Future Food

Often ignored in times of calamity, and eclipsed in the media by faux crises like Global Warming, humanity is facing the very real possibility of food shortages in the future. Given that the average citizen of a developed country consumes eight times their weight in food each year, this is no small problem. Not to fear, dedicated teams of scientists and technologists are on the job, trying to invent the food of the future. Many of the proposed solutions center on being able to print edible objects using 3D printing technology. This would allow raw feed stocks of protein, carbohydrate, starch, and other substances to be combined into food on demand in our homes—food tailored to individual nutritional needs with less waste than conventional preparation. Moreover, the raw material could come from unlikely sources: algae, seaweed, mealworms and insects. Will future food save the planet?

A move is afoot to combine rapid prototyping and manufacturing technology—meaning a number of different ways to do 3D printing—with food processing technology to feed mankind's hungry masses. Most of us are familiar with the concept as shown on Star Trek TNG, where food replicators are capable of producing nearly any dish or beverage on demand. With such technology it would be possible to record the composition of a perfect steak or omelet, and then reproduce an unlimited number of exact copies whenever desired. The only hitch is that the Star Trek device is based on teleportation technology, which is not on the technological horizon this century.

Nonetheless, work on food synthesizers is progressing apace. NASA has recently awarded a $125,000 grant to Systems & Materials Research Corporation to create a prototype universal food synthesizer. The idea is to provide interesting, varied and nutritional food for astronauts on long space flights—a mission to Mars for instance. Mechanical engineer Anjan Contractor is excited about the project but not just for astronaut food. He sees a day when every kitchen has a 3D printer, and Earth’s 12 billion people feed themselves customized, nutritionally taylored meals synthesized one layer at a time, from cartridges of powder and oils they buy at the corner grocery store.

Schematic of the proposed SMRC 3D food printer.

Pizza is an obvious candidate for 3D printing because it can be printed in distinct layers; it only requires the print head to extrude one substance at a time. Contractor’s “pizza printer” is still at the conceptual stage, and he will begin building a functioning model shortly. It works by first “printing” a layer of dough, which is baked as it’s printed by a heated plate at the bottom of the printer. Then it lays down a tomato base, “which is also stored in a powdered form, and then mixed with water and oil,” says Contractor.

SMRC’s prototype 3D food printer is based on open-source hardware from RepRap.

“I think, and many economists think, that current food systems can’t supply 12 billion people sufficiently,” says Contractor. “So we eventually have to change our perception of what we see as food.”

Others are developing this technology as well. In the Netherlands, FoodJet offers a variety of layer printers for applications from frosting cakes to putting sauce on pizza. Another Dutch company, TNO, is doing innovative work in 3D printing, including food. They demonstrated food printing using 3D printing methods during Food Inspiration Days 2012 and at the Gastronomy trade fair in Utrecht. The video below showcases some of their ideas about food of the future.

Why food printing? The TNO website give the following list of potential benefits:

  • The technology can help to convert alternative ingredients such as proteins from algae, beet leaves, or even insects into tasty products that are not only healthy but also good for the environment.

  • A food printer opens the door to fully personalized food since products can be made that are perfectly in tune with individual needs and preferences.

  • The printer can also ensure that your personal meal is made at exactly the right moment in time so that you come home to a fresh, healthy meal.

  • Finally, printing food allows enormous freedom of design in terms of not only the 3D shape but also the composition (the ingredients and their ratios), structure, texture and, last but not least, taste. Unique new products can be developed that other methods simply cannot emulate.

Long shelf life and delivery on demand will hopefully reduce food waste and ease distribution. Others speculate that electronically exchanging recipes will become commonplace in the future, with sampling dishes from around the world as simple as doing and internet search. Beyond conventional culinary boundaries, 3D printing technology could make all sorts of undreamt of food creations possible. With the raw material on hand to create practically any dish, deciding what to eat may become a much harder decision.

“Long distance space travel requires 15-plus years of shelf life,” says Contractor. “The way we are working on it is, all the carbs, proteins and macro and micro nutrients are in powder form. We take moisture out, and in that form it will last maybe 30 years.”

Behind the printing is where things get really interesting in save-the-earth terms. In essence, the food synthesizers use a collection of powders and oils to build up their final, hopefully edible, product. This technology allows the use of unconventional sources of food material. In TNO’s vision of future 3D printed meals, “alternative ingredients” for food include:

  • algae
  • duckweed
  • grass
  • lupine seeds
  • beet leafs
  • insects

Algae has long been proposed as a way to raise bulk food, though making the end product attractive to consumers is the real trick. Similar obstacles exist for other unconventional food sources including my favorite, insects. I have written about insects as food on this site before and I have incorporated the idea in my forthcoming third novel, M'tak Ka'fek. How do you feed 10,000 people stuck on the Moon with no resupply from Earth? My answer is bit more conventional than printing food but bugs are still at the bottom of it. Despite a high “yuck” factor, many scientists believe there are bugs in our future.

Care for some yummy meal worm cubes?

There are places where insects do not have the burden of bad public perceptions. Around the world roughly two billion people eat insects regularly, primarily in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. In these regions consuming insects has a thousand-year history, according to a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization. Worldwide, beetles, caterpillars, bees, wasps and ants are the most widely consumed species.

The FAO report finds that adult locusts and grasshoppers have comparable levels of protein to raw beef (though the levels of protein, fat and fiber vary by species and preparation). In most insect-eating societies, mini livestock make up a sizable portion of the needed daily dose of protein, calcium, zinc and iron.

What's more, raising insects creates significantly less CO2 emissions when compared with conventional farm animals (you knew there was going to be a global warming tie-in here somewhere). According to the FAO report, rearing traditional livestock accounts for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions (see p63 of the report). This is actually more than emissions released by the transportation industry. Both industries emit far more greenhouse gases than mealworm, cricket, and locust producers. Insects also release much less ammonia and methane than pigs and cattle.

Those who regularly read my blog know that I do not put much stock in the global warming scare, but there is something to be said for lowering emissions in general. Anyone who has been downwind of a commercial hog operation can attest to that. Besides, efficiency is a good thing, and not just on a Moon colony.

According to an interesting article on Quartz, “Five reasons we should all be eating insects,” humans unintentionally ingest an estimated pound of insects a year, mixed in with other foods. Now some adventurous epicures are eating the little critters on purpose. Insects are even beginning to appear on high-end restaurant menus in developed countries. Still, most of us developed world types are a long way from becoming voracious insectivores and bug-eating remains clearly out of the mainstream.

“It would take a lot of work by our best chefs to shift this cultural norm,” says food writer Michael Pollan, “Any precedent? One I can think of: we’ve learned in the West to eat, and enjoy, raw fish. This will be even harder, but it’s not out of the question.”

Are there bugs in our future? It remains to be seen. But, as future generations grow up with synthesized food in strange geometric shapes displaying all the colors of the rainbow, where the raw material for food actually comes from may become unimportant. There may well come a day when diners will look askance at someone eating a steak or chicken leg or any other recognizable part of an animal. Until then, I will continue to enjoy being on top of the food chain. In fact, I think I will grill some beef tonight.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.