It may seem like the stuff of science fiction, but scientists have now printed, not picked, fresh fruit. Researchers working at a company in Cambridge, England, have used a new process to enable the 3D printing of a variety of fresh products. They recently unveiled the process and results at the TechFoodHack conference held in Cambridge, an experimental dining event that also included the unveiling of a new flavour of gelato.
3D printing was first demonstrated back in 1984, but use of the technique was not widespread until 2010 when the cost of the Additive Manufacturing machines dropped significantly in price. Since then, applications for 3D printing have grown by leaps and bounds. This technology can be used to manufacture a wide range of products using a variety of different materials, including metals, nylon, plastics, and textiles. Applications have been used in the military, in fashion and in manufacturing and repair.
These applications also extend to medicine. 3D printing machines have been used to produce medical devices such as hip replacements and jaw implants. In a famous case from earlier this year, doctors were also able to perform a successful facial reconstruction surgery on an injured motorcyclist. Scientists have also used the technology to print human tissues as well. A number of different tissues have already been produced, including human ears, vascular tissue, liver tissue, a small functioning kidney, and even a windpipe, printed from stem cells and transplanted into a two-year old patient.
This seemingly futuristic technology can be applied to food science as well. Scientists working in the food industry at Modern Meadow, a company located at the University of Missouri, want to use the new technology to create meat for human consumption. Given the substantial environmental impact of farming animals for food, this could be a welcome means of feeding a rising population while minimizing the damage to the planet. The new application of this process such that fruit can now be printed, not picked, by scientists is intended more for creative culinary experimentation than for a replacement of traditional food production methods.
The new demonstration by scientists working at Dovetailed, the Cambridge-based company, used a process called “spherification,” which was originally discovered back in the 1950’s. Spherification allows scientists to use liquid or puree from a fruit and then form small spheres containing that flavour. The 3D printer can then combine those spheres with others containing different flavours, allowing for the production of unique flavour combinations into whichever shape or form is desired.
The company says that this process only takes a few seconds, giving chefs the opportunity to explore novel fruit tastes. Dovetailed hopes that this will be available not only to professional chefs working in commercial kitchens, but that eventually it will be compact and cheap enough for consumers to do this in their own homes. This would open the door to unique gastronomical creations, an exciting opportunity for the courageous chefs of the world. How well this idea sits with the general public remains to be seen, but if Dovetailed can make this new technology cheap enough, it would not likely be just scientists who have their fruit printed, not picked.
By Bryan A. Jones