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3D printing: The next frontier in food

Innovation: Global commercialization is already ramping up on projects that were inconceivable only a couple of years ago

While burgers made from plants instead of animals are all the rage today, and many popular restaurant chains are jumping on the alternative-meat bandwagon, a Spanish startup is taking the concept one step further.

Novameat has developed a plant-based “meat” that mimics the texture of a real steak — and that can be printed by a 3D printer

It’s all the brain child of founder Giuseppe Scionti, a human tissue engineer who created synthetic ears and other body parts before turning his attention to meat replacement products.

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“I’m using biological printing technology for generating plant-based substitutes for fibrous meat. That’s the main difference between me and what others have done — the texture is just like chicken breast, pig meat or steak,” Scioti said during a recent presentation at the Agri-Food Innovation Event in the Netherlands.

“I’m not doing cell-based meat, I’m doing the same thing but without the cells,” he explained. “We mix 3D printing with plant-based meat.”

Current cell-based meat products from companies like Mosa Meats and Memphis Meats — where meat is essentially grown in a lab using animal cells — are expensive and time-consuming to make. By comparison, plant-based meat replacements like the burgers from Beyond Meat sold at A&W lack the characteristics of muscle cuts like steak and are currently limited to ground or formed products like patties or chicken nuggets.

Finished printed designs in butter.
photo: Lilian Schaer

Using rice and pea protein, Scionti is creating micro-extruded fibrous pastes that resemble the muscular tissue of meat when they come out of a 3D printer. And he’s convinced that booming global demand from people seeking alternatives to conventional meat products means his products will flourish.

“It is very different to create fibrous meat than a burger patty. We have texture, now we are working on appearance and then we will add taste and nutritional values,” he said, adding his initial target market will be partnerships with high-end and unique niche restaurants open to innovation.

He’s seeking investors now to support scaling up activities including getting prototypes to the pilot plant stage by 2022.

Dutch family business byFlow is a current global leader in development and sale of 3D food printers. Their portable unit weighs only about eight kilograms and can print over 50 different ingredients simply by changing ingredient cartridges, making it ideal for restaurants and catering businesses that want to offer something unique to their customers.

“Our mission is to change food for a more healthy, sustainable world,” said CEO Nina Hoff. “We supply hardware technology, but also build the ecosystem around it.”

That includes a recipe database of what is printable and what isn’t, how to adjust foods to make them printable and a standard design database of over 100 tried and tested designs. Their latest innovation is the byFlow studio, which allows users to upload and print personalized designs like photos or handwriting.

Their current audience includes patisseries and chocolatiers, bakeries, high-end restaurants and catering businesses that want to make extraordinary decorations that aren’t possible by mold or hand, as well as schools from all over the world keen to learn more about this technology.

ByFlow also has research projects underway with various European institutions that are looking at sustainable uses for the technology, like reducing food waste. It’s also working with food ingredient companies to continually refine the food paste used by the printers.

“The fillings have to be authentic and pure, so we use fresh foods in combination with bindings based on things like chickpea,” said Jeroen van der Graaf, creative innovation manager with Verstegen Spices, a food printing paste supplier. “We supply a lot of smaller, authentic companies who like to be different. In the future, we want to use food waste residues and fermented vegetables to make the pastes.”

TNO, a Dutch institute for applied scientific research, has been working on 3D printing of food for almost a decade, starting with putting chocolate powder into a 3D printer.

There, experts including Mathijs de Schipper, a research scientist in additive manufacturing, have been working on increasing the speed of 3D food printing as well as on technologies to improve the texture and performance of the pastes and added fillings, such as a pasta dough with cream cheese that would create a ravioli-like eating experience.

“If you speed up the process, you need a bigger machine. If your shell material isn’t strong enough, you will get bleed out of the filling,” de Schipper said. “You have to take this into account when making your design — this is all to improve the eating experience and so we can personalize food.”

Food paste cartridges ready for use in a printer.
photo: Lilian Schaer

Personalized, print-to-order meals for people with swallowing problems is one practical application for the technology, according to de Schipper. Another is 3D printing food for the military, where meals could be made to order based on each soldier’s performance.

“Depending on effort needed in their deployment, soldiers need different calorie levels,” de Schipper said. “Rations are currently all the same, but can we improve them by personalizing the amount of nutrition you get and improving the performance of the soldiers, especially those in unique conditions like pilots or sharpshooters or those deployed in the Arctic?”

TNO researchers are currently working on a project with the Dutch military to provide soldiers with a personalized snack in addition to their standard ration.

The technology is still very much in its infancy though, and it’s difficult to increase both the scale of production and the level of personalization of the printed food products at the same time.

They know their goal, however. As de Schipper says, it’s to make the technology easily scalable to produce large volumes and move from a single material per layer to a composition of specific powders to boost taste, nutrition and applicable uses.

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