Dorothée Goffin's lab in Belgium is outfitted with 3-D printers and digital milling machines. It's also a kitchen. And, one day a week, the doors open to anyone who feels like walking in to mess around with the equipment. These days, the tech geeks, chefs and curious folk that inhabit the lab are focused on 3-D printing. Instead of spouting plastic doodads, the printers exude chocolate.
Goffin is the director of the Smart Gastronomy Lab, supported by the University of Liège and a grant from Creative Wallonia. She and her colleagues aren't just playing with their food — they also want to figure out how to make 3-D printed foods more palatable to people. The goal, eventually, is to create foods with enhanced nutritional profiles that people actually want to eat.
"We will cook again like our grandmothers did, but using new technologies" that give healthier ingredients a more appetizing form, Goffin explains in a TEDx talk.
At a recent demonstration at the Expo Milano 2015 in Italy, Goffin, who has a doctorate in chemistry and bioindustry, demonstrated the chocolate printing in action. A syringe the size of a fork deposited "ink" — which was actually fancy Belgian chocolate infused with blue-green algae, a good source of protein — methodically across a printer board. Each drop of liquid was so minuscule, it was hard to tell it would all add up to something three dimensional.
The Smart Gastronomy Lab is certainly not alone in dedicating itself to deconstructing food into semi-liquids that can be jetted out of a 3-D printer. Just around the corner at the Expo Milano, Italian pasta giant Barilla and TNO, a Dutch independent research organization, revealed a printer that can ooze four noodles every 2 minutes. Hershey just released a commercially available chocolate printer. As The Salt has reported, a device called Foodini is meant to crank out things like dinosaur-shaped quiche. The U.S. Army has considered 3-D printing meals for soldiers. Modern Meadow, based in New York City, is working on producing meat that doesn't involve any actual animals.
But these innovations not only come with a whopping price tag — they also often happen behind closed doors. Goffin's endeavor is different: She wants to get local consumers, curious people and foodies in on the innovation.
The lab exists right now in a co-working hub in Namur, Belgium. It's a "FabLab," or fabrication laboratory, an open workshop model originally hatched at MIT and replicated all over the world.
Goffin's lab is starting with chocolate, she explains, "because we are Belgian," and also because the physical chemistry of chocolate is perfect for 3-D printing. It doesn't take much tinkering to ensure that chocolate will stay liquid when it's inside the printing cartridge and solidify once it drops out.
"That's the biggest difficulty with 3-D food printing," she says. Fat allows chocolaty goop to crystallize easily at room temperature. But other foods are not so simple, especially if the goal is to partially cook, say, meat or vegetable material as it leaves the nozzle.
Michael Petch, who has written two books on 3-D food printing, says the process itself "is very similar to the assembly line processes you might see in a large confectionery manufacturer, where molten foodstuff is extruded through a nozzle at a particular temperature and then allowed to cool before other materials are introduced."
"That's been a way of producing food at high volume for a long time. What's new is being able to combine multiple ingredients, and being able to control the temperature much more precisely at the nozzle, so you can partially cook or not cook food," says Petch.
Next year, in Gembloux, Belgium, the Smart Gastronomy Lab will open a "Living Lab," a space meant to mix innovators and consumers and quickly breed new prototypes. One floor will be a professional kitchen blended with a laboratory. The other will be a self-sustaining restaurant. It'll double as a consumer testing observatory to see how people respond to certain test recipes that have been 3-D printed in various forms and textures. About 20 Belgian chefs are on board.
Most of the time, it'll just be a restaurant with a few 3-D printed bites here and there. But every now and then, they'll whip out a test recipe — for example, a chicken cutlet that's been fortified with micro-proteins and re-texturized for easy chewing. Diners will get surveys to fill out after their meal. Cameras will allow lab folk to observe how people react to test recipes and wacky ingredients.
"The idea is to have real, natural and in situ results," says Goffin, "That's the idea of the Living Lab: to test the reaction of people in their real life."
"If you are working only on nutrition, you do something like Soylent. That's nutrition. But food is pleasure. It's something very personal," she adds.
Once they improve the technology and figure out what people do and don't like, Goffin says, she and her colleagues want to move on to health-focused exploits: infusing insects and algae into traditional recipes to boost their protein profile, and developing "senior-adapted food" for elderly people.
Seniors who have trouble chewing and swallowing properly, Goffin explains, often "have to eat puree every day." As a result, they avoid eating socially, or they just don't eat enough. "3-D printing will allow us to reconstitute food, and in doing so restore the pleasure of eating," she says.
A German company, Biozoon, is already working on something similar: gel-like products it calls "smoothfood."
"It's a big market for the future. There are a lot of companies working on senior-adapted food, because the overall population is getting older," says Goffin.
For now, though, it's all about the chocolate.