3-D printers, which have been growing in popularity since 2003, are cropping up a lot in the news lately. 3-D printers work by depositing any extrudable substance (for example: plastics or ceramic) in successive layers until the printed object is the size and shape desired. Although we won’t have replicators in our homes anytime soon, these printers have already shown their practical applications in manufacturing, fashion, and art.
But what about food, the most popular purpose of the fictional replicator? It’s been possible for years to print 2-D images in edible ink on edible paper for decoration, but recently Cornell University has been working with the French Culinary Institute to modify 3-D printers to work with food. The result produces edible sculptures from just about any food that can be pureed and pushed through the printer’s extruder. For example, the little Space Shuttle pictured above is made from a scallop and cheese mixture.
The practical applications of this technology are mostly unknown. So far, the only one noted by FCI is to re-create food in textures that are otherwise not found in that particular food. For example, they are trying to make a meatloaf-like substance that “absorbs sauce like a sponge.” Cornell University also presents several highly-worded arguments that mostly translate to, “we can make it look really cool.” I think that anyone with kids or any babysitting experience sees the immediate application of being able to play “here comes the airplane” with broccoli that actually looks like an airplane.
I wonder about whether this has any practical applications that don’t boil down to “let’s make this interesting.” The benefits of 3-D printers in manufacturing are due to economy of scale. Things no longer need to be mass-produced to be cost-effective. Right now, for example, a company will produce thousands of pairs of sunglasses, and if only one person wants to buy them, the rest go in a landfill somewhere. Someday, that company can sell the program to print the sunglasses instead of the glasses themselves, and only those who want a pair will produce one. Food, on the other hand, is already tastiest and healthiest if not mass-produced. And uneaten food does not have the same ecological impact as other unused products because it biodegrades. Printable food doesn’t have the same ecological or financial benefits, it’s just…fun
If I’m honest, I really want to try printed food for the novelty of it. Our society has never gotten rid of something just because it wasn’t practical or particularly useful. “Just for fun” is a perfectly good reason to do something. And maybe, just maybe, kids will eat their vegetables.