You can find predictions of what would become 3D printing in science fiction written as early as 1945, but the crossover into science fact is generally credited to Charles Hull, who was granted a patent for an “Apparatus for Production of Three-dimensional Objects by Stereolithography” in 1986. However, all through the 1990s and right up to the turn of the millennium, 3D printing was generally seen as something ‘futuristic’ and almost certainly not applicable to food. Some thought it would be a useful technology in making prototypes – which indeed is one of its many uses. But the idea of extruding layers of food struck many as something from an episode of Star Trek. It also seemed a little – to be frank – gross. –Printed food??
These attitudes are now a thing of the past, of course, with the 3D food printing market set to grow by nearly 50% through 2030. We’ve really only just begun to explore the possibilities of fabricating food with 3D printing, but what’s already been created is rather astounding. Food of all kinds is being printed, but what has many excited specifically, is 3D-printed plant based meat. It’s no secret that we – as a planet – have a meat problem. Demand is growing while resources are shrinking. We need a solution to a problem that, on the face of it, seems unsolvable.
Some may have heard of ‘cultured meat’ – meat grown in a lab that was never actually part of an animal except as some humanely collected cells. But a more promising solution to making the transition away from unsustainable meat production – in particular, factory farming and its horrifically polluting effects on the planet – is 3D-printed vegan meat. This is a substance made from 100% natural, vegan ingredients, but which tastes, smells, looks, and even ‘cooks’ like animal meat. Too good to be true, some are thinking? Well, this isn’t an aspiration. It exists. Creating layers of plant-based meat with the taste and texture elements of animal protein is now possible thanks to 3D printing.
Already in Israel, some startups have created ‘alternative steak’ that is good enough not to fool but rather to impress experts and celebrity chefs. But that said, these high-tech versions of vegan meat could indeed make an unsuspecting consumer think they were eating a lamb kabab or ground beef. One report of taste tests done in Israel where the participants were simply told it was a “new kind of meat” showed many assumed it was simply an animal protein they hadn’t tasted before. When told the ‘new meat’ was made with 100% vegan ingredients, people expressed emotions from delighted surprise to genuine shock.
Covid-19 has been a royal pain and hopes are growing that there is light at the end of an almost 3-year tunnel, but for the 3D printing industry, the pandemic has been a ‘blessing in disguise,’ to use a cliche. 3D food printing technology has advanced swiftly over the last few years alongside three-dimensional printing used across a variety of fields. These advances in technology are coming in tandem with (and due to) greater demands for personalization and customized foods. For example, some medical patients require a certain diet that has previously been difficult to achieve. Then there are athletes who need specific amounts of certain proteins. We are close to being able to offer the choice of getting exactly what a person needs in a format just for them.
It is possible now to print protein carbohydrates, dairy products, fruit, and bread… Basically, if you can imagine it, you can 3D print it. Printing chocolates and confectioneries is already a thriving business as consumers request ever more customized orders for birthdays, anniversaries, or other special occasions. Some might see the printing of vegan meat or specialized chocolate desserts as interesting and fun; not, however, revolutionary. But that would be to miss the big picture. We are not far away from a planet that will be populated with as many as 10 billion souls. These people will need to eat, and what they eat will need to be nutritious.
At present we are struggling to keep up with demand in certain food sectors, with one of the primary sectors being meat. The evidence of the current meat industry’s unsustainability is ponderous and damning – there just isn’t enough land, water, and other resources to grow enough soybeans or other crops for both human and cattle consumption. 3D printed food, especially 3D printed meat that could take the form of a kebab or a sausage or a steak or ‘you-name-it,’ is quite possibly going to redefine the entire meat industry and take us one step closer to an animal-free diet vegan activists have been campaigning for – but with a twist. Instead of an aesthetic diet of tofu and beets, people are instead going to be munching on a steak that is “90 percent comparable” to the real thing. Five years down the road, new meat could get so good, some won’t be able to tell the difference at all.