MIT researchers engineer shape-shifting food


Researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT’s) Tangible Media Group has developed new food products that change shape when water is added.

The researchers have created food products similar to edible origami, in the form of flat sheets of gelatin and starch that assume 3D shapes when submerged in water, including that of macaroni and rotini.

These edible films can also be folded into the shape of a flower, besides into other unconventional structures.

The culinary potential of the films was bolstered by creating flat discs. These discs can be wrapped around caviar beads, just as cannoli, as well as spaghetti that quickly breaks into smaller noodles when dipped in hot broth.

This latest work by the researchers was presented in a paper this month at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2017 Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

“We thought maybe in the future, our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

The researchers explained that their shape-transforming creations not only indicate culinary performance art but also cut down the costs of shipping food materials.

MIT’s Media Lab research scientist and co-author of the paper Wen Wang said: “We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67% of the volume as air.

“We thought maybe in the future, our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

Wang and his co-author Lining Yao have been working on various materials that respond to moisture, and mostly on a certain bacterium that tends to change its shape due to the humidity factor. They coincidentally found that the bacterium is used to ferment soybeans to make a common Japanese dish known as natto.

The two researchers began exploring if other edible materials too could change their shape when merged with water.            

They began experimenting with gelatin, a substance that naturally expands when it absorbs water. Gelatin can expand to different degrees based on its density, a feature the researchers exploited in creating their shape-transforming structures.

Wang and Yao developed several shapes from the gelatin films such as flowers and horse saddles.

Later, the scientists partnered with the chefs and designed two culinary creations, wherein transparent discs of gelatin flavoured with plankton and squid ink that wrap around caviar and long fettuccini-like strips, made from two gelatins that melt at different temperatures. This causes the noodles to divide when hot broth melts away certain sections.

Yao said: “They had great texture and tasted pretty good.”

This research was partially funded by the MIT Media Lab and Food + Future, a startup accelerator sponsored by Target Corporation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


Image: These pasta shapes were caused by immersing a 2D flat film into water. Photo: courtesy of Michael Indresano Production via MIT.