Soon you may be able to eat 3-D printed cheese, a finely engineered alternative to real cheese, with only selected ingredients included. And this "cheese," would not be made from plant-based proteins, but from real milk.
The printed cheese is part of research by food process engineer Maarten Schutyser, of the Wageningen University in the Netherlands, in collaboration with the FrieslandCampina dairy cooperative. The printer is loaded with sodium caseinate, a milk protein that exists as a liquid, and solidifies after being squirted out of the printer nozzle.
And so far, that’s about it. The researchers need to add a lot more to the substance to make actual 3-D-printed cheese, and they have to work out how to actually print these ingredients individually, in order to make up a whole, cohesive food product.
But the technique promises to allow the manufacture of highly specialized foods. One example given is a cheese that is engineered to contain lots of protein, but little fat (although the fat in cheese and butter isn’t really bad for you at all).
If this seems like a clever idea in search of a practical application, that’s because it it. Schutyser told Takepart’s Tove Danovich that "The biggest overall challenge is developing ‘an attractive 3-D-printed food that has an added value over existing foods.’" That is, even with tweaked fat levels, or other differences, the 3-D printed cheese doesn’t really have any advantages over the real thing.
However, this is science, not product development, and the knowledge and techniques developed by printing real, natural foodstuffs will be essential for future products, allowing Schutyser and his team to collaborate on all kinds of other products. The manufacturers, then, would come up with neat foodstuffs, and Schutyser’s team can help them "work within [the] boundaries when creating foods."
The processes could also be used to make things like cheese from plant-based proteins. Given how bad most vegan cheese is, this could actually be the project’s biggest win. Schutyser says that "he and his colleagues plan to explore 3-D-printing plant proteins in the near future," although "sadly the final product may not be plant-based ‘dairy’ items," says Danovich.
In terms of consumer acceptance, 3-D printed foodstuffs might not have a hard time at all. After all, it's just another manufacturing process, and we’re certainly not shy about eating foodstuffs that have been pummeled by factories into all kinds of odd shapes, from spam, to ice-cream that never melts, to veggie hot dogs containing meat and human DNA. Is printing food up from individual proteins really that different from the beautiful and hypnotic process of making a Vienetta ice-cream cake?