The next dimension of food

by Keith Nunes
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KANSAS CITY — Next week in New York City the tradeshow Inside 3D Printing will be held. For the most part the event will focus on issues beyond the scope of food processing, but a few panel discussions will address the opportunities and challenges the technology may present to food manufacturers.

At the moment, the three-dimensional printing of food is a novelty, but it is a novelty that has garnered the attention of several major companies, most notably The Hershey Co., which has worked with the 3D printing company 3D Systems to develop the CocoJet.

On display this past January at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, the CocoJet is more than a prototype. It is capable of printing custom confectionery designs in dark, milk or white chocolate, and Hershey has incorporated the system into its Hershey Chocolate World exhibit in Hershey, Pa. The system is allowing the company to conduct market research on possible applications for the technology.

3D Systems also has formed a partnership with the Culinary Institute of America to provide faculty and students the opportunity to explore what three-dimensional printing may offer. The C.I.A. is currently beta-testing a printer to better understand how it may be used to improve the culinary experience.

When the phrase “3D printing” is mentioned it is often closely followed by the overused word “disruptive.” But like a lot of technologies that have been branded disruptive, the market applications of 3D printing beyond personalized confectionery products remain to be seen.

Speaking in New York next week will be Hod Lipson, an associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at Cornell University, and the author of the book “Fabricated: The new world of 3D printing” that was published in 2012. The book is an excellent primer on the potential of 3D printing.

Yet an even more important session will take place before Mr. Lipson’s and address the uncharted territory of how the Food and Drug Administration may regulate the technology. One fascinating aspect of 3D food printing is how it may be used to create customized food products featuring specific nutritional components.

In this scenario, consumers may monitor their individual nutritional needs, feed the data into a computer and have a foodstuff printed that meets their nutritional requirements at that moment. While it may sound revolutionary, such a system would also need to overcome numerous regulatory hurdles in order to be offered for mass use on the market.

So, why should food companies pay attention to 3D printing and how the technology may affect their business? The answer lies in its applications. It has the potential to alter the confectionery and food decoration markets in its early stages, and as the technology continues to develop it will become even more sophisticated. While it may never achieve the goal of providing personalized medicine, it is easy to see how it may one day extend beyond novelty into several areas of food manufacturing.

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