In the last few years, we’ve witnessed the rise of lab-grown and plant-based food and started swapping juicy, non-vegetarian burgers for the alternative meat industry’s Beyond Burger. We even went as far as to binge-eat (or binge-watch) digital food on Instagram. In other words, the food industry saw some pretty mind-blowing changes. But there remains one trend that didn’t receive as much attention as the previous ones just yet: 3D-printed food.
Now, things are finally about to get interesting in the 3D-printed food market. KFC, along with the California-based startup Finless Foods, are both getting involved. Forget about 3D-printed guns flooding the US market. How does a meal of bioprinted chicken nuggets sound instead?
KFC just announced a partnership with the Moscow-based company 3D Bioprinting Solutions to test out bioprinted chicken, which could be one of the highest-profile deals yet for the lab-grown meat industry. KFC added it will have its final testing for the product this fall, and thinks printed meat will become part of its “restaurant of the future.” Details on when or where the printed nuggets will be available have not yet been shared.
The fast-food chain plans to provide 3D Bioprinting Solutions with ingredients like breading and spices “to achieve the signature KFC taste” and will, of course, seek to replicate the taste and texture of real chicken. For the vegetarians reading this, don’t get too excited as the bioprinting process KFC describes uses animal material, so any nuggets it produced won’t be suitable for vegetarians, unfortunately.
According to KFC, bioprinted nuggets still represent some major positives when compared to real chicken meat. The 3D-printed nuggets would be more environmentally friendly to produce than chicken. In its announcement, KFC cited a study by the American Environmental Science and Technology Journal which it says shows the benefits of growing meat from cells, including reductions in greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption compared to traditional farming methods.
Meanwhile, the startup Finless Foods has been trying to use 3D printing to improve astronauts’ diets. The company is currently working on cultured fish cells that can be grown in zero-gravity environments. To achieve this, Finless Foods also partnered with 3D Bioprinting Solutions. Last year, the companies sent a bioprinter along with a set of fish cells to NASA’s International Space Station (ISS) for testing.
The team was able to grow the cells to a certain density and use the bioprinter to arrange the fish cells into 3D structures, forming small spheres of cells—the first step toward shaping it into something that looks like the food we consume on Earth. As complex as this process sounds, it might be the only chance for us to get presentable food in space.
When it comes to the possibility of having humans live in space, there seems to be one problem (among others): sending items into space is extremely expensive—about $10,000 a pound, according to Forbes. That’s why we need to start thinking about a way to make our own food in space. Growing fish meat without the actual fish could help in this specific situation. And if shown possible, Finless Foods’ fishcakes could also represent a sustainable option on Earth, one that doesn’t overexploit seafood.
Now, as exciting as both these projects sound, bioprinting still faces a few problems. The most significant one for now being the lab-grown meats’ texture. For now, the fake meats don’t mimic the same muscular structure of, say, a normal fish. Instead, they look a lot like mincemeat, which makes them a whole less appealing all of a sudden.
While companies are working on this issue, this mushy lab-grown meat might just be the perfect option for our pets. According to The Hustle, a number of companies including Bond Pet Foods and Because Animals “are already racing to corner the 3D-printed pet food market.” As we impatiently await KFC’s bioprinted chicken nuggets, we can sleep at night knowing that if not us, at least our pets are enjoying a lovely eco-friendly meal.
The food industry has been undergoing monumental changes in the past few decades—new technologies were implemented, even into the way we cook, produce and buy food. Climate change pushed more and more people to watch out for how much meat they consume, which then made becoming a vegetarian or vegan extremely trendy. This created a growing need for plant-based ‘meats’ and non-dairy products.
Along with these shifts, a new term appeared in the culinary world: ‘digital food’. It’s here, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to vanish anytime soon, so you better get used to it. But what exactly is digital food, and what changes will it inspire in the ever-changing industry that is the food sector?
First of all, let’s start by clarifying something: digital food and new technologies being used in the daily operations of food companies are two different things. New technologies meant that manufacturing processes were upgraded and started producing more food at a faster pace. But digital food is something else entirely. With social media came the recent boom in online food-based media, which completely changed the way we look at food online and seek out new recipes, restaurants and reviews.
We began craving new flavours from different countries, but it went even further than that. From sharing images of food on Instagram to augmented reality (AR) filters that shape our faces into a peach or a tomato or any food you can think of, it seems that the term ‘digital food’ still has many meanings and, therefore, that there is no general consensus on its definition. Why is it not clearer? Because digital food is so recent that it is still in constant change. In other words, digital food is the future but no one can tell what the future holds.
Forget about the Instagram face, the new trend involves face filters that either allow you to look like your favourite food or make photo-realistic 3D food models appear on your camera. Not only can you look like your favourite kind of bubble tea, but you can also help reduce food waste by playing with food digitally. Because, let’s be honest, who hasn’t tried the Greggs face filter that lets you know which Greggs product you are?
Screen Shot spoke to Clay Weishaar, also known as @wrld.space on Instagram, the AR artist specialising in food filters, about our new obsession with food, especially on social media, and why his designs mainly focus on digital food, “Food culture has always been a big subject on Instagram. So has fashion. This has really inspired me to explore the idea of food as fashion. I loved the idea of people wearing their favourite food. With augmented reality technology we have the ability to do this.”
This can explain the kind of feedback that his Instagram filters received: “I am a huge foodie myself. Combining food, fashion and technology was a sweet spot for me. I think the reason my filters have almost 2 billion impressions is that food is something people identify with. It’s a universal subject, and it is what brings people and cultures together.”
Some big food chains have already seen the potential in digital food. For example, Domino’s created a Snapchat filter that would let users see an AR pizza and offer them the possibility of ordering the pizza online, straight from their Snapchat app. Using AR, brands could show us exactly what a specific meal would look like, making it easier for potential customers to make up their minds on what they’d like to order.
Five years ago, people were writing about food online to complain about the trend of people sharing pictures of their meals on Instagram. Now, people are looking, liking and sharing pictures of fake food—digital food.
Among the few who can already see the potential of digital food is Jessica Herrington, who created the Instagram account Fresh Hot Delicious, a completely digital restaurant specialising in digital desserts. She described the concept in OneZero, saying, “Each dessert exists as a freely available AR filter on Instagram. To simulate a real-world restaurant, the desserts ‘sell out’ when the AR filters reach a specific number of views. Users can play with the desserts for free until they are ‘sold out’ and become deactivated. In this way, the digital restaurant gives a life span to previously permanent digital objects.”
Experiencing digital food through AR is an accessible and innovative alternative to engage with an audience. Food brands are trying to sell more than a product—they need to sell an experience, and digital food could help them build a connection with potential customers. The future of the food sector is digital, and we’ve only witnessed a few of the many ways we will consume digital food. As unusual it may seem to many for now, digital food will offer us a new approach to traditional eating experiences, and I don’t know about you, but all this made me hungry.