Would You Eat a Pizza That Came Out of a Printer?

3D printing is revolutionizing what we think of as food.

The idea of artificially manufactured, mass-produced food can conjure up some negative associations. There are the human-flesh-packed wafers fed to the starving masses in sci-fi classic Soylent Green; the schoolchildren forced to eat ground-up versions of each other in Pink Floyd’s The Wall; Willy Wonka’s meal-in-one stick of gum that turns Violet Beauregarde into a giant blueberry. But outside of the realm of fiction, scientists have been working on developing nutrition-packed, artificially preserved meal substitutes for decades. New technology like 3D printing is revolutionizing how these synthetic foods can be made.

Scientists at the U.S. Army’s Natick research center are spearheading an effort to create 3D-printed foods for soldiers in the field, as NPR reported this week. Because soldiers have to carry heavy gear on their backs and are on the move for hours at a time, they need lightweight, nutritious meals to bring with them. But the Natick team’s experiments go far beyond the shrink-wrapped MREs (meals ready to eat) that soldiers currently rely on for sustenance. In their vision, soldiers would be strapped with sensors that could measure potassium and cholesterol levels in real time. Lauren Oleksyk, the food technologist leading the team, elaborated:

"We envision to have a 3D printer that is interfaced with the soldier. And that sensor can deliver information to the computer software. And then they would be able to have either powdered or liquid matrices that are very nutrient dense, that they have on demand that they can take and eat immediately to fill that need."

The Department of Defense has approved research funding, and the meals for soldiers are supposed to be ready for implementation by 2025. In the meantime, scientists are working on developing 3D foods for those working in similarly extreme conditions, like astronauts. Last year, Systems & Materials Research Corporation was awarded a $125,000 grant from NASA to create a “universal food synthesizer” for 3D-printed foods. The technology uses cartridges of carbohydrates, protein powders and oils, which could keep for up to 30 years, to create full meals. Though the machine was initially developed as a way of keeping astronauts fed on long space flights, its inventor, Anjan Contractor, believes 3D printing could have another, infinitely more ambitious use: ending world hunger.

As he told the business news blog Quartz, “I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently. So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.” 

This time could be coming sooner than we think. Researchers have already successfully made 3D chocolate, pizza, ravioli and hamburgers, and scientists in Germany developed a 3D printing method that creates soft foods from natural ingredients for senior citizens in retirement and assisted living facilities. 

Allegra Kirkland is AlterNet's associate managing editor. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, Salon, Daily Serving and The Nation.

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