At the end of May, researchers Wen Wang and Lining Yao from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Tangible Media Group published a paper on their ‘shape-shifting noodles’ project. The work focussed on creating flat sheets of pasta that quickly change shape to form 3D shapes when submerged in water, with the end-product being nicknamed ‘edible origami.’

“At the MIT Media Lab we focus on developing programmable materials, which can respond to different stimuli in the environment, such as humidity or temperature change,” explains co-author and MIT research scientist Wen Wang, “The idea was conceived in 2014, when the team was working on another project, bioLogic – using edible bacteria to make a sweat-responsive garment. At that time, we proposed to make self-folding dumplings with similar mechanisms.”

But Wang admits that the bioLogic project wasn’t the only inspiration for their current work. In 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there’s a short sequence in which main character Rey creates a loaf of bread by pouring an expanding powder into a bowl of water. A throw-away scene for most, but for Wang and Yao, the idea of creating food from water was an intriguing premise.

3D printed morphing pasta

The shape-shifting process works by 3D printing shapes with materials that differently to water onto pasta to form a layered structure. “The pasta film is made of gelatine film and edible fibres. The gelatine film has two layers; a dense top layer and a porous bottom layer. This triple-layered structure ensures the sequential bending behaviour when immersing into water, where top layer of gelatine has a higher water absorption capacity, but smaller water contact surface,” says Wang.

While the process used by the research team used a 3D printing approach, Wang claims the process could be easily replicated using screen-printing for mass production of simple shapes, with digital printing being used for highly-customised shapes, though she clarifies that the process is limited to the creation of shapes that utilise smooth bends and curls, with sharp bending angles using this method being an impossibility.

Importantly for the food industry, taste isn’t heavily affected by the process. “In our current procedure we can freely select the flavour when making the shape-shifting food. Those flavour molecules will not influence the shape transformation dramatically. For instance, we have made potato flavoured and squid ink flavoured pasta.”

Flat pasta – better packaging

There’s also little danger of environmental damage to the pasta, though the effects have not been fully tested as of yet. “The pasta only changes its shape when immersed in water, when it is absorbed in a short period of time. In conventional storage conditions, such as in packaging, there should be limited moisture; however we did not perform intensive experiments for long-term storage in various environments, which might influence the final shape of the pasta.”

Beyond looking unique and being an interesting culinary attraction, Wang believes the process has practical applications within the food industry. Because the product can be packaged flat rather than pre-formed like current shaped pasta, packaging and shipping costs can be cut. Considering the more than six billion pounds of pasta consumed each year in the US alone, the overall savings, both monetary and in terms of carbon footprint, could potentially be astronomical.

“We believe shape-shifting food is a new direction for food industry to pursue, especially in space saving, customised food and food packaging. This food provides precise nutrition to the consumers. We hope to target people with special food needs, such as elderly and people with diabetes.”