3D Thanksgiving: celebrating the additive manufacturing way

3D Thanksgiving
Posted by Brenna Sniderman and Kelly Monahan

When it comes to food, Thanksgiving is perhaps the most anticipated holiday of the year. Americans are anticipated to spend $2.4 billion dollars on the feast alone.1 That’s a lot of money on turkeys, potatoes, cranberries, and pies.

As intricate and time-consuming as the holiday meal cooking frenzy seems, imagine trying to prepare the feast today without using the microwave–or, better yet, trying to reheat leftovers the next day. It is hard to believe that such a staple part of the kitchen has been around for less than 50 years.2 Fifty years from now, will cooks marvel on how they ever conjured a Thanksgiving meal prior to 3d food printers? How soon will we be able to print our dinners?

Crazy, right? But additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, has made headway within the food industry. In an effort towards greater sustainability within the meat industry (reducing energy use, greenhouse gas emissions and land use) a Dutch team of researchers made a 3d printed burger using beef stem cells and plan to commercialize it within the next five years.3 Their goal is to produce quality meat with minimal harm to the environment and animals. Given that development, it’s not outlandish to think we may someday be able to pick up 3D-printed turkeys for our Thanksgiving feast.

While “printing” a Thanksgiving dinner may be far off in the future, many other food possibilities are not. Deloitte recently explored the current possibilities of food and additive manufacturing in “3D opportunity serves it up: Additive manufacturing and food”, specifically noting the structures and combinations now possible for food.

Some Thanksgiving staples that can hold their shape, for example, can already be used in direct printing methods via extrusion, making it possible to create shapes too delicate or challenging for mold-based manufacturing; chocolate, cream cheese, and mashed potatoes are particularly good examples of foods that fit this category. When you are tired of eating turkey, dough-based, multi-ingredient meals such as pies can now be 3D printed, and cakes aren’t far behind. Just think of the complex geometries to which a good, rich buttercream frosting lends itself.

Likewise, processes such as binder jetting make it possible to create complex, precise sculptures using pliable materials that dry stiffly, such as sugar solutions wherein a powder (sugar) is mixed with a binding agent during printing. Think traditional 3D printing, only with something far more edible than metal or polymer powders. Visions of sugar plums and gingerbread houses made of icing come to mind.

For their part, mold printing via stereolithography processes can be used for shapes that are less complex but still customized. Think of Grandma’s famous lime Jell-O, but instead of that antique turkey mold, this year you can print your favorite movie star.

3D printing of food has many revolutionary applications–see Deloitte’s recent article for a more in-depth discussion on this. One application of 3d printing is in the form of personalized nutrition and customized food to suit a smaller population. Take your Thanksgiving meal for example. Rather than going through the lengthy process of making multiple separate potato recipes to satisfy everyone’s tastes, you could now simply print to their liking–mashed for the kids, baked for your brother, au gratin for your sister, and roasted for you. More significantly, individuals or populations with highly specific nutritional needs—say, athletes or hospitalized patients—can 3D print foods that match their health profiles. It’s possible that this can potentially even be extended to medicines as well.

We can’t think about food without considering regulatory issues and food safety. And, of course, since edible printing is a new application of this technology, there is the issue of limitations in the number of ingredients, and the complexity of combinations, that can be used. 3D printed Thanksgiving turkeys are still firmly, for the time being, in the realm of science fiction. For the foreseeable future, you will have to baste, check whether it is too moist or too dry, and ration the dark and light meat as best you can.

As simple as they are on their face, foods can be challenging to replicate and, by extension, manufacture effectively. But additive manufacturing holds strong potential promise here. After all, for some of us, complicated things fade away once you taste your first spoonful of a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving Day.

1 Everything you ever wanted to know about Thanksgiving, with leftovers, US News & World Report, http://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2014/11/27/everything-you-ever-wanted-to-know-about-thanksgiving-with-leftovers, accessed October 20, 2015.
2 http://www.wired.com/2010/10/1025home-microwave-ovens/ accessed October 22, 2015.
3 Pallab Ghosh, & Team wants to sell lab grown meat in five years,” BBC.com, October 15, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34540193, accessed October 22, 2015.

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