A cake with a personalised logo, printed live while the customer waits. It sounds pretty futuristic, but it’s 2021, and the future is now. Printing food isn’t just a fun gimmick. It’s the technology that can also be used to combat food waste.
Upprinting Food specialises in printing food using leftovers like old bread and leftover vegetables to create new products. Founder Elzelinde van Doleweerd is passionate about how food printing can help reduce food waste. Meanwhile, Lynette Kuczma’s company, Natural Machines, created the Foodini, a 3D printer designed specifically for food. She predicts that within a few years this technology will see a rapid development, which could make 3D printing mainstream in the food industry.
Reducing food waste
Van Doleweerd studied industrial design at the Technical University in Eindhoven. Three-dimensional printing was already being widely used during her university days. It's a favourite of designers producing prototypes. But 3D food printing was still in its infancy back then. Van Doleweerd, who also has personal interest in gourmet cooking, decided to study food printing after minoring in food technology. There's now an industry full of companies focused on food printing, but Upprinting Food stands out from the rest because of their mission, which is to use the technology to prevent food waste.
From piping bag to 3D printer
"There are so many waste streams in the food world. I wanted to find a solution that could process leftover, 'unusable' food into amazing products. 3D printing seemed like the perfect technique to do it," says van Doleweerd. Initially, the young entrepreneur didn’t have a 3D printer at her disposal. She started out with piping bags to test whether her recipes had the right structure and could be moulded into a decent shape. "If you look at it from a simple perspective, a 3D printer just applies pressure to a syringe to extrude a puree. My theory was, if it works well with a normal piping bag, it should also work with a 3D printer.”
Van Doleweerd has moved on from experimenting with simple piping bags and can now make the most incredible creations with a 3D printer. Upprinting Food works mainly with high-end gourmet restaurants. They work with users to find ways to repurpose their specific waste streams using a 3D printer. Van Doleweerd: "We work with chefs in co-creation sessions to create designs that fit their menu. They can use our standard recipes, or we can develop a new product. A good example is the fish skin crisp that we created with the restaurant Adam. We printed the fish skin in the shape of a fish bone, then dried and baked it. It's the perfect ways to transform waste into a unique design.”
From logo to fishbone
Upprinting Food helps chefs come up with new, innovative designs every month. "We change with the menu and use whatever waste streams are available at the time. Together, we're able to create something unique, time after time," says Van Doleweerd. Her food tech company not only helps chefs design new products, it also teaches them how the printer works. Van Doleweerd: "We help them install the printer, give workshops to explain the possibilities that exist, and make sure that users feel comfortable working with the printer. People often expect it to be a very complex process. But you can make it as difficult as you want. You can print a simple logo just a couple of minutes. If you want a larger design, it will take a bit longer.” Not all waste streams are created equal, and some are more difficult to process, according to Van Doleweerd, but with the right recipe, it usually works. The company worked with Instock, a restaurant that aims to reduce food waste, to produce edible container made from leek leaves. It’s one of the most difficult waste streams to process because it’s so fibre rich. Van Doleweerd: "By mixing it with breadcrumbs and turning it into a puree, we were able to print a lovely shape.”
The future of 3D food printers
Barcelona-based company Natural Machines is one of the pioneers in 3D food printers. It all started when a friend of Lynette Kuczma's had plans to expand her vegan bakery, but ran into high costs around logistics. The solution, Kuczma says, is creating hyperlocal production facilities, or food printers.
Designing food with an app
After years of development, the Foodini - which is what the printer is called - is available to everyone. It is easy to use. The user can add food in special capsules, which is then pressed out of the capsules through a nozzle. A control system moves the capsule incredibly precisely to create the shape of the input design. The shapes are then stacked layer on layer to create three-dimensional designs. Natural Machines also develops software for food design, as well as the printers themselves. There’s a ‘library’ full of shapes you can use to get started with designs and recipes, but users can also make their own designs using a special app.
Until now, Natural Machines has mainly focused on professional users in the food industry. Kuczma: "That includes restaurants and food producers, but also healthcare partners, as well. According to Kuczma, the possibilities for making new products with a 3D printer are endless. There are plenty of advantages – healthy ingredients can easily be added and harmful preservatives can be eliminated. Kuczma says that 3D printing can also help reduce food waste by making new products from waste streams. 3D printers can be used to create special decorations, logos, and personalised shapes, as well. The company has international partnerships with major hotel groups, universities, food producers, and healthcare institutions.
But there’s still a great deal of technical progress to be made before 3D food printers can become truly mainstream. Today's printers are mainly designed for products that still need to be baked. The printers can’t heat or cook products yet. Kuczma: "Before I started working with 3D printers, I was in the mobile phone business. I often compare 3D food printers that are now on the market with the very first smartphone. There’s still a lot to do to optimise the processes and usage. In the future, we hope to use precision lasers in the printers to heat up or even fully cook products."