3D-printed foods are a growing component of the additive manufacturing industry. Within this realm, 3D-printed meat is gaining speed. Like other 3D-printed objects, edible material is extruded in layers to produce a variety of meat products, including ground meat, burger patties, sausages and kebabs. Nowadays, with advances in additive manufacturing, the ability to 3D print foods is becoming more widely accessible, cost-effective and eco-friendly.
Why 3D-printed meat?
Roughly one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) are produced by the food industry. Rearing livestock and the resources to sustain them, including food and water, are key components of this. Additionally, agriculture, especially that of animals, utilizes over half of the habitable land on Earth. Furthermore, though animal products account for less than 20% of the world’s calories, animal agriculture takes up 80% of the land used for farming.
With rising global populations, the demands for meat products are likely to rise concurrently. By utilizing new advancements in 3D bioprinting, these demands can be met without putting further strain on the planet. 3D-printed meat can allow for the control of the content inside the meat, which can boost its nutritional value without compromising texture and flavor.
How does it work?
The 3D printer works as an extruder and “prints” layers of printing material to create meat-like forms. The printing material can include plant-based ingredients such as vegetables or legumes, or cultured animal cells.
Pieces of meat or meat products are created in layers based on qualities such as desired shape and texture. Like traditional meat products, these need to be cooked before consumption.
3D-bio-printed meat, also referred to as lab-grown cultured meat, is made using the bovine stem cells from a chicken egg or cow. These stem cells are referred to as starter cells and are grown using a bioreactor, which produces a large quantity of the bio-material. Once enough biomass is produced, the cells are separated into edible muscle and fat tissues, which can be fed to the printer for printing.
What goes into the manufactured meats?
Depending on what is used to produce the meats, they can be made with or without animal-based products. For example, certain forms of 3D-printed meat use cultured animal cells, which are extruded layer by layer to form meat products. However, there are also other forms of 3D-printed “meat products” which are produced using only plant-based materials. These include ingredients such as legumes and vegetables, such as pea protein, beetroot, chickpeas and soy. These products can mimic the textures and flavors of meat, without using lab-cultured animal stem cells as a basis.
What are the advantages of 3D-printing meat?
The first key benefit of producing meat products through 3D printing is less reliance on animal agriculture. This consequently reduces GHG emissions and slashes the immense freshwater and land resources required to rear livestock. It also prevents animals from being placed in abusive rearing and slaughter situations and allows marine life populations to recover from overfishing.
Another important advantage is that 3D-printed meats are infinitely customizable. Based on consumer preferences, these products can be manufactured for optimal certain textures and flavors. The foods can even be customized to create meat alternatives for individuals who opt for plant-based diets.
Regarding health-related customizations, nutritional content can also be controlled. This includes levels of sugar, vitamins, minerals, protein and fats, which can be beneficial for those with chronic diseases or the elderly. To boost protein, one of the pathways that is currently being explored is within the field of entomophagy, which is the consumption of insects. Crickets have been known to have high protein levels and using them in the production of 3D bio-printed meats is likely to make them much more appealing for consumption to a larger audience. This maximizes the use of widely available resources (as crickets are abundant and easy to capture) and is a simple method of enhancing protein content in foods.
Eliminating waste is another benefit of 3D-printed meats. Food waste is a growing problem worldwide, but by 3D-printing food, companies can produce consistent, high-quality results. This means that these food products have optimal flavors and textures that make them the “perfect” cut of meat each time, thus preventing food waste.
What are the drawbacks?
Currently, there are a few drawbacks to 3D-printing food, which can make it a challenge to adopt on large scales. Despite the growing trends in 3D printing, manufacturing or purchasing a food-grade 3D printer can come with hefty initial costs. This can make 3D-printed products more expensive, particularly when companies are just starting up.
Additionally, conventional additive manufacturing systems are small-scale and can only extrude small amounts of product over a comparatively lengthy period. Except for a small handful of companies, large-scale 3D-printed food production is challenging to undertake. This makes it especially difficult to meet market demands sustainably.
Furthermore, because 3D-printing systems (especially food-grade ones) are still undergoing development, these manufacturing systems use up large amounts of energy. In fact, additive manufacturing food can consume up to 50 to 100 times more energy than that required for conventional food production. This, alongside the other challenges mentioned above, makes it difficult for 3D-printed meats to be implemented at large scales despite their social and environmental benefits.
Currently, companies like Mooji Meats and Steakholder Foods are pioneering 3D-printed meats for sale on medium to large scales. Through further developments to improve food-grade additive manufacturing systems, 3D-printed meats are likely to gain traction in the coming years. Through an increase in these sales, there would be lower demand for conventional meat. This in turn would reduce GHG emissions and strain on resources as there would be lessened animal husbandry and overfishing.
Lead image via Pexels