A goal of Dr. Holliday’s research is to develop fully autonomous kitchens to deploy in disaster areas. “An autonomous kitchen could be easily adapted to create familiar flavor profiles of a devastated area by simply changing the printing medium and its flavors,” he says. For example, a simply seasoned beef hamburger could be prepared in one place and a spicy chicken patty prepared in another to meet different populations’ tastes and dietary requirements.
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As technology and speed improve, Dr. Holliday foresees this technology affecting food service operations such as large fast food chains. “By bringing in one beef mixture, they limit the amount of stock keeping units they have to stock and use a 3D printer to make patties of various sizes based on what menu item is ordered,” he says.
Hod Lipson, PhD, professor, mechanical engineering and data science, Columbia University, New York, N.Y., says the main advantage of printing foods is transparency. “You can see a food being made and the ingredients being used,” he says. “Food printers could combine the convenience of prepared food, and the transparency of homemade food. It’s almost like having a personal chef.”
In addition, printed foods’ nutritional content can be tailored based on personal biometrics, such as glucose levels, metabolic activities, allergies, personal genome, and taste preferences.
Gaining Steam, Three Dimensionally
Food printers are a marriage of software and cooking—two big aspects of life that have not yet intersected, comments Dr. Lipson. “People are excited about the possibilities of bringing software into the kitchen,” he says.
Providing the capability for complete customization also makes it a popular trend. “New shapes and textures are just the beginning,” Dr. Holliday says. Traditional color printing uses four different ink cartridges. 3D printing has theoretically unlimited variables. Because different food mediums can be printed at the same time, or one right after another, most attributes of a food can be customized in any given system.
“As more research establishes nutrigenomics as a fundamental part of nutrition, nutritional customization will begin to play a greater role in the benefits of 3D printing and its impact on the food industry,” Dr. Holliday says.
3D Printing Problems
Most of the same safety concerns regarding any manufactured food apply to 3D printed items. “You have to watch and track chemical and biological hazards,” Dr. Holliday says.
Due to slower printer speeds than normal production speeds, it may be necessary to closely monitor a printing medium’s temperature so that it does not stay in the temperature danger zone too long or be exposed to conditions where an FDA or USDA inspector could find it adulterated.
Food safety issues also stem from food handling and cleaning complex machines, Dr. Lipson says. The potential risk of making unhealthy foods through software errors also exists.
Giving customers the ability to customize foods can lead to serious safety concerns such as cross-contamination of allergens or at minimum, cross-contamination of food mediums affecting dietary requirements, Dr. Holliday says. Additionally, if customers have the ability to add unique nutritional supplementation to a food, based on need or lifestyle patterns, then there will need to be a safety check to ensure that overdosing is prevented.
Automation is the future of faster food preparation, reduced labor costs, and improved consistency, Dr. Holliday concludes. Consumers are also driving the demand for creative control of foods they eat. Companies such as Frito Lays with its “Do us a Flavor” campaign and restaurants like Chipotle and Smoothie King offering consumers the ability to see and choose toppings or ingredients have already recognized this.