3D Burger

The concept of 3D-printed food has ushered in many new novel treats, from pizza to popsicles. But there hasn’t yet been a huge amount of talk around using the technology to create entire meals, let alone healthy ones.

Researchers in Israel are hoping to change that.

The Yissum Research Development Company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem just introduced a 3D-printing technology that would allow for “personalized” food options via 3D printing. Professors Oded Shoseyov and Ido Braslavsky developed a patent-pending process that uses a natural fiber called nanocellulose. While the team have only produced dough as of yet, their aim is to develop full meals that would be both nutritious and able to serve a wide range of dietary needs.

Nanocellulose has a huge range of use cases—body armor, lightweight car materials, and even water purification. As far as food is concerned, nanocellulose fibers can bind to other components like fat, carbohydrates, and vitamins. It’s this binding property that enables control over food elements like texture. Meanwhile, infrared lasers and localized heat are applied to give the food its shape and replicate the effect of frying, baking, or grilling.

Nanocellulose is also an attractive option for food because it’s calorie free and easily breaks down in the human body.

If the technology does as claimed, it could answer a number of different needs we have in terms of food. It’s an obvious win for anyone with dietary restrictions, whether they’re mandatory (diabetes) or lifestyle choices (vegetarians).

Shoseyov and Braslavsky’s technology also puts on the table another option for creating meat alternatives that truly mimic the taste and feel of the real thing. If the technology becomes as widely available as the researchers hope, it could join others in figuring out how to raise meat without destroying the planet. Fish, too.

Finally, Yissam CEO, Yaron Daniely, recently noted that technology like this can also address the food situation in developing nations, where famine, starvation, and lack of access to nutritious food is widespread.

All of those scenarios help to answer the question, “Can we use 3D-printed food in a practical way?” In other words, researchers like Shoseyov and Braslavsky can help us realize the possibilities of the technology beyond the “Hey, that’s cool” factor.

The team in Israel isn’t the only group examining everyday uses for 3D-printed food. One other notable example is Smart Kitchen Summit attendee nūfood, who makes a “3D printing robot” controlled by a smartphone interface. Via a subscription service, users receive monthly flavors they can shape with the nūfood machine and add to regular food. The company currently accepts pre-orders.

The larger question is how realistic it is to count on nutritious meals like this in the near future. The team in Israel aims to have its technology in commercial restaurants within a couple years, and in homes within five. Is that a realistic timeframe, given the cost of 3D-printing technology, or is it just unguarded optimism? The next couple years should tell us.