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Let's Talk About 3D-Printed Food

We can make cool-looking pastries that taste kind of like Girl Scout Trefoil cookies—is there value in that?

Image: Jason Koebler

This article originally appeared on Motherboard. 

Talking about 3D-printed food makes me feel like I’m living in the age of the Jetsons, especially when I hear the Army wants to give it to soldiers out in the field and NASA wants to feed astronauts with the technology. Right now, however, you can decorate a cake with a 3D food printer—and not much else. Which is decidedly un-Jetsonslike.

Are you a pastry chef? Do you own a small bakery? Great! Buy a 3D food printer. Otherwise, it’s hard to get overly excited about these things. There are a host of 3D food printers being shown off at this year’s CES, the largest consumer electronics show in the country that takes place every January. But while the technology is impressive, it’s hard to get too excited about being able to write “Happy Birthday!” on a cake in chocolate.

And that’s kind of the state of these things, at the moment. Standard 3D printers have certainly moved beyond the gimmicky, but still, they’ve struggled to find mainstream appeal. 3D food printers at the moment, are still struggling with that image.

It’s partially because food is simply more difficult for a machine to deal with.

The printer printing a small cake. Image: Jason Koebler

“If you have a pizza, you have the dough, a liquid sauce, and then a liquid cheese—they’re all different consistencies,” Phair Tsai, a business development administrator for XYZ Printing, which is demoing one of the world’s first consumer 3D food printers at CES, told me. And the consistency of each of those ingredients could change each time you print something, depending on how it’s mixed up.

“If you bake, you know you have to be really precise or the whole thing doesn’t work. It’s the same here,” she said. “Plastic is plastic. It doesn’t change.”

XYZ Printing has become one of the largest 3D printer manufacturers in the world. Its $500 DaVinci 1.0 printer, which is for home and hobby use, is the most popular 3D printer on Amazon. And the company has been known to roll out new models of printers at an astounding rate: It’s only been selling 3D printers for a little over a year, and it’s already got three consumer models for sale and a couple others for commercial use on display at CES. Tsai showed me two of the company’s 3D food printers—one for home use that’ll retail around $500, and a commercial one for small bakeries that should come in at a little under $2,000.

There are several other companies demoing similar 3D food printers, none of which actually do the baking for you (Tsai said a future model might be more “like a bread maker,” where you put the ingredients in and a ready-to-eat meal comes out). 3D food printers do have the potential to be timesavers—it’s possible to 3D print ravioli, for instance, which cuts down on prep time.

The commercial-scale 3D food printer—it'll be for sale sometime this year. Image: Jason Koebler

XYZ’s printer does what it’s supposed to. It can “print” cookies or cakes or chocolate or any other things that requires a liquid or moldable ingredient in whatever shape you want. Thing is, you still have to bake it afterward. So what you’re getting right now is a very expensive cookie cutter.

“I see these selling to small bakeries that do a lot of custom work, a lot of cake decorating,” Tsai said.

Right now, cake decorating is probably a best-case scenario for any sort of gourmet use: The cookies I tried taste almost exactly like Girl Scout Trefoils, which is not a bad thing, but these aren’t the kind of ultra gourmet desserts that have become super popular in the last couple years.

And that’s not going to change soon. I don’t mean to sound down on the technology. It’s definitely in its infancy, and creative people and innovative companies will find use for these (and improve on what we have). But, because of the viscosity problem, we’re probably stuck buying doughs and chocolates and cheeses, etc. from the 3D printer manufacturers themselves (or from companies who specially make batter for that purpose, at least), at least for a little while.

“I think frozen doughs will become popular,” Tsai said. “And maybe one day you can mix our own. But not yet.”

In other words, we can make break-and-bake cookies in new and interesting shapes. Maybe there’s a market for that. But it’s probably not a huge one.

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