SAN JOSE -- Pablos Holman sees a day not too far off when our diets will be tailored to our metabolisms, adding a few bits of broccoli, a smattering of beets and some meat -- all extruded from a 3D printer in an appetizing form to please our palates.
Holman is a futurist and inventor at the Intellectual Ventures Laboratory in Bellevue, Wash., where he and others work on futuristic projects like printable food. He was not alone in speaking on the topic at the Inside 3D Printing Conference here this week.
Avi Reichentall, CEO of 3D Systems, one of the largest consumer printer companies, has already been able to configure his machines to create a variety of sugary goods, including cakes and candy. The sweets were on display with ornate designs.
Reichentall said consumers can expect his company to build a machine that will take a place next to the coffee maker on a kitchen counter, but instead of a caffeine shot, it will offer a sugar rush.
"We are working on a chocolate printer. I want a chocolate printer in my kitchen. I want it to be as cool as a Keurig coffee maker," Reichentall said. "We now have 3D printed sugar. We're going to bring to pastry chefs and confectionaries and bakers a whole range of new sugar printing capabilities.
"This is coming to a marketplace near you very soon," he said.
While Reichentall focuses on desserts, Holman is busy with main courses, creating machines that can take freeze-dried food and hydrate it as it is being extruded through nozzles to create an eye-pleasing meal.
The 3D food printing technology won't be Intellectual Ventures' first foray into food preparation. The lab was the proving ground for the best-selling cookbook Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking, which put a technologist's spin on contemporary cooking.
The lab used ultra-high-pressure homogenizers, freeze-dryers, centrifuges, rotary evaporators and ultrasonic baths to determine how food reacted at the molecular level to cooking.
In a similar scientific fashion, Holman said the lab could create printers with toner-type cartridges that hold pulverized freeze dried foods. Water could be added to the food in the extruding process, along with miniscule amounts of healthy options, such as green vegetables, with more appetizing foods to make meals more nutritious. The printers would then extrude the foods in shapes and colors replicating the meals we typically eat today -- from steaks and hot dogs to rice.
Holman said his efforts are "at the dot matrix stage," referring to the printer technology of the early 1980s. "I can print out smoothies and Cliff Bars," he noted.
One important reason to turn to 3D printed foods is to address the wildly inefficient way that developed countries, especially the U.S., handle the food they produce, said Holman.
For example, most Americans drive to a store to buy groceries and then store their food in cupboards, refrigerators and freezers -- but then most consumers end up throwing out about 40% of the food they buy.
Moreover, "every grocery store throws out 2,000 pounds of expired food a week," Holman said. "We're good at figuring out how to make enough food and make it efficiently. Where we're not efficient is in the last mile between the store and your mouth.
"So now, I'm imagining, what if I had a machine with three buttons on it: 'What I ate yesterday,' 'what Beyoncé likes' and 'I'm feeling lucky,'" Holman said.
By pressing a button, the 3D printer, using a precise printer head, would put down just a pixel of food at a time, hydrating it with a needle, cooking it with a laser and repeating the process for every pixel until an entire meal is on the plate.
3D food printing system could also offer a method of tracking with pinpoint precision the effects any given food has on an individual. Because the amount of each food is measured precisely, the printer could record nutritional data, and a person's health in reaction to food could be studied over a lifetime.
Printed food could even include your daily dose of medicine.
"This meal is customized for you. It avoids allergens and injects your pharmaceuticals," Holman said. "It knows about what you've eaten before. We've correlated your diet's health effects for the first time in history. It makes a meal that understands who you are."
Holman said researchers closely track what astronauts consume and correlate what they've eaten with their health. "There's someone following them around with a clipboard recording everything they eat, " he said. "We need to do that for everybody."
Lucas Mearian covers storage, disaster recovery and business continuity, financial services infrastructure and health care IT for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian, or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.