3D printing is everywhere these days. Earlier this year, General Electric Co. announced that they’re developing a 3D printer for jet engine parts. It will be the largest of its kind. The printer works by fusing thin layers of powdered metal with a laser. At the other extreme, medical researchers are working hard to print body parts. A recent article in The Guardian asks if bioprinting could provide organs for transplants. Organ shortages lead to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year.
Meat, of course, is a body part and scientists are printing that too. Gabor Forgacs of the University of Missouri works on organ printing. He also jointly holds a patent for engineered comestible meat. The idea is to print layers of living cells on a scaffold and culture the result. The cells will fuse to form muscle tissue, also known as meat.
The patent applies the modifier non-human whenever cells are mentioned. Although engineered meat may be an option for vegetarians, it doesn’t seem to hold out hope for cannibals.
Insects Au Gratin
Engineered meat has not yet moved beyond the laboratory. However, it’s possible to print using real meat as ink. 3D printers exist that can create hamburger patties from ground beef or turkey. Why, you might be wondering, do you need a 3D printer for this when a preschooler can manage the task?
3D printing of confectionary has been more impressive. The technology lends itself to building intricate shapes in chocolate or sugar. When designers and engineers get together, the results can be stunning: Insects Au Gratin is one example.
Insects Au Gratin was part of a wider attempt to create awareness of entomophagy. You guessed it, entomophagy is what happens when people see insects as comestible. More than 2 billion do, according to The Food and Agriculture Organization. The rest eat insects without realizing it, to the tune of about a pound per person every year.
Insects are ubiquitous, so they end up in food. The Food and Drug Administration provides figures. They publish natural and unavoidable levels in common foodstuffs. Chocolate contains an average of 60 insect fragments per 100 grams. In addition, the same amount of chocolate generally contains three rodent hairs. Cookies are worse. Wheat flour may include 150 or more insect fragments per 100 grams.
Insects are nutritious and healthy. Mealworms have a better omega-3 and six fatty acid balance than beef. Entomophagy is also good for the planet: insects are efficient at converting feed to biomass. They need little water and have a low carbon footprint. Yet, many people resist eating bugs.
Insects Au Gratin incorporated insect flour into a paste suitable for 3D printing. The other ingredients included icing butter, chocolate, cream cheese and spices. Susana Soares, the project designer, took inspiration from the natural forms of insects. The team produced a beautiful collection of objects — comestibles, although this isn’t obvious from their appearance.
Overcoming the phobia of entomophagia
Tamara Nair is from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She wrote a commentary on 3D printing and food security. 3D printing is ideal for creating attractive food items from less attractive ingredients. Like insects. She suggests using insects or algae in nutritious chocolate bars aimed at children. Think about it. Chocolate already contains insects, so isn’t this a logical next step?
Bodies such as the Food and Agriculture Organization fear that the world will run out of food. Climate change compounds the problem of a growing human population. Insects could be a valuable nutrient source and 3D printing may be the key to global entomophagy. We could be heading for a future where all our food looks like the art of Insects Au Gratin.
And if people find the idea of insect flour too much to stomach, it may just motivate them to give up fossil fuels.
Soares S, Forkes A. 2014. Insects Au Gratin: An Investigation Into the Experiences of Developing a 3D Printer That Uses Insect Protein Based Flour as a Building Medium for the Production of Sustainable Food. International Conference on Engineering and Product Design Education. 4 to 5 September 2014, University of Twente, The Netherlands.
Van Huis A, Van Itterbeeck J, Klunder H, Mertens E, Halloran A, Muir G, Vantomme P. 2013. Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Feed Security. FAO Forestry Paper 171. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.
Featured image by Horst Winkler on Pixabay.