Is Star Trek’s voice-activated, on-demand food gadget closer to reality?

Could 3D printing bring the dream of food personalisation out of space and into this world?

5 January 2018
flavourinnovationtechnologymanufacturing
image credit: demaerre/iStock/Thinkstock

Forget Instagram. Inspiration can be found in some unlikely places. Like in Star Trek, a fictional show about a spaceship exploring the final frontier of human experience.

This is where Renee Boerefijn thinks the future of food could lie. And no, not in outer space; it’s the technology he’s interested in.

Boerefijn is the director of innovation at the company IOI Loders Croklaan, which works with food manufacturers to reduce saturated fat in products. He says Stephen Hawking’s famous book A Brief History of Time and its enactment in the Star Trek series are great inspirations.

“In Star Trek, there is a voice-activated and controlled system that produces any food and drink on demand: the replicator. Coffee capsules and 3D printers are steps in this direction,” he tells Food Spark.

So what could 3D printing mean for the future of food?

Personalised plates

Traditional food manufacturers may see the trend of personalisation as a threat, rather than an opportunity, says Boerefijn. His company is currently working with partners to look at ways to bring personalised products to market beyond using 3D printers, but for now it’s all top secret.

So should technology like 3D printing set the alarm bells ringing for mass manufacturers? Boerefijn says the death knell is a possibility, but for it to come to fruition, it would need to involve some major players stepping up.

“3D printing may make [manufacturer’s] investments and facilities obsolete, and also create a new, competing channel to the market,” he says. “To make it work commercially on a massive scale, we probably need the participation of e-commerce platform providers and tech-companies – think Alibaba or Amazon.”

Diet data

People want to know what their individual nutritional needs are, right? Of course. But what really happens when they know it? Well, virtually no one can be bothered to design a menu that suits their instantaneous taste and energy or nutritional needs, purchase these foods and then prepare a meal, says Boerefijn. Let’s face it, people like to eat food that tastes good, but which can be bad for them.

“We need to decouple liking and nutrition to make the healthy option always the preferred choice. 3D printing may be instrumental to make the right food available on demand,” he says.

Technology can also impact on indulgence, according to Boerefijn, such as the loss of flavour and texture when products are mass produced. This is where 3D printing could also make its mark.

“A technology like 3D-printing can also hugely expand our range of mouthfeel experiences: contrasts of velvet and crunch, plasticity and elasticity, and completely new dimensions in texture like the sense of touch or tactility,” he says. “It is also essential in avoiding waste, as it is produced on demand and in the exact quantity that you want and need.”

Being able to use fresh ingredients with a variety of recipes, while also allowing stricter control over food portion sizes, taps into the demand for easy eating. It might not be an easily accessible solution yet, but it’s one to keep an eye on, as technology allows us to boldly go where no food has gone before.

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