Hold on to your chopsticks: edible, pixelated nigiri and maki could be coming to a sushi bar near you.
No, this isn’t a belated April Fools’ joke. Last month at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, Japanese company Open Meals showcased a machine that can build food made from 5mm gel cubes. Unsurprisingly, it caused quite a stir, because a) it’s sushi, and everyone loves sushi; b) it’s the kind of Instagram candy that causes foodies to lose their minds; and c) retro gaming is so in right now (thanks a lot, Ready Player One) that something rocking the 80s 8-bit visuals couldn’t be better timed.
The irony is that Japanese company Open Meals isn’t hoping to set the world on fire with 3D-printed pixelated fish and rice – at least, not primarily. The group’s main goal is actually to digitise food.
Let us explain…
Domo arigato, Mr. Roboto
There have been four major revolutions in food since humanity began roaming the Earth (to paraphrase Open Meals’ sales pitch): mastering fire, transition to agriculture, invention of non-perishable foods and mass production. The next one will be the “digitalisation, transmission and re-generation of food.”
To that end, Open Meals wants to create “a food version of iTunes,” according to company representatives, one that would store all the data about an item (shape, taste, texture and nutrient composition). Dubbed Food Base, this archive would allow people to share information about a particular dish – anything from a chain restaurant’s penne, to a molecular gastronomy marvel, to Mum’s Victoria sponge – that could then be downloaded and sent to a 3D printer anywhere in the world.
Or rather, it could be sent to any Pixel Food Printer in the world. Open Meals is currently seeking a patent for this device, which is still very much in the prototype phase (by the company’s own admission, the taste is “still under development” – which we assume is code for ‘not good’).
And while the pixel effect is one of the reasons the business has attracted attention recently, the hope is that the technology will become sophisticated enough to render cubes that are small enough to escape immediate notice.
Eating in 3D
So far, much of the 3D-printing innovation has revolved around visual appeal.
The Foodini from Natural Machines, for example, takes natural ingredients and purees them; this is then squirted into intricate, artistic-looking items.
It’s a similar method to the one employed by the world’s first 3D-printed restaurant, Food Ink, a pop-up that made tasting menus entirely from pastes. Debuting in London in 2016, it was the equivalent of using a pastry bag to not just ice a cake, but produce your steak too – perhaps even in the shape of a miniature cow.
Open Meals’ 3D printer, on the other hand, allows for chefs to play not just with appearance, but also the nutrient content. Fiddle with the program and add more protein/vitamin D/whatever supplement is required at will. Hey presto, personalisation!
As we’ve written before, this is more sustainable than regular food – and completely artificial in every way. Like lab-grown meat, it’s leading to a clash between consumers that support tech-bolstered sustainability and those who want all-natural health foods. Recent statistics suggest that certain segments of society – bizarrely vegans – would be willing to give artificial grub a try, though that perspective is far from universal.
But what does Sparkie think of all this gadget wizardry?
Each year trends articles predict growth in this area, and it is often used as the example for advances in technology being applied to food. We have seen fantastic things from 3D-printed insects, amongst other things. The thing lacking for now is a large-scale commercial printer that could churn out these products on a mass-production scale while being cost effective, allowing a business to create uniquely designed food shapes as a market differentiation.
Until that happens, expect more and more things like the pixel project to appear in media, highlighting the potential in increasingly creative ways. I think we are an extremely long way off using this type of technology as a Star Trek-style food replicator, but it seems to be one avenue that has potential.