In an era where food tastes are gearing towards customisation, 3D food printing, the process of preparing a meal or food item by means of an automated additive method, is said to be able to effectively contribute to this. The technology brings with it benefits for those with food allergies and dietary requirements by allowing meals to be specifically designed not only to the recipient’s flavour, style and taste preferences but also from a nutritional point of view. But at the moment, 3D food printing is predominately occupied by the idea of creating shapes, using single ingredients or single ingredient mixed products and less about nutrition, ingredients or material content.

Picky eaters Vs customisable tastes

According to the latest results from the World Obesity Global Obesity Observatory, 27.4% of men aged 16+ in England were obese and 30% of women aged 16+ in England were obese. With options in customisation, many industry speculators have discussed whether 3D food printing could tackle the world’s obesity crisis and even end world hunger.

“I’m definitely not going to state that 3D printing is going to solve those issues,” explains TNO business development manager Daniel van der Linden. “But what I do see is this technology opening new opportunities, to the food industry and to consumers, to think in a different way on how a food product is made. For example, with 3D food printing, you are able to position ingredients in distinct positions. You can place items, such as salt or sugar on the outside of your food product or even decrease the amount throughout the product. So in that way, it can result in a healthier food product for the consumer and can play a role in tackling the challenge of obesity.”

“This new concept actually gets people the exact nutrition supplements they want and need without any extras or wastage.”

The health benefits do not just stop there. Remedy Health, a 3D printing vitamin supplement company, aims to push this. Its newest concept, NOURISH3D, offers personalised nutrition, by “allowing people to create a single chewable daily nutrition pod, with seven different active ingredients, specific to them,” explains Melissa Snover, co-founder and CEO of 3D printing companies Katjes Magic Candy Factory and Remedy. Launching in the UK this summer, it will be a world first for the industry.

Snover explains that her initial launch into 3D food printing, with The Magic Candy Factory, made her realise that, although consumers loved the 3D candy, it was not specifically solving a problem. “With NOURISH3D, I think we have now found a very good use case for 3D food printing, which makes a better go to market option than what is currently readily available. This new concept actually gets people the exact nutrition supplements they want and need without any extras or wastage. It’s a sugar free, plastic free, vegan solution.”

In terms of other health related concerns such as allergy restrictions and disease preventions, 3D printing is beneficial. With abilities to fortify specific food items for patients, while doing it in an efficient and nutritious way – both material- and cost-wise – this technology shows how it can offer a unique opportunity for distinct use cases.

“In the future, you could, in effect, print French Fries that are made of protein – actually fortifying them with different active ingredients. We are currently working on a project for dementia patients, creating 3D printed candy with a very high water content to help with dehydration. This, in effect, will make it possible for people to have the capability of a factory at their fingertips,” concludes Snover.

But will all this customisation entertain the picky eaters amongst us? van der linden believes this may not be the case. “Maybe it will actually be the other way around. In our organisation, we see dramatic changes in the consumer landscape and that really requires us to think of more ways to anticipate on this changing consumer behaviour. There’s a drive from consumers to get access to healthy, fresh food products that meets their own personal nutritional requirements. Keeping consumers happy is quite difficult to achieve using traditional food processing methods. But we really need to start thinking of new technologies that allows us to provide for the consumer of the future – the near future actually – and I firmly believe that 3D printing can be one of the solutions towards that.”

Challenges facing 3D food printing

3D printing does not come without its challenges. For companies to effectively advance this technology, they must find the appropriate use case for it. Companies must understand what the technology allows them to do, how it fits with their current strategy or the strategy they want to develop and which 3D printed food products fits into that. Knowing what you are selling is important but knowing how to sell it to the consumer is vital.

Snover explains, “There is so much opportunity but real use cases need to be found, which are better than the current way. It also has to reach the market at a price point that’s not ridiculous. Just like TVs – they used to be super expensive when they first came out but now you can get a really decent one for a good price. So that’s what tends to happen in a technology curve. As the technology becomes more used and more optimised, it becomes more cost effective and then becomes mainstream adapted. That is where we need to push the concept – usability and cost for the consumer.”

In regards to technology development, another challenge facing 3D food printing is the availability of the value chain. The number of companies which are selling 3D food printers need to increase, as well as the capabilities of the machines in order to become more widely used or widely accepted by companies.

“A 3D printer needs to be to create a multitude of different final products in order for it to be successful on a mainstream basis.”

The final challenge is in personalisation. From a technological perspective, the industry must understand how it can increase the complexity of the printed food products and how it can scale up the technology. Making it available at a larger scale is something that will require further attention in the years to come.

Snover says, “If a 3D printer wants to have a place in the kitchen, it needs to be able to make more than one thing. A 3D printer needs to be able to combine different ingredients to create a multitude of different final products in order for it to be successful on a mainstream basis, and that will be a humungous challenge from lots of different angles – not so much the research – but the technical challenge of getting it to work.”

Future of 3D printing

So what does the future of 3D food printing look like? Later this year, the industry will see more food companies introduce commercially 3D printed food products, with the market revenue predicted to increase to £26.8bn ($35bn) by 2020, according to the International Data Corporation. The personalisation trend to look out for is nutrition with continued focus on shaping. van der Linden states that nicely shaped 3D printed foods are tipped to be at the forefront of this technology, expecting to rise in the next three to five years. He explains that companies should use the “technology to provide personalised solutions, in terms of nutritional content, texture and structure in the commercial space. At TNO we are currently looking into various new printing technologies like powder-based printing and how this can be applied for food industry.”

3D food printing is said to be the next technological food innovation to change the industry and with companies such as Food INK, the world’s first 3D printing restaurant, Remedy Health and 3D printed pasta company Brilla already using it commercially, it won’t be long until 3D food printing emerges into the mass market, shaping the way we eat for years to come.