3D Printering: The Quest for Printable Food

A video has been making the rounds on social media recently that shows a 3D printed “steak” developed by a company called NovaMeat. In the short clip, a machine can be seen extruding a paste made of ingredients such as peas and seaweed into a shape not entirely unlike that of a boot sole, which gets briefly fried in a pan. Slices of this futuristic foodstuff are then fed to passerby in an effort to prove it’s actually edible. Nobody spits it out while the cameras are rolling, but the look on their faces could perhaps best be interpreted as resigned politeness. Yes, you can eat it. But you could eat a real boot sole too if you cooked it long enough.

To be fair, the goals of NovaMeat are certainly noble. Founder and CEO Giuseppe Scionti says that we need to develop new sustainable food sources to combat the environmental cost of our current livestock system, and he believes meat alternatives like his 3D printed steak could be the answer. Indeed, finding ways to reduce the consumption of meat would be a net positive for the environment, but it seems his team has a long way to go before the average meat-eater would be tempted by the objects extruded from his machine.

But the NovaMeat team aren’t the first to attempt coaxing food out of a modified 3D printer, not by a long shot. They’re simply the most recent addition to a surprisingly long list of individuals and entities, not least of which the United States military, that have looked into the concept. Ultimately, they’ve been after the same thing that convinced many hackers and makers to buy their own desktop 3D printer: the ability to produce something to the maker’s exacting specifications. A machine that could produce food with the precise flavors and textures specified would in essence be the ultimate chef, but of course, it’s far easier said than done.

Customized Cuisine

It should be said that there’s no magic when it comes to printing edible objects. It’s something that we’ve seen done many times at the hobbyist scale, from homebrew machines to the occasional official accessory for a commercial desktop 3D printer. At the absolute basic level, you simply replace the existing extruder and hotend with a syringe full of some sort of edible paste: peanut butter, dough, frosting, whatever.

So far, it seems like the most headway has been made with chocolate because it has certain properties not entirely unlike the thermoplastic filament desktop 3D printers are designed for. If you warm it up enough it will extrude in a nice fine bead, and once it cools off, it will return to a solid state. Get the temperature and timing right, and the results can be quite impressive. During the 2018 Maker Faire we took a close look at the Cocoa Press, a perfect example of how these techniques can be put into practice today with existing technology.

Meals Ready to Extrude

Making custom shaped chocolates is a neat enough trick, and even has some commercial applications, but you’re inherently limited by the single extruder design of the machine. Just like with plastic printers, the next step is to add multiple extruders or at least the ability to switch materials in the extruder. In theory, this would allow you to create complex foodstuffs that feature a mix of flavors, textures, and even nutritional values.

This is precisely what got the U.S. Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate (CFD) interested in printing food back in 2014. The idea was that they could not only tailor battlefield rations to a specific soldier’s appetite, but make sure it contained whatever vitamins and minerals they were currently deficient in. In principle, this means they could all but reduce food waste while at the same time making sure the enhanced nutritional requirements of a front-line combatant were met.

If this sounds a bit fanciful, that’s because it is. To start with, being able to create food that fulfills the precise real-time nutritional needs of an individual requires some system to identify what those needs are quickly and easily; a technological capability that the CFD simply assumed would be available on the battlefield of the future. Further, the idea of a 3D printer complex enough to be capable of such feats while still being compact and robust enough for soldiers to carry into battle borders on science fiction. The mental image of a solder trying to diagnose why their printer wasn’t extruding a particular flavor while hunkered down in a foxhole might be comical if the stakes weren’t so high. Anything a solider takes with them must be reliable and robust to the highest degree possible, anything less could be a fatal liability.

That said, the other goals of the program: reducing waste by making custom portions and raising morale by allowing soldiers to create the type of food they actually want to eat, are areas where printed food does hold promise. As we’ve seen many times before, 3D printing works best when used to create a one-off customized instance of something, and the same holds true whether you’re printing PLA or soy protein.

A Matter of Time

A machine that can produce a meal specifically tailored to the nutritional needs of the person who requested it is more akin to the replicators in Star Trek than anything we’re likely to have in our kitchens in the foreseeable future. But a machine that can squirt out mashed-up peas into a vaguely steak-looking shape of whatever size you wish is clearly something we’re capable of with contemporary technology. So why can’t we order one from the latest Williams Sonoma catalog? For the same reason that 3D printing hasn’t taken over traditional manufacturing: it’s painfully slow.

In the current incarnation of the NovaMeat printer, it can take twice as long to print a steak as it does to cook it. That might be acceptable for a proof of concept, but it will never work as a commercial product. It’s even less practical for a restaurant, and completely unrealistic for large scale production. The process is limited by the physical constraints of moving an extruder around, and while there are certainly some optimizations that can be made (such as using a larger nozzle), these will only take you so far. The inherent “Speed Limit” of FDM printing has prevented it from displacing traditional manufacturing, and it will keep it from preparing our food as well. At least for the near future.

44 thoughts on “3D Printering: The Quest for Printable Food

  1. “So far, it seems like the most headway has been made in ate because it has certain properties not entirely unlike the thermoplastic filament desktop 3D printers are designed for.”

    What is this “ate” you wrote about?
    Is it like saitam?

  2. I can understand why you might want to 3d print something like chocolate, for the same reasons we do it with plastic: making unique parts and shapes. But why would a meat replacement need to be 3d printed? It doesn’t need to be hollow or have a complex internal geometry, its just a slab of printed material. This could easily be pressed into a mold and made faster. From the reactions it seems like they should focus more on the “food” than the printing.

    1. Because if it’s 3D printed, some saps will give you funding money on the buzz words alone.

      It makes no sense to print this “steak”, it’s just a gimmick. The only possible advantage is being able to produce an exact sized piece, but we already have the tech for that: a knife.

      1. And here I were thinking that just meat replacements were a sufficiently buzz wordy thing to alone to get the needed funding to start something…

        Though, 3D printed chocolate/candy decoration pieces sounds far more useful. Maybe this could be of use for the local bakery?

    2. Putting paste into a mold would give you some kind of pastry, quite different to a steak.
      The point of NovaMeat, I think, is to obtain a similar texture, reproducing the fibers of the steak.

      1. does printing pla make the pla fibrous?

        Reproducing the fibers of the steak would depend more on NovaMeat being a fibrous paste instead of a homogeneous mixture of goo. That being said, we injection mold fibrous plastics all the time (the automotive world is now calling it “forged carbon”), and given that there are a multitude of variables involved in injection or compression molding, i don’t doubt that a steak like texture (or mouth feel) is entirely possible…

        3d printing is the gimmick here to get dumb investors, come talk to me when they solve the first and second parts of the problem;

        1. Determining an individuals nutritional requirements on the spot.
        2. Determining the mixtures of ingredients needed to make up those nutritional needs

        Then we can talk about the third part of the problem:

        3. Mixing those ingredients together in such a way as to be food grade clean (don’t forget the cleaning part so that one meal does not affect the next meal)

        But hey at least they have that 3d printing part down! NovaMeat is the equivalent of all of those patent trolls who took existing patents and then added “with a computer” at the end except NovaMeat is doing it “with a 3d printer”

        1. “1. Determining an individuals nutritional requirements on the spot.
          2. Determining the mixtures of ingredients needed to make up those nutritional needs

          “He had found a Nutri-Matic machine which had provided him with a plastic cup filled with a liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.
          The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic analysis of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.”

          ― Douglas Adams HHGTTG

    3. If you blend a steak and press it into a mold I’m willing to bet it will not be anywhere close to the same texture or taste the same. With 3d printing you could probably get a bit closer to the real deal. You could try to mimic how the fat tissue is in a real steak for instance. You could grow the meat cells and fat cells synthetically and at some point that could perhaps help reduce the carbon emissions from traditional farming. Also astronauts could grow meat on Mars without having to try to send cows in rockets to the space farm.

      1. A steak ground up and pushed into a mold is literally a hamburger. If I had to guess, a beef burger tastes better than a printed pea slab.

        But if we’re going for that (plant based burgers), then Impossible is already doing a pretty good job of that with no 3D printer required.

        1. Steak “ground up” is indeed hamburger, but steak blended into a paste is not. Try it yourself and see. The mouth feel difference will make the pasteburger less palatable, which I suspect is due to conditioned expectations. While the pasteburger may contain nothing different than the ground hamburger, it manages to fall into an uncanny valley for most people and results in a negative reaction. It could also be a natural avoidance of spoiled/tainted meat since the rotting process tends to turn meat into a soft paste or liquid.

          1. Apparently due to the limits of the site’s threading I can’t directly reply to Mike…

            No, I don’t believe there’s any magic in “3D printing” that would turn said paste back into a decent texture. Perhaps if you could print a fibrous framework as scaffolding and somehow inject the paste into that you could approximate the mouth feel more closely. Something like a matrix of collagen/gelatin with meat “fibers” made akin to microscopic sausages (the paste contained within a skin) might get you beyond the uncanny valley.

    4. The idea that you can print individualized food and also have the process be sustainable is completely ludicrous and paradoxical. It’s insulting to genuine efforts people put into solving these problems.

  3. “In the current incarnation of the NovaMeat printer, it can take twice as long to print a steak as it does to cook it.”

    Not if you turn up the temperature of the heat bed!
    Then you can do both at once!


  4. I get the drive to decrease meat consumption, I even get the drive of the creator to attempt to innovate with food science but why all the smoke and mirrors.
    Ground legumes, extracted gluten or crickets will never* taste like a real steak. Celebrate the product, make a recipe that tastes good based on the ingredients, not based on how many ingredients you have to add to make it taste like what it isn’t.

    Convince people to eat less meat because the alternatives are also tastey, not because they ‘taste like’ what they’re trying to displace. Or better yet, convince people to support responsible ranching/fishing practices.

    * i’m sure at some point in the distant future after millions have been spent we can have artificial steak flavoring just like artificial fruit flavors.

    1. It’s our nature to eat both meat and plants. That isn’t going to stop. Our future isn’t in mashed up plants renamed to steak.

      It will start with lab-grown muscle tissue started from samples of all the common meats we eat today. That will solve most of the environmental problems with meat. It also means that no additional animals need suffer. But where did those samples come from? Somebody is going to realize that starting over with samples humanely taken from anesthetized animals which are then allowed to live out a good life pampered in their ideal environment is a good marketing move. They can make their “donor” animals their mascots and parade how well they are treated in their commercials.

      But they aren’t really donors are they? They can’t give consent to having their flesh sampled to create the original cell stock. Even though any wild animal desperately striving just to find food to survive and avoiding predators day to day would no doubt jump on that opportunity if they could understand it.

      So even then there will be some opposition. Then someone will realize that there is one animal that CAN give consent. And though the idea is quite repulsive today people will be more used to seeing eating as being separate from and not dependent upon killing. And once screened for infections it is still safe and nutritious. With a little genetic manipulation to the harvested cells it might even be possible to truly mimic the taste and feel of the more traditional animals or even design new flavors.

      That’s why eventually, maybe a few generations from now our descendants will all be chowing down on lab grown, genetically altered human flesh!

      1. Humans are omnivores. Omnivores need to eat a balanced diet of plants and animal tissue. It’s just that simple. Anything else is simply a flat out wrong and unscientific opinion.

  5. The 3d printing part is just a gimmick for views and investment money, while the real solution is determining the instantaneous nutritional needs of a human being at the time of feeding. Wait, what, none of the solutions are working part? oh yeah that’s because that is the incredibly hard part. The thing is that once that part is figured out then there is no need for 3d printing, Injection molding is quicker and able to cook the food as it processes it.

    The only use that 3d printers will have in food is high end dining where the presentation and spectacle are part of the experience. Any other claims regarding 3d printing and food are purely to rip-off investors.

  6. His goals are nothing but virtue signalling drivel, used for marketing and self-agrandizing purpose.

    There is ample lands on the planet not suitable for food cultivation, but perfectly adequate for grazing lands. Without needing to deforest or use fruits and vegetable suitable alnds, there would be enough meat from ruminant to feed 5+ billion people on a mostly carnivorous diet, i.e. more than half the present population.

    But this would be impossible in the actual world which does not recognise individual and property rights – it would make cattle herding and grazing a loosing proposition.

    Furthermore, one significant cause of food increase is the ethanol mandate in gazoline. Corn culture is a method of strip mining, which removes all nutrients from the top soil, leaving it completely depleted.
    Grazing land, to the contrary, enriches the soil both from the nitrogen-fixating vegetation (clover, alfalfa, etc) and from constant cattle manure which also brings nutrients to the ground. All of this is driven, of course, by solar energy, via photosynthesis.

    Let me remind you that India adopted vegeterianism around a millenia ago in order to limit the lifespan of its population.

    I wish you’d stick to ad-hoc science and technology, without getting into propaganda and self-righteous virtue-signalling BS.

  7. I met a U.S. Army captain in Boston, at the New England Complex Systems Institute (NECSI.edu, associated to M.I.T.) who ate only 4-5 days a week during a window of 4 hours per 24 hours. He was in his early-fifties, and regularly participated in special ops. He said his body required much less food, in absolute terms, than the others. It gave him more autonomy, and less food payload to carry in the field and that he had no problem matching, and often besting the physical performances of elite force people almost half his age.

    He simply used his brain to manage his food supply.

  8. It seems that 3D printing food (other than chocolate and a few other highly specific use cases) has two major problems to overcome:

    1. Does the feedstock actually cook up into something that tastes good? And would it taste better if it didn’t have to go through compromises to run through an extruder? One of my favorite Christmas cookie recipes calls for running through an extrusion process, and it’s a bit finicky about the dough. Change the dough and you have something that won’t shape properly.

    2. If you do come up with a good-tasting feedstock, what advantage is there to printing it over just pouring it into a skillet and frying it like a pancake? You could even use something to tailor the mix of what you’re pouring into the skillet to hit a lot of the targets without actual 3D printing.

    I generally haven’t been a fan of plant based attempts to make fake meat. If I’m feeling like something plant based, I’d rather have an honest bean croquette over something that sort of tastes like meat but doesn’t quite hit the mark. And I’d take a bowl of steamed edemame over textured soy protein.

  9. Why bother printing a whole chicken when it’s drumsticks and wings, maybe breast meat that everyone wants. I have often wondered what the multi-legged and winged backless creature would look like. Of course they are naked and headless!
    Well there are pictures of chickens on the web with redundant dundunts (drumsticks) for starts.

    If you want the best feed to meat ratio now that Easter is over, rabbits. They even recycle what they eat for more efficiency, they eat their own pellets as well as the feed pellets.

  10. This is so wrong… Grazing animals have huge stomachs, because they need to consume large quantities of vegetation to meet their dietary needs. We don’t have the stomach for it, and would need to graze frequently, almost constantly. Grazers produce a lot of methane, a potent ‘greenhouse’ gas. As grazers, we would also produce large quantities as well. Doesn’t sound like a pleasant commute on the ‘Green New Deal’ trains. Cows are sort of preprocessors, reducing the bulk vegetation, so we don’t have to eat so much, or so often. Much more efficient, and tasty, than tofu. Plants need CO2, and the more they have available, the healthier, faster growing, and larger yield. Somewhere between 1200-2000 ppm, is the sweet spot for plants, we are only at 400 ppm or so. Kill the CO2, kill the plants, reduce the food supply… Doesn’t make much sense. Google Vegan+ (any meat or animal product), and see that they have a fake version. Looking at the ingredients, can’t imagine any of them actually tasting remotely similar to the real deal. It was sort of game, looking for some sort of meat or animal product, that they haven’t faked. Very difficult, there is even Vegan Spam, cow tongue, tripe. They don’t do rabbit though, which I thought odd. Can’t understand the focus on faking foods, since there are so many tasty plant only foods, naturally. Why go to so much trouble making a faux ribeye steak, if you’ve given up meat. It’s only going to be disappointing reminder of what you gave up. Ethical treatment for animals, and the make vegan cat food… Only time cats eat plants, is to help cough up a furball on your carpet…

    I don’t really have a problem with reducing meat consumption. I eat a lot less of it, not so much to be trendy, just lost a lot of it’s appeal, to much weird stuff going on with it, recalls, and such. Doesn’t often look quite right in the grocery store. I look, if lt seems right, I’ll some. Personally, I think if we leave CO2 alone, the plants will produce more food for everything, and we can have healthier meats, cheaper too. I’m no biologist, zoologist, or botanist. But I do recall that carbon is very important to our existence, and plants are our only source of carbon in our diet. Sure, we can get it from meat, but that animal got it from plants. Plants mainly get carbon, from the CO2. Climate models are wrong, flawed. We really don’t have the data needed to accurately feed them, even if perfect in every way. It’s just guessing and dreaming, but a whole lot of research money to grab.

  11. “the goals of NovaMeat are certainly noble” – why? To put millions of farmers out of business? To replace a nutritious tasty product of nature with a pile of mediocre goop?

    1. Exactly. Not sure why anyone would want to produce synthetic steak. The real-deal is made from the plants they eat anyway. Cows do a much more effective job of processing vegetation into the nutrients we need as well. We don’t need to consume the huge volume of raw vegetation, to meet our nutritional needs from it. Personally, the thought of grazing, crapping, and passing greenhouse gas all day, just to spare an animal or two, just doesn’t seem like a good use of my time.

        1. Seems that a lot of food-based diseases are from contamination during processing. More processing, greater chance of contamination. More single-serving containers for the landfill? Shipping? So, basically, our meals could eventually come from anywhere, and anything. Since it vaguely resembles actual food, and we are starving, it’ll be close enough, least better than nothing at all. I suppose, after a generation or two passes, and few left, who have experience ‘real’ food, no one will know any difference, or the thought of fresh foods would be less appealing and inconvenient to prepare.

          Soylent Green was made out of what? Is this another science fiction, becoming reality? If this Climate Change thing gets too far, food will be expensive, and less easy to obtain. Electricity and most energy source will be at a premium as well, so fresh storage isn’t going to work out so well. Land used for food production, turned into solar farms, and wind farms. Crops used for biofuel… Yeah, we are going to kill ourselves, to spare our grandchildren from maybe, an uncomfortable climate. Personally, I like a warmer climate. Plants like a warmer planet, and a lot of CO2. Cows like plants, and I like a nice ribeye steak occasionally. But I’m not a trendy guy, and not overly religious.

  12. I just build a 3d-printer that can print tomat-soup.

    The taste is almost indistinguishable from non-printed soup –
    and once it’s done printing the soup is even hot!

    See you on kickstarter guys!

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