Imagine sitting at your computer telling a program what you want to eat and how many calories you want your meal to have, then hitting print and feasting on a pizza from your 3D printer. It’s not one of Willy Wonka’s prototypes, but a legitimate concept being developed by mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor and NASA.
Contractor’s company, Systems & Materials Research Corporation, was recently awarded a six-month, $125,000 grant to develop the sci-fi printer, which could help eliminate food waste and worldwide hunger. The new technology could also help provide a sustainable food source for lengthy space missions, as the printer’s ingredients will have a shelf life of up to 30 years. It works by synthesizing a meal one layer at a time, using proteins, carbohydrates, oils, water, and powdered foodstuff.
Mechanically engineered food seems like a counterintuitive concept considering the prevalence of foodies and food porn, but Contractor thinks we need to change our perception of what we see as food. Experts agree the earth’s population will reach full capacity toward the end of this century, topping off at a standing room only 12 billion people. “I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” said Contractor.
Consider the increase in productivity the food industry will have to make to compensate for a dramatic increase in population. Think about the environmental pollution and gas emissions that livestock manufacturing creates. While these economic and environmental factors could put the human race in dire straits, the 3D food printer would help ease the pain. Using cringe-worthy but nutritionally stunning ingredients like algae, grass, beat leaves, duckweed, and insects, the printer could grossly supplement harmful food practices.
The modern obsession of food as art has been rewarding for our taste buds and waistlines, but it might be setting us up for disappointment. We need to remember that food is fuel for our bodies, and no matter how pretty or drool-worthy it is, its function is decidedly unglamorous. The 3D printer—likely a few years from completion—will help society prepare for a renewed relationship with food, because it will have to change from one of lust to one of reverence.
This innovation, along with others surely to be made moving forward, will help feed the world and remind us that food is merely sustenance. So enjoy these jalapeno cheddar burger bites and sriracha oven fries while you can. And remember, sometimes you have to break a few legs to make a grasshopper omelet.
June 4th, 2013