Can We Build the Food Replicators from Star Trek?

We have all seen the food replicators from Star Trek. The Fifth Element used similar movie magic to create food. But would we ever be able to create food with just a push of a button?

The answer to that question is simply, yes.

First of all, the Law of Conservation states that matter cannot be created or destroyed. So, as long as we have all of the matter or ingredients, we can potentially create a machine that puts the matter together to create the food.

A 3D printer takes a material, usually a resin, and uses “additive manufacturing” to add layers on top of the last. The printer would follow a design that was programmed to form a shape. The applications of 3D printing are almost limitless. But can we print food?

There are already commercially available printers that allow us to 3D print chocolate and sugar. These machines can create shapes that are geometrically awesome.

But all of these machines are limited to one ingredient. You simply can’t use these machines to create anything more complicated than chocolate or sugar, or whatever the primary ingredient is. But that isn’t stopping some early adopters from trying to make things that are more complex.

Smoothe Foods is a German company who is producing slightly more complex versions of printed food. Their goal is to make foods that are easily chewed for those who have a harder time chewing and swallowing. Their food is currently being shipped to nursing homes all around Germany, as well as a few neighboring countries. Some of their tastier foods include mashed carrots, peas, and broccoli. Those mashed foods are congealed with edible glue. However, a major problem for the company is the texture of the printed food. Some have described their printed food as “not appealing” because of its texture. In a few extreme cases, this has to lead to a few people becoming malnourished.

In 2013 one hundred twenty-five thousand dollar grant was awarded to Anjan Contractor from NASA’s Small Business Innovations program to build a printer that could make a pizza. The current prototype of this machine uses “thick viscous slurries” to print each part of the pizza one at a time. Once all of the parts are printed, the pizza is then baked to finish. Even though Anjan has successfully printed pizza’s he currently faces two major obstacles. His current printer takes hours to make one small pizza. On top of the time, Anjan’s printer still struggles with the same texture issues.
Food Ink is a restaurant that opened in London in 2016. They claim to be the first restaurant that serves 3D printed foods. They call it “food art”. This food, for the most part, is bread or pasta that are used to frame other foods. The food is garnished and presented like most expensive restaurants. However, the printed food part of the meal is somewhat small and doesn’t contain any of the flavors that make up the dish.

In 2016 at CES (Consumer Electronic Show) in Las Vegas, the Culinary Institute of America unveiled a partnership with 3D Systems, the creator of the ChefJet printer. 3D Systems gave several ChefJet printers to be used at Culinary Institute of America’s headquarters in Los Angeles. Students and staff would all have access to these printers in an attempt to further the ideas of what can be created.

Currently, creating anything substantial with a food printer fails on both taste and texture. The reason is that as humans we have a hard time eating things that don’t look, taste and feel like the natural foods that we are used to. Time is also another major side effect of printing food. As we stand right now, to print a pizza, first the dough would be printed, then the machine would have to be changed to be able to print the sauce. The machine would have to be changed once again to print the cheese. Then, if you want to make it more complex, you would have to change parts once again to print pepperoni and changed for each topping you would want. Once the printing is completed you would then have to bake the pizza. It is time-consuming, requires several parts changes, and each layer could only have one ingredient.

But it is only a matter of time before the tech required to develop a more advanced machine is created.

Anjan Contractor plans to continue to research and develop his printer to be more complex to print more than one ingredient at a time. He envisions using encapsulated powders and oils that would potentially have a shelf life of up to thirty years.

The future of this tech looks to be well within reach. Not only that, but it would be fairly cheap. There are only a few things standing in the way of printed food becoming readily available. First, we need a printer that can print complex combinations of ingredients on a micro level. This will go a long way in improving the taste and texture issues. After that, the printers have to work faster. Something I imagine happening to speed up the process would be to print in a higher temperature. This could potentially cook the food while it was being printed.

Mass adoption of printed food would change the world, as we know it. It would lessen the environmental impact that the food industry currently has. Printing synthetic meat would greatly reduce the size and number of ranches and farms around the world. Each day a cow eats twenty-four to twenty-eight pounds of food. A good portion of that food could be used for other purposes or even reduced greatly saving thousands of gallons of water.

It is currently estimated that roughly a third of all food shipped to grocery stores never gets sold, and therefore ends up in the garbage. On top of that, if we include all of the food that is purchased, but then thrown away for whatever reason, some guess that at least forty percent of all food produced in the United States is wasted.

Food printers would reduce the amount of waste because you could buy bulk containers that had a shelf life of up to thirty years. You would only use what you would need from that and save the rest. There would still be a waste, but much less.

Shipping raw ingredients to be printed would probably be cheaper than shipping harvested food. The major difference would be the ability to eliminate water from the raw ingredients. If water was still needed for the printing process, it could be added back into the ingredients in preparation for printing the food.
Food printers would also make it easier to get food to harder to reach areas. Third world countries, areas of drought, war zones and even space would all benefit from having a cheap and easy way to get food.

Another benefit to printing food would be the health aspect. There would be no growth hormones used to print food. Also, there would be no pesticides. Heart disease and diabetes are two leading killers in the world. Imagine printing food that tastes good, has a good texture, but also is healthier than the food it was designed from.

We are looking at a future where printed food may soon become cheaper and more easily accessible than harvested food. When this happens we may have to adapt and deal with the fact that it tastes and feels different than natural food. If we can overcome that obstacle, then we can only benefit from printed foods.
We may not ever have the tech required to push a button and instantly have any food available, but we will get close. Now, if they would only get to work on that holodeck…

Could you live on a diet of printed food? Let me know in the comments.

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