Michael Petch


3D Printing Food, the Modern Prometheus?

An extract from “Future Food: How Cutting Edge Technology & 3D Printing will Change the Way you Eat.”

A surefire way to invoke horror and disgust in consumers is to expose one of the numerous stages in the mechanized food chain to a degree of scrutiny it does not commonly receive. Distrust of large companies and a near continuous campaign to discredit food science as either unnatural or potentially harmful has generated many meters of newsprint in recent years alone. McDonalds was forced to reply to claims their chicken nuggets were

composed of a mysterious pale red slime commonly referred to as “pink goop”[1]. The video footage taken by the company to disprove the presence of slime did not leave consumers feeling much better as it was revealed that a beige, rather than pink, goop is used to produce the nuggets.

Growing environmental awareness and a belief that organic food is better for the consumer might seem to suggest that the introduction of a new form of processed food, possibly the ultimate in processed food, would not be a success. Consumers in Europe and the United States have demonstrated an unwillingness to consume genetically modified organism (GMO) vegetables or fruit[2]. Some commentators have claimed that this stems from the powerful imagery created by Mary Shelly’s cautionary tale of interference with the “natural order” of things in the classic book, Frankenstein. Tellingly, while claims of “Franken-foods” go unchallenged, few care to the recall the alternative title of Shelly’s masterpiece, “The Modern Prometheus”. We might do well to remember how in Ancient Greece, Prometheus was a champion of mankind and through his gift of technology, humanity was said to have flourished. Indeed, public opinion runs counter to the majority of academic studies[3] that show no harm is present due to the use of transgenic crops. However, perception is more important than reality in certain circumstances.

Presented in this light it might seem that 3D printing will face an uphill struggle to achieve mainstream acceptance once the initial novelty has worn off. Furthermore, studies[4] conducted by the market research company Gartner, suggest that 3D printing is preparing to plummet into a “trough of disillusionment” and this is an inevitable step after the inflated expectations created by journalists and commentators keen to write a story about the “next-big thing”. However, as lawyer and technology lobbyist Michael Weinberg points out, “the hype-cycle, while useful for tracking media coverage, is not necessarily the best way to follow the emergence of technology”.

Another voice critical of this — possibly Luddite — perspective comes from Jeff Lipton who is currently finishing his thesis as a PhD candidate at Cornell University. The goal of the thesis is to address five key areas within 3D printing. Lipton is a long-standing member of the Cornell Creative Machines Lab where much of the pioneering research was undertaken during the early days of application of 3DP technology to food. Recognition of food’s core role in human existence[5], not only in the nutrition value but the rituals that surround its preparation and consumption, marks the project’s departure from a strict focus on engineering and a purely mechanical solution to the multi-disciplinary question.

Since inception, the research group has made both great practical and academic contributions to the emerging field of 3D printing and food technology. The aim is to use the technology in three specific ways. The group is working on how the technology can be integrated into the kitchen, its use in providing specific nutrition, and also how and why it can be used to create complex patterns. The latter two ideas are both examples of customization and an area where 3D printing can bring great benefits without an associated increase in cost. Lipton sees five problems which need to be overcome in order for progress to be made. The problem areas are temperature stability, working with traditional foods, the ability to drive the composition of foods through data, producing multiple foods together, and controlling texture.

Speaking with Lipton, he explains, “We focus on several different foundational thoughts. One thought is that 3D printing food needs to be able to integrate into kitchens. Another one is that 3D printing as a whole is good for two things, which is customization and geometric complexity. For food specifically we’re looking at customized nutrition and 3D printing complex patterns.”

To continue reading please follow this link and purchase “Future Food: How Cutting Edge Technology and 3D Printing will Change the Way You Eat.”

[1] More on the story and some images of pink goop here:http://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/food-blog/mcdonalds-mcnuggets-pink-goop-transparency-open-thread

[2] Desaint, N., & Varbanova, M. (2013). The use and value of polling to determine public opinion on GMOs in Europe: Limitations and ways forward. GM Crops and Food: Biotechnology in Agriculture and the Food Chain, 4(3), 183–194.

[3] More on the GMO debate can be found herehttp://academicsreview.org/reviewed-content/genetic-roulette/section-1/

[4] Explanation of Gartners hype-cycle and its application to emerging technology:http://www.gartner.com/technology/research/methodologies/hype-cycle.jsp

[5] Cohen, D. L., Lipton, J. I., Cutler, M., Coulter, D., Vesco, A., & Lipson, H. (2009). Hydrocolloid printing: a novel platform for customized food production.Solid Freeform Fabrication.

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