The food synthesizer thought up by writers of the Star Trek franchise may be closer to reality than previously thought. While we cannot yet make edibles appear out of nothing, we are one step closer to personalizing our food.
A 3D fruit printer, Dovetailed, was unveiled at TechFoodHack in the United Kingdom May 24 at an event co-sponsored by Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT).
What is it and how does it work?
The final printed product is not actually a fruit, nor is it created from thin air like in Star Trek.
The fruit printer currently only prints berries due to its use of spherification, a culinary technique involving flavored gel droplets. As you can see in the video above, the droplets are a combination of fruit juices mixed with sodium alginate, which are then dropped into a dish of cold calcium chloride. The reaction of the gel (with the calcium chloride) causes each droplet to form a thin skin similar to that of a raspberry or blackberry.
This is a technique that has been around since the early 2000s. Spherified juices are similar in texture to "poppers" or "Boba juice balls" that are found in Boba tea drinks, or as frozen yogurt, and ice cream toppings.
The creation of a 3D fruit printer could allow consumers to personalize their "fruits," creating different flavor combinations for unique tastes and effects. This would be a novelty item that could easily appeal to the frozen yogurt industry, which earns about $195 million in sales every year, according to data compiled and published by the United States Census Bureau in 2014. Why add mango chunks to your cup of froyo when you could add a pear and mango-flavored berry?
Once 3D fruit printers become available, companies looking to be on the cutting edge of trends may add fruit printers to their kitchens to draw publicity and customers. But as of right now, Dovetailed has not announced pricing and has no current plan to sell its 3D fruit printer.
Is fruit the only food we can print?
Dovetailed is not the only company looking to combine food creation and technology. In May 2013, NASA gave a grant of $125,000 to Texas-based Systems and Materials Research Consultancy to look into the creation of a 3D food printer for use in space, and possibly on Earth.
NASA cited an inability to store enough food in space shuttles for long missions, such as a manned flight to Mars, as well as nutrition concerns. Because astronauts are unable to choose or prepare food themselves, they might not enjoy the food available to them, leading to decreased consumption and possible health risks. NASA sees the introduction of a food printer as a way around nutritional concerns. In January SMRC printed its first pizza with the machine.
Other companies pursuing 3D food printing include 3D Systems (NYSE:DDD), which partnered in January with The Hershey Company (NYSE:HSY) to create a 3D chocolate printer. This could give consumers the option of treating a 3D printer like a vending machine, that could print any chocolate combination they would like.
In the United States alone, Hershey sells well over 70 different products, the majority of those made with chocolate. Hershey earned a little over $7.1 billion in net sales last year in a market that is estimated to be worth $98.3 billion globally by 2016 in a report by MarketsandMarkets. While 3D chocolate printing may seem a little silly, it would offer customization much like Coca-Cola's (NYSE:KO) wildly popular Freestyle machines, which lets consumers create drink combos.
The 3D fruit printer is aimed at foodies and chefs looking for a new gastronomical experience, but it isn't too far off from the idea of the food synthesizer or replicator in Star Trek. While it's clearly not yet cost-effective and each printer seems highly specialized, the next step in is to make it available for restaurants and households.
More and more companies are exploring and investing in the market, but we have not yet seen a movement toward making 3D food printers consumer-friendly. The dream of creating food out of nothing remains a sci-fi dream, but this could be an important first step.