Texture and mouthfeel are big hurdles faced by manufacturers of meat alternatives. Making plants imitate the texture of a burger, a chicken nugget, or even a sausage can be tricky, sure; but imitating a chicken breast or fat-marbled steak is a whole other beast.
Italian bioengineer Giuseppe Scionti is working to find a way to do just that by leveraging a technology that’s been popping up throughout the food world: 3D printing. He has invented and patented a technology which uses a special 3D printer to produce plant-based meat with the same fibrous, “muscley” texture of animal meat. According to 3DPrinting.com, the printer uses syringes of plant protein pastes to create the steak and chicken simulacrums.
According to Il Fatto Quotidiano, Scionti can print 100 grams of meat in 30 minutes at the cost of two euros. However, the patent is meant to work for large-scale industrial processes, and he’s confident it will cost less as it increases in scale.
The use of 3D printing in the food world is still in its early stages. For now, it’s mainly used for its cool factor; after all, who doesn’t like watching a machine “print” out pasta noodles or geometric sugar sculptures or sushi? But as the technology evolves and the cost drops, 3D printing is poised to have a big impact on the food industry.
Interestingly, 3D printing has been touted as more of a manufacturing method for cell-based (or cultured) meat than for plant-based. San Francisco-based startup Just, Inc., which claims it’ll bring the first cell-based meat to market by the end of this year, has named 3D printing as part of their plans for large-scale production. By printing meat muscle strands, companies can mimic the texture of cuts of meat beyond burgers, meatballs, and sausages.
I couldn’t find any accounts of how Scionti’s 3D printed meats measured up in taste tests, but I’m optimistic about the potential of his technology. As we’ve covered extensively on the Spoon, there’s a strong and growing market for plant-based meats — especially ones that cook, taste, and bleed like the real thing. There are quite a few companies making burgers and sausages from plants, with reasonably good results. When we venture into chicken breasts, pork chops, and ribeyes, however, offerings become slim. And there’s clearly a market for them: Dutch company Vivera recently had to amp up production of their plant-based steaks to keep up with demand.
If companies can harvest 3D printing to expand their plant-based meat offerings, they may be able to reach a larger range of consumers. Chew on that.