3D printing technology is not new to the food world – chocolatiers have been using the technology for years to create intricate shapes for their pieces. Chocolate, of course, is softened when heated and then hardens at room temperature. This makes it easy to heat slightly, and then print into a shape to harden. That doesn’t directly translate to meat, though, so on to the theory.
Picture this: It’s your wedding anniversary and your partner is in the kitchen pouring you each a glass of wine. You’ve gone back and forth discussing what your celebration dinner should be and have settled on a meal from a restaurant you discovered on your trek across Europe years ago. There’s one obstacle: You don’t live in Europe. You do live in the future, though, and what would have been an obstacle in 2021 no longer is.
You pull out your phone (or whatever the device of the future is) and open the app for the 3D food printer that lives on the kitchen counter. You search for the restaurant you want to eat at and pull up the menu. You’ve decided on Diver Scallop Carpaccio for your appetizer and key in your order. The restaurant 5,000 miles away sends a one-time use recipe to the printer over wi-fi and it begins whizzing away in your kitchen. After 15 minutes, it dings, letting you know your appetizer is ready. As you bring the scallops to the table, you select your entrees and the cycle begins again.
For me, this theory could become a reality when cell-based proteins are perfected. Whether that happens a year from now or a decade from now will depend on how quickly the USDA and FDA can develop and pass regulatory guidelines. Cell-based chicken is already available in a restaurant in Singapore, so it’s no longer just about the timeline for creating these products; it’s also about regulating them. Once we have an approved, reliable way to create the protein media (the “meat” material grown in a lab), we’ll be able to put it into cartridges for 3D printers. I’ve also operated under the assumption that once we figure out how to create meat from the cells of living animals, doing the same for produce and carbohydrates would be easier. Each of these would have its own cartridge within the printer to make the different components.
Earlier this year, MatPat (one of my favorite content creators on YouTube) released this video to his FoodTheory channel. In it, he talks about the Norimaki Synthesizer, a hand-held rod that uses electrically charged gel to simulate flavors when pressed against the tongue. It works by reducing all flavors to a combination of five things – sweet, salty, acid, bitter and umami, with the theory being that by changing how much or little of those five things we can taste, we can create the flavor sensation of any food imaginable.
If this theory can be proven, 3D printing any food just got simpler. With the basic electrolyte solutions and a variety of edible, tasteless substances, we could print any food we wanted – maybe even with more nutrients and fewer calories than the originals. In this way, “meat” could be composed of glutamic sodium (the umami flavor gel), sodium chloride (for salty) and edible polymers rather than any cells or parts of actual animals.
While all of this is still theory and none is waiting just around the corner for us (except maybe cell-based ground meat), it is a good reminder that science and technology are always advancing. And while it may not even be a future we live to see, new technologies could totally transform what and how we eat. As for how the meat industry should prepare? Even though we are probably decades away from this Jetson’s-style future, it’s wise to step back and look at the technology being developed outside our scope so we are prepared for what tomorrow brings.