Thursday, 11 July 2013

Thursday's Random Thought (Designer Food)

Probably because I am trying to be focused on dieting and healthy eating any article promising to make the journey a little easier catches my attention.  Often the articles are a worthwhile read and sometimes they are just too interesting not to share.  When I saw that experiments were successfully being completed in the 3D printing of “designer food” I had to read the article.  It tickled my funny bone and my imagination so of course I had to share.  If nothing else, it certainly falls under the heading of “random thoughts”.

In 1970 Alvin Toffler wrote and published a book called “Future Shock”.  The premise of the book was basically “Too much change in too short a period of time”.  People of my mother’s generation, for instance, were more than likely born into households that did not have electricity and quite possibly no indoor plumbing (my mother was 1920’s rural, eastern European).  Not only did these people see running water, indoor plumbing and electricity introduced into their everyday lives, but also the mass production of automobiles, air travel and the moon landing.  That’s a lot for people to accept.  Mr. Toffler maintained in his book that the accelerated rate of technological and social change left people disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation”.  He popularized the term “information overload”.

My mother is really the only meter I have to judge the premise, and looking back, the changes and innovations that took place during the 6+ decades of her life were truly astounding.
Although she readily embraced many modern conveniences she also rejected many because, I believe, she just couldn’t wrap her thought processes around them or the need for them.  She learned to drive when she was in her forties (so I know she embraced automobiles), she enjoyed television and movies and welcomed the convenience of keeping in touch by telephone so obviously she adapted well.  To the day she died she would not admit to believing that man walked on the moon.  Me? … I’m on the fence on that one.  Some of the smaller technologies, well, she steadfastly held on to her tried and true way of doing things. Although loath to admit it, looking back now, I think she was right in some instances.  I, more often than not, chop my veggies with a knife and cutting board because I KNOW it’s faster than hauling out the food processor and fiddling with the damn thing.  It’s also a much easier cleanup.  One cutting board plus one knife to be washed and I’m done – the food processor is a bitch to clean properly!  I do not own a bread maker.  I find it can be somehow therapeutic to knead the dough and shape it into loaves that smell heavenly when they are baking.  Admittedly, I do not make homemade bread on a regular basis (for those who do, no doubt the bread maker is a god-send) so at my house the bread is a “treat” and worth the extra effort.

When I look at the time frame of the original “Future Shock” theory it rather amuses me.  Mr. Toffler’s book discusses future shock in terms of “super-industrial” change that took place over the course of decades.  Decades!

Let me tell you I am in FUTURE SHOCK right now!  Never mind change over the course of decades … or even years.  Every time I look at a news article or magazine cover I see something that I can’t quite wrap my simple little mind around.  And, it seems to be on an almost daily basis.  Daily!

The first I heard about the concept of 3D printers was on “The Big Bang Theory” … it was amusing.

Then I saw an episode of “Law and Order” (or possibly “CSI”) in which someone printed a 3D gun … the thought was frightening!  But I made that annoying “pfffft” sound and went about my life thinking that 3D printers were well into the sci-fi future.

Pardon me while I take a little side path in my narrative here (I promise it will all make sense in a minute).

I do not generally read sci-fi but I am rather invested in the “In Death” series by J.D. Robb (aka Nora Roberts).  The books take place in the not too distant future and to Ms. Robb/Roberts’ credit she has come up with some believable yet futuristic inventions of the imagination; flying cars (which are now being developed … you can Google it), privacy screens, lots of fancy police investigation type stuff, really cool tech type stuff, household droids and my favorite – the “Autochef”.  Now the Autochef is an appliance that I imagine looks much like a microwave/convection oven that you can program for freshly prepared meals.  For instance, if I have a craving for pasta, one daughter has a craving for prime rib and one daughter has a craving for lobster tails (and mine most certainly would) I could just program each meal into the AutoChef and presto-chango out pops everyone’s meal, ready to eat.  I would not mind have one of those gadgets around the house.  But like the 3D printed gun I once again made that annoying “pfffft” noise and thought to myself “yeah, right, not in my life time”.

I really need to stop making that noise because the 3D printer is very much here, albeit probably out of normal household reach for most people $$-wise, and it does print plastic replicas of yourself like it did on Big Bang Theory – still amusing.  And it does print guns – still scary.  It also prints almost anything else that imagination can program into a computer.  Things like car parts, bicycles, a YouTube video claims it can print a house in 20 hours, prosthetic limbs (very cool!!), artificial body parts (made from live cells, very, very cool!!) and, are you ready for it? – Food.

The AutoChef has arrived!

Okay, I’m back on track now.

A company called Systems & Material Research Corporation has just been given a $125,000 grant from NASA to create a “universal food synthesizer” for the 3D printing of food.  NASA believes a machine like Anjan Contractor’s, a mechanical engineer, could help to feed astronauts on long space flights where traditional foods will not keep.  In the future, this machine may also allow restaurants and dieters to customize food to meet certain nutritional counts and taste preferences. ( According to Huffington Post’s Bianca Bosker, instead of eating a quarter of a donut to cut calories, you instead might be able to buy a whole pastry from the corner deli, then watch the donut 3D printed before your eyes – with one quarter the calories and just he right amount of fiber to bring you up to your daily minimum.  Now you’ve got my attention!

Jeffrey Lipton is a doctorial student at Cornell University’s Creative Machines Lab.  He heads the Fab@Home project and admits that at this time “the commercial technology lies in creating customized novelty food and, further down the line, quick meals tailored to nutritional needs”.  Lipton goes on to state “I think the appeal will be, ‘Can I automate my dinner at home?  Can I make a birthday cake with a name written across ever slice on the inside?”

“Novelty foods will be where food printing starts”.  With the help of Chef David Arnold of the French Culinary Institute Lipton and his colleagues at Cornell have experimented with printing food.  So far, their project included a cookie with the Cornell ‘C’ embedded within it and sea scallops shaped like the space shuttle. (

The lab succeeded in printing what Lipton calls “data driven cookies”, He and his colleague,
Hod Lipson (those two names in the same lab must make for some interesting conversations) each compiled information about their height, weight, body mass index, daily schedule and caloric deficit for the day, then used 3D printers to print two cookies that each accounted for 10 percent of their respective caloric deficits.

“They are both the same size cookies,” explained Lipton, “but composed of different ingredients based on our nutritional requirements.”

Nutritionally correct designer food!

In the future, Lipton hopes this technology can make meals healthier while also keeping them simple.  “The basic issue is enforcement of diet.  Somewhere between picking up the kids at school and running around, your diet plan goes from making dinner at home to ‘let’s get McDonald’s’” Lipton envisions a system that uses 3D printing to quickly produce meals based on data that describes someone’s daily activity, diet, metabolic requirements, medical conditions, etc.  “Everything could be used to tweak the meal to be a little better.”

To date four large food companies are experimenting with 3D printed food to develop new edibles.  The future of this technology will definitely be geared towards people with strict dietary regimes such as weight loss, pregnancy or the elderly. 

There are a few drawbacks to printing food.  The printing process works by building the food from the ground up, layer by layer.  This means that the printer is limited to using products that can be squeezed out through a syringe.  The work focuses on developing flavors and textures that work in the printer.  “Anything can taste like anything”.  Build a nutritionally correct and healthy cheeseburger and it may not be ground beef, cheese and bread that you are actually getting.  The mind boggles as to what it may actually contain?

Since NASA is funding a not insignificant part of the research they are looking for food that
will withstand the rigors of long-term space travel.  This means food has to have an expiration date far, far, far into the future.  This results in some creativity in developing those tastes and textures Lipton was talking about.  Could astronauts on future trips watch a pizza being printed for their dinner?  Quite possibly, if they did not mind the “protein layer” (the cheese) being derived from some form of ground up and manipulated insects.

At this point in time Lipton admits, “It will be a long time before it is refined for wider consumption.”

Of course, the food out of the printer is not cooked in any way – you still have to take care of that part of it yourself.  It’s a pretty intriguing concept for meal preparation, alas, it’s not quite the AutoChef I was so excited about. 

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