When you hear the words 3D food printing, what’s the image that pops into your mind? Is it the famous replicator from Star Trek capable of synthesizing food out of thin air? Or is it everyone’s favorite pizza-rehydrating microwave from Back to the Future? Foodini, the real life 3D food printer created by Barcelona-based startup Natural Machines is unlike any of those bizarre sci-fi inventions. It’s something much more realistic and technologically feasible. It’s a multifunctional kitchen appliance that, according to Natural Machines co-founder and CMO Lynette Kucsma, will become a common sight in home kitchens in just 10-15 years. Its creators have set a surprising goal for the futuristic machine: to help us eat healthier while saving time and cooking with fresh, real ingredients. We were intrigued, so we sat down with Lynette to talk about how Foodini can help us eat less pre-packaged food and make more conscious decisions about what we put in our bodies.
Lynette started her career in tech at a paging company in New York City, and prior to Natural Machines, she worked at Microsoft in London. She has an impressive track record in tech, but her interests in food and healthy eating are personal. She grew up in New Jersey, dubbed the Garden State, and was exposed to seeing how vegetables grow all her life – which is why one of the biggest shocks she had when she moved to London was witnessing neatly stacked fruits and vegetables that were all exactly the same size and shape. She believes that it’s super important to know where your food comes from and exactly what’s in it, which coincides with current macrotrends towards making more well-informed choices when it comes to food and nutrition.
You would expect food that comes out of a machine to be artificial, but in the case of Foodini, the intention is exactly the opposite: to encourage people to choose fresh, real, wholesome ingredients over processed, pre-packaged foods.
Foodtech has to be personal
Let’s cut to the chase. What can you print with Foodini, and what goes into it?
I believe that foodtech has to be personal. It has to accommodate for your personal taste. My version of a healthy diet probably doesn’t fit your idea of a healthy diet. Foodini doesn’t come with pre-filled food capsules, because we can’t and don’t want to tell you what you should be eating. It comes with five empty stainless steel capsules that you can fill with whatever ingredients you like, and print whatever you like.
So can people eat bad using the machine?
Yes. There’s nothing stopping you from putting a bunch of bad stuff in it, just like your microwave or your oven. But the point is we’re giving you the option to eat whatever you want. If you want to eat chocolate and sugar only, that’s your choice.
What are the advantages of a 3D printer compared to conventional ways of preparing food?
When people ask me “so is 3D printing the fastest way to get food?” I say no, it’s not. The fastest way to get food is to buy it packaged, open it and eat it. Foodini automates things to a certain extent. It’s like a chef using a food processor instead of a knife. It’s faster for certain things, but it’s not for everything. What it’s really designed to do is to make fresh versions of the packaged foods you buy in the supermarket. I want to say we don’t buy a lot of processed food in our family, but we do buy our fair share. I’m a working mother, my husband works too, and the kids are always hungry. So we do tend to buy rice cakes and other snacks like that. But if I can make a lot of the foods that I would buy packaged using a 3D food printer, then I can control what goes into it and make sure it’s freshly made. That’s where the real advantage is.
“3D food printing isn’t really that crazy! If you buy anything that’s packaged from a food manufacturer, you’re practically eating 3D printed food.”
You mentioned that you believe that everyone will have a 3D food printer in their kitchen in about in 10-15 years. So until that happens, who are you targeting? Who’s using Foodini right now?
The market’s quite wide. It’s really everyone who’s not a home kitchen user, but a professional, including Michelin-star chefs, restaurants, hotels, food service providers, food manufacturers, hospitals, and nutritionists. It’s early days, but there’s a lot of interest.
What has to be done before the 3D food printer can take over kitchens like the microwave did back in the day? And why that specific time frame?
The reason why we say 10-15 years is because we’re realistic about technology. What we’re working on takes time to develop. There are a few pieces of technology that we know we have to put into the device to make it home-friendly. One is the capability to cook. Right now, you can heat the individual food capsules – you can keep chocolate at a melting point or you can print warm mashed potatoes, for example – but you can’t cook with it. If you’re printing raw fish or beef, you have to take it out of the printer and cook it. But the next generation printer will also cook your food. When that happens, you’ll have a kitchen appliance that’s very multifunctional. What we’re desperately trying to avoid is becoming that kitchen appliance that you can only use for one thing – think that pasta maker that you have in the back of your cabinet. In the future, devices will have to be capable of doing more things to earn that space in your kitchen.
Another thing that we don’t want to compromise on is how easy it is to clean the device. Juicers are a prime example of being a nightmare. Foodini is very easy to clean.
3D food printing is not as crazy as it sounds
What would you say to someone who’s skeptical about 3D food printing?
We get a lot of those! (Laughs.) I think it’s an education process, which is why we do events where we talk about it. I get why people are negative. When I first heard about Natural Machines, I was negative! I’m a co-founder because I shifted the business model, but I came in about 7 months after the company started. So when I heard about it, my first vision was processed, artificial food. And I thought: why do we need more of that? So I totally get it, and I’m very proud of the fact that I can turn people around or neutralize their arguments.
First of all, it’s important to point out that we don’t do what Nespresso does. We don’t force you to buy prefilled food capsules. That’s why I use words like “fresh real ingredients”.
Secondly, 3D food printing isn’t really that crazy! I know it sounds techy, but the truth is, if you buy anything that’s packaged from a food manufacturer, you’re practically eating 3D printed food. What food manufacturers do is they take food, they push it through a machine, and they shape it and form it. We took that entire concept and shrunk it down. The only difference is that you put in your own fresh, real ingredients. You can print many things that you can find packaged in a supermarket.
So if you wanted to make a healthier version of your favorite packaged snack, you couldn’t replicate that exact texture without a food printer?
Chances are you could, but how many hours in a day do you have? Foodini makes the making of many foods faster than doing it by hand or by any other means. When we do demos, we make lots of fancy shapes and designs, because that’s what people want to see. But we also do the exact opposite and print very simple, flat square crackers. They’re a good example of a snack that I can never find a healthy version of in supermarkets, because they’re always loaded with salt and oil. It would take a lot of time and effort to make them at home by hand, but with the help of a 3D food printer, they’re very easy. Today you have to take them out and bake them in the oven, but in the next version, the crackers are going to come out baked and ready to eat.
“No matter how healthy or unhealthy your diet may be, if I try to get you to change it today, you’re going to get defensive about it.”
Do you need unique recipes for the food printer, or can you adjust the recipes that you would normally use?
You can reverse-engineer a lot of your own recipes. It’s similar to a food processor in that sense. You get the hang of it and you use it to help you make your own recipes faster. That’s an advantage too, we don’t put any restrictions on that. It’s designed to be a kitchen appliance that you can use however you want.
We’re launching a new user interface in about a month or two to make using Foodini even easier. Since it is an IoT device, when we come up with more functionalities in the future, we can just update your software. This will ensure that the device doesn’t become antiquated the minute you buy it. The goal is to make it last.
You yourself have said that calling Foodini a 3D food printer makes it sound very techy and may put some people off. Why did you decide to call it that anyway?
Because that is what it is! Although it’s much more than a 3D food printer, because it also uses Artificial Intelligence and IoT, and we could attach lots of other tech buzzwords to it. But the reason why we called it a 3D food printer and not anything else is because if we’d called it anything else, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. The interest wouldn’t be nearly as high. Our goal with a lot of people right now is just to get the communication flowing. When you put food and 3D printing together, it sounds very unusual and provocative. Some people love it right away, some people absolutely hate it. But it starts a conversation.
When you’re talking about food in general, you’re raising passions anyway. People are so passionate about their diets. No matter how healthy or unhealthy your diet may be, if I try to get you to change it today, you’re going to get defensive about it.
One version of a healthy diet
Speaking of diets, I know that you follow a whole foods plantbased aka vegan diet. Is spreading the message of veganism something you consider important?
I believe in my diet. I’ve had people ask me “why are you showing how to 3D print fish or meat or cheese if you’re a vegan?” and my reply is because some people don’t believe in the vegan diet, or they’re slowly transitioning. Others strongly believe that you need fish to live healthily. Who am I to tell them otherwise? I’m not a scientist or a nutritionist. We want foodtech to accommodate everyone’s personal diet. Do I hide the fact that I’m vegan? No, but I don’t necessarily lead with that conversation. Who’s to say that my version of a diet is right or wrong? The perception of some foods is constantly changing. It’s difficult to know which scientists to believe and who’s sponsoring the studies that are telling us to eat a certain way.
As a company, it’s definitely not our mission to convince everyone to go vegan. It’s beyond the reach of what we can do, and the only way we could make sure that people only use our products to make vegan food would be to sell pre-filled food capsules. My co-founder is not vegan, even though he eats a lot of vegan food, and my employees aren’t all vegan either. We’re just trying to give people a tool to help make the right decisions for themselves. Veganism is a whole other conversation.