The food replicators of the "Jetsons" are still the stuff of fantasy, but a new generation of 3D food printers is bringing American consumers a step closer to computer-generated homemade edibles.
A host of new devices create dishes that take longer to make by hand – and they’re creating quite a buzz.
“My sense is that it will develop, probably not like some of us might think it will. I don’t anticipate everyone using this in their homes.”
"It's like someone flipped a switch about a year and a half ago," says Terry Wohler, principal consultant and president of Wohler’s Associates, an independent consulting firm.
Foodini, unveiled in April, is a 3D food printer designed for home and pro kitchens that prints anything from pasta to pizza to chocolate vases.
3D Systems in January launched its ChefJet series -- two 3D printers that create small or large confections and cake toppers in single- and multi-color designs. The company also is partnering with Hershey to create candy, chocolate and other edibles.
Biozoon is using 3D printers to create easily dissolvable food in various shapes and textures for older patients who are unable to swallow properly, a condition called dysphagia.
While computer-processed food has been around for decades, advances in 3D printing have now made these devices cheap and available for home use.
All printers work essentially the same way. Using computer-aided-design software, a food model’s specifications are loaded into the machine, along with capsules filled with ingredients such as tomato sauce or chocolate. The dish is then built in layers by following the programmed pattern.
But it remains to be seen whether the public will buy these kitchen helpers.
Foodini plans to sell its printer for $1,300, and ChefJet will charge $5,000 for its smaller printer and $10,000 for the larger. For many consumers, these initial prices could be hard to swallow.
“My sense is that it will develop, probably not like some of us might think it will. I don’t anticipate everyone using this in their homes,” says Wohler. “I think it will be a niche market.”
Wohler sees 3D food printers being used mostly by specialty food companies for things like corporate logo creations, fancy chocolates or customized bride and groom toppers on wedding cakes.
“It’s quite easy to do that with digital cameras and 3D printing, to achieve that very thing,” he says.
R.J. Cooper, the chef at Rogue 24 in Washington, D.C., has experimented with molecular gastronomy and other modern culinary concepts and thinks the tool has merit, especially for connectionists and pastry chefs. But he questions whether it can be used effectively in a busy kitchen.
“We do 1,440 plates a night, 24 courses. I just don’t understand how we would be able to use that application in a process yet that would fulfill our food and our concept as this kind of level of restaurant,” he said.
Achieving complicated aesthetics is one thing, but what about the taste?
One of the biggest hurdles is convincing people that it is real food, says Lynette Kucsma, chief marketing officer and co-founder of Natural Machines, which makes the Foodini.
“We just have to get people over that hump of saying, ‘This came out of a printer.’ But it’s nothing funky or fake. It’s not laboratory food.”
In blind taste tests conducted in Barcelona, she said, some participants were unwilling to try the food when they were told it came out of a printer, but everyone who did try it loved it.
And then there’s the question of additives.
Kucsma said Foodini’s machines are designed primarily for fresh ingredients. While they will likely offer capsules with longer shelf lives, they won’t have preservatives or unfamiliar ingredients.
But other 3D printer capsules, like some being developed for NASA, could last as long as 30 years.
Kucsma believes Americans may embrace 3D printers slowly, as they did microwaves, which were first sold in the 1950s but didn’t become a household item until a couple of decades later.
“People were scared of it. Did it cause cancer? Was there radiation? They didn't understand it. How could it heat the food when the walls of the microwave didn't get hot? They had all these questions,” Kucsma said. “Fast forward 30 years, and 90 percent of households have them.”
But any way you slice it, plenty of questions remain. For Cooper, the biggest of them all is the question of value.
“What kind of value does it bring to the guests? The value it would bring to a cook, the value it would bring long-term?” he asks.
"What is it going to do money-wise for a restaurant to grow and be prosperous? They would really have to convince me that there’s value in it for distribution on a culinary level.”