucsma says comparing it yo the microwave. “With the fact that we’re a technology society these days, we adapt to technology a lot faster than we did in the past.”

Contractor’s solution to 3D-printed food for long-distance space travel is still some time away but; beyond that, he sees a day “when every kitchen has a 3D printer and the Earth’s 12 billion people feed themselves customised, nutritionally appropriate meals”, according to Quartz.

There are various 3D food printers in the making, with different uses and target markets in mind. For 3D Systems, it’s about sophisticated sweet treats for professionals. For Natural Machines, it includes healthy options for a wide market, from the chef to the homemaker who’s too busy for the challenging or mundane cooking tasks. For Contractor, it’s a solution to long-distance space travel and eventually to feed the world.

Another individual in the 3D food printing business is chief technology officer of Seraph Robotics Jeffrey Lipton who, like Contractor, believes that digital cooking could someday transform how we prepare and consume food.
“While some people believe the future of printed food will begin at the chemical level, others think it will become a common tool to augment the moulds, knives and ovens we already have,” he says. “Regardless, both camps agree that the information age’s transformations have started making kitchen magic.”