Innovation in the food sector is at an all-time high, though much of it has taken place outside the kitchen. Websites and mobile apps connect farmers and food producers directly with a customer base increasingly wanting fresh, local food. High-tech hydroponic and aquaponic systems are turning everything from malls to frat houses into perfectly good places to grow fresh food.
Innovation in the kitchen, however, has been less dramatic. Every few years someone invents a gadget to more easily open a jar or mix a cake batter, but for the most part, home cooking remains a hands-on experience. Which is why the prospect of a robot making our food for us is troubling to so many. Forget the Jetsons—this is now: researchers have not only invented 3-D food printers, they’re starting to make ones that will be financially accessible to every household in America.
If you aren’t familiar with 3-D food printing, here’s a simple explanation of how it works: The machine takes separate ingredients and, layer by layer, builds a food from scratch robotically. Most of the “foods” aren’t foods at all, but “consumables” created from pastes or powders. One notable exception is a 3-D printed hamburger, created in England in 2013, from lab-grown meat. Gizmodo pointed out at the time that such a burger would set the ordinary consumer back roughly $300,000.
Companies like Natural Machines are attempting to bring that cost down. Way down. Its “Foodini” printer raised $80,000 on Kickstarter in 2014 but was unable to reach its $100,000 goal. Here’s a description of Foodini from the Kickstarter page:
Foodini is the first 3-D food printer to print all types of real, fresh, nutritious foods, from savory to sweet. Designed for home and professional kitchens, Foodini comes with empty food capsules. You prepare and place fresh, real ingredients in Foodini. No fake food. No being forced to buy pre-filled food capsules. Made with fresh ingredients, this is real food... 3-D printed.
“Real food” or not, should we celebrate another convenience item in our kitchens separating us even more from the source and preparation of our food? Will the 3-D printer make us more or less cognizant of the foods we eat? How could the convenience of 3-D printing affect farmers and small producers, our speed-obsessed culture, and even our health?
Put another way, did the invention and mass production of the microwave in the 1960s encourage or discourage the preparation and consumption of more nutritious meals at home? In 1971, just 1 percent of American homes had a microwave. Today, that number is over 90 percent (including mine!). There are now three frozen food aisles at most supermarkets, the contents of which are mostly highly processed, often deep-fried, re-heatable foodstuffs and ready-to-eat meals.
Some say the 3-D food printer will change kitchens on a mass scale the way the microwave did.
“Software will replace recipes,” wrote Robert Plant, an associate professor at the School of Business Administration at the University of Miami. “The kitchen will for sure be a very different place in 10 years.”
But at what cost?
Photo credit: Oliver Quinlan via Flickr