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Researchers have been pushing the limits of 3D printing for decades, using the manufacturing technique to churn out consumer goods such as furniture and shoes, human organs and even a rocket. But can the industrial technology be applied to make a fully baked dessert that can be fabricated in your home kitchen?
Engineers at Columbia University set out to do just that. A team whipped up a seven-ingredient vegan cheesecake that was assembled and cooked entirely by a 3D-printing machine and — in a new innovation — laser technology, according to a study published Tuesday in the journal NPJ Science of Food.
The experiment was a step toward developing practical uses for 3D printing in mechanically assembled food, the researchers said. The machines needed to create and bake a 3D-printed dessert already exist — at least in Columbia Engineering’s New York laboratory — but there are not yet troves of cookbooks out there spelling out how the tech can be applied.
“If this (technology) were to hit the market, it’s like having an iPod without any MP3 files,” said study coauthor Dr. Jonathan Blutinger, a mechanical engineer and postdoctoral researcher at Columbia Engineering’s Creative Machines Lab. “So there needs to be a place where you can download recipes, create your own recipes, and get some inspiration for what you can actually do with this machine in order for it to really take off in a big way.”
Blutinger acknowledged that the concept of 3D printing food can be off-putting to people.
“There’s perhaps a stigma associated with this word (3D printing),” he told CNN. “Usually with printing you think of an industrial process. (But) it’s important to realize that this is no different than cooking normally except instead of chopping the ingredients up and everything like that, the machine is basically just assembling it in paste form.”
What’s new here
Using 3D printing — also called additive manufacturing — to create food isn’t a new concept. There is a company using the technology to make plant-based steak, and pop-up restaurants offer meals produced entirely by 3D printers. One startup makes 3D-printed sugars, and its parent company produces machines for other entrepreneurs.
Kyle von Hasseln, CEO of Sugar Lab and Currant 3D, said in an email, “3D printed food may be disruptive as to legacy food distribution as regional servers were to the early internet.”
What stands out about Columbia Engineering’s research is that it uses lasers to cook the food as it prints.
“The utilization of lasers may be an important development,” von Hasseln said, “because the heat they provide can prompt a phase change from paste to solid. This phase change is critical to traditional baking, of course — think of setting a souffle.”
Creating a slice of cake was the next step in a years-long effort by Blutinger and his colleagues to develop various foods with larger numbers of ingredients. His efforts started with learning how to bake various doughs with lasers and has evolved into developing a machine that can handle 18 ingredients and print and bake food simultaneously.
And he said the method is exacting, allowing chefs to use extremely precise amounts of ingredients that can be baked or heated differently from moment to moment.
“It works great on the millimeter scale of printing, and you can just control it with much higher resolution than you would (with), say, an oven or a stove top,” he said.
There’s also the potential to make foods to a person’s preferences: “You can kind of customize every little slice (of the cheesecake) if you wanted to.”
For this study, Blutinger and his colleagues experimented with a vegan cheesecake recipe, combining graham cracker paste and other ingredients to churn out a single, customized slice of dessert with flavors such as cherry, banana, peanut butter and hazelnut spread. One slice took about 30 minutes to produce.
As for the taste, Blutinger likened the experience to Willy Wonka’s three-course dinner chewing gum — the one that tastes like soup, then roast beef and finally a blueberry dessert that turns Violet Beauregarde purple in Roald Dahl’s novel “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Blutinger said his 3D-printed food offers similar flashes of flavor.
“You get these waves hitting your palate at different times,” he said. “And that’s a really cool part of the printing process that you can actually localize flavors in the cheesecake.”
The future of 3D-printed food
If the concept of cooking with lasers is concerning, Blutinger added it is no different than heating food in a microwave or broiling a dish in an oven with infrared coils. Most of the ingredients his research team used were also purchased off the shelf at a grocery store, with no special additives.
However, Blutinger said he also hopes to explore a nutritional study to analyze how cooking with lasers might affect the food on a molecular level. That, he said, could go a long way toward increasing the public’s comfort level with such a novel method.
Another reason 3D printing hasn’t been broadly adopted in home kitchens comes down to price: These machines still aren’t cheap. The device that Blutinger and his colleagues assembled probably cost about $1,000 — not including the lasers, which can be as much as $500 a pop, Blutinger said. He noted, though, that the price of lasers has reduced significantly in recent years, thanks in part to advancements in Blu-ray disk players.
“I think the price point is getting into a more reasonable point for a lot of people and for an actual commercial viability standpoint. I think in the next five years or so, you’re going to start to see this technology,” he said.
Dr. Xiang Zhang, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works on 3D-printed medical devices, agreed that there is the potential for 3D food printers to make the leap from tech prototype to a widely adopted consumer product, following the blueprint of products such as Keurig coffee makers. And he said he’s excited about the concept of a machine that can print food as it cooks.
Still, “there’s challenges to be solved,” he added. “You need to bring the costs down to a level that is acceptable to most people. And then the food needs to taste acceptable. … It’s just getting there may involve a long lead time.”
There are incentives to adopting this cooking method, Blutinger said. He noted that 3D printing can allow nutrition-conscious eaters to produce food with precise calorie counts or carbohydrate, fat and sugar contents. The method could also aid people who have eating conditions, such as dysphagia, or difficulty swallowing, he suggested.
But, Blutinger acknowledged that part of his obsession with applying 3D printing to the culinary world stems from his innate desire as an engineer to innovate.
“I think there’s always the longing to include software on previously analog technologies,” he said.
Want some cheesecake but can’t wait for the machine? Here you go from our friends at the Food Network.