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Image: MIT Media Lab

The smell of a 3d printed meal

By Mette Sindet Hansen

Through the years we’ve seen quite a few 3D printers entering the pipeline for INDEX: Award. And in the last couple of years, 3D printers printing food and even complete meals.

As the possibilities are many and the technology now here to support it, it got me thinking quite a bit about the concept of the perfect meal. Because, what is the perfect meal really — and how is it prepared, consumed and in what context? Is it perfectly moulded or sculpted? Does it originate from four-legged sources or stem cells? Is it homegrown or processed, organic or non-organic, homemade or take away, time-consuming or the semi-finished, quick and dirty version — or neither?

A study I recently came across states that the perfect meal is one that is, of course, tasty, made from quality ingredients and prepared with proficiency. But, that’s only 50%. According to multi-sensory science studies, the remaining 50% is “everything else”. That everything else includes, for example, sound, light, cutlery and plates, names of the dishes and so on. In essence, the perfect meal is dependent on a complex interaction between all five senses and the influence of other psychological conditions, such as memory and emotional state.


When we eat all our senses are in use. It’s a so-called “multimodal activity”. What we taste is actually not in the food itself but our brains and nervous systems experiencing a delicate mix of seeing, smelling, feeling and tasting.

So, where does it leave the 3D printed meal when we talk about the perfect meal?

You would think that a 3D printed dish could easily accommodate the first 50% of what the study defines as the perfect meal. With a steady hand, you can control the process of 3D printing and, therefore, get the best possible start for proficiently preparing your meal. And you can pick out the best and most nutritious ingredients to secure a solid base for both a healthy and tasty meal.

So — is the perfect meal then ready to be prepared printed and served?

For me, many new food technologies can fall short when it comes to fulfilling the 50% “everything else” category. Especially when it comes to the seeing, smelling and feeling departments.

In particular, I see huge challenges for 3D printed food when it comes to texture and feeling. For obvious reasons, all ingredients have to be in a soft and malleable form. We all have expectations of how certain foods should taste. And while most of us enjoy surprises and some rules can and should be broken, there are others that should be well left alone. Let’s take the good old example of the potato chip. The taste of a 3D printed potato chip would basically be the same but the experience would be very different if the chip was soft or wet. It would feel completely wrong even though it tastes the same as a fresh, crunchy, fresh-out-of-the-bag potato chip.

For me, 3D printing food is, for now, just a gimmick and not something I really consider either attractive or necessary. But, if I look outside the world of me-me-me, I recognise that the technology has potential for many others. Like, for example, those who struggle with processing solid foods.

An interesting example of a company addressing this challenge is German Biozoon Food Innovations, a company that makes fresh food purees for 3D printing. But, their product lines differ from their competitors as they’ve also developed an edible adhesive that makes it possible to print the ‘mush’ into the shape of the base ingredient. That means that you can print a meal where the chicken puree actually looks like a piece of chicken, the peas like actual peas, carrots like carrots etc. This way, the gap between the actual meal itself and the 50% “other” becomes just a little bit smaller.

With initiatives like this, 3D printed food becomes more than a gimmick and makes sense to me. Even though, I still don’t know the answer to how a printed meal actually smells…

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