3D Printed Alternative Proteins: An Overview

Thanks to 3D printing, alternative meat products can now look and feel similar to conventional meat.

Here, we explore the history of 3D printing food, as well as the companies using this technology to disrupt the industry.

Why 3D Printed Foods?

3D printing food might sound like something out of a science fiction movie (which is exciting in its own right), but what exactly makes it so special? Leaders in the alternative protein industry believe 3D printed food has the potential to improve sustainability and reduce waste.

3D Printed Meat. Image Credit: Shutterstock.com/Dmytro Zinkevych

When it comes to waste, the food industry faces an ethical dilemma. As an example, consider the meat yield of a cow, which is approximately 63% per animal, meaning that around 37% is not consumed by humans.

Moreover, globally, 20% of meat produced goes to waste. In the case of fish and seafood, 35% of global catch is wasted. By focusing on just a consumable product (without unwanted bycatch or animal parts), 3D printing food decreases unnecessary waste.

In addition to its waste potential, conventional meat is a notoriously inefficient source of calories.

To use the beef example again, it may take 30 to 42 months to produce meat in the US, while Steakholder Foods (which produces cell-based meats) claims that their 3D printers can produce steaks in just minutes – though the final product needs to be incubated for several more weeks.

History of 3D Printed Foods

If 3D printed food still sounds like something from Star Trek, you’re not that far off. Star Trek introduced the concept of a ‘replicator’ able to reproduce organic and inorganic materials — including food. Today's 3D printers don't transfer energy into matter (as they did in Star Trek), but the concept of printing visually and gustatorily recognisable foods using 3D printing is similarly fantastical.

In any case, reality suggests that 3D-printed food is here to stay. With a market predicted to reach a billion dollars in 2026, this technology may soon play a major role in our food supply.

Many industries have taken advantage of the futuristic qualities of 3D printing since its invention in the 1980s. Yet 3D printing has only been used in food production for a few decades.

We have come a long way from the first 3D printed foods in 2006 when a hobbyist team developed the first 3D food printer Fab@Home at Cornell University. Rapid R&D in the space is indicated in the 2013 announcement by NASA to asses 3D printed food as a solution to astronaut nutrient needs in long space flights (while reducing waste). A few short years later, in 2019, Aleph Farms made headlines when they produced the first-ever meat in space.

How to Produce 3D-Printed Foods

Various 3D printing technologies exist, but extrusion is most commonly used in the alt-protein industry. Foods are printed using extrusion 3D printing by dispersing ingredients with syringes and employing predesigned shapes.

In the alt-protein industry, cell or plant-based compatible "inks" are "fed" into the 3D printer. Alternatively known as additive manufacturing or food layering manufacturing (FLM), 3D extrusion technology produces a final product formed by printed layers without the assistance of a human.

Across the alternative protein industry, innovation in 3D printing is inspiring next-generation alternative proteins. The following are four companies utilizing 3D technologies to produce plant and animal-based alternative proteins.

Still curious? Learn more about the science behind 3D printed steaks.

Revo Foods

This Austrian company produces plant-based salmon utilizing 3D extrusion printing technology. Each helping of Revo salmon includes microalgae oil, which contains DHA and EPA— the fatty acids found in fish oil supplements. Revo salmon also contains pea protein and plant oils.

Revo Salmon. Image Credit: Courtesy of Revo Foods

We asked Robin Simsa, CEO at Revo Foods, about the rapid growth of the company and their next steps. Robin shared:

Texture challenges have historically inhibited the usage of mycoprotein in 3D printing — making the partnership between Revo and Mycorena (a fungi-focused company) particularly exciting. It is the first partnership of its kind in the alt-protein space. Revo Foods is working on capacity and intends to upscale production technology to produce several tons per day.

Steakholder Foods

Stakeholder Foods utilizes proprietary extrusion 3D printing technology to produce cultivated meat from animal cells. The company (previously MeaTech) began with beef cells but has expanded its range to include chicken, fish, and pork. Stakeholder's end product is whole cuts of real meat with the taste and texture of their corresponding conventional counterparts.

In 2022, Stakeholder foods revealed their 3D printed Omakase Beef. The layers of beef are printed separatly utilising two different bio-inks: fat and muscle produced from Bovine stem cells.

Omakase Beef Morsels (Image credit: Courtesy of Steakholder Foods)

When asked to share more about Steakholder's mission, Arik Kaufma, Co-Founder and CEO, noted:

Mass-producing meat alternatives is critical to reaching price parity with conventional proteins. The efficiency of 3D printing presents a pathway to the widespread adoption of alt-protein products.

Stakeholder Foods is a public company traded on Nasdaq under the ticker STKH.

Nova Meat

With CEO and founder Giuseppe Scionti’s background in tissue engineering, Nova Meat is on a mission to produce plant-based meat alternatives indistinguishable from their animal counterparts.

Nova Meat produced the first plant-based 3D printed steak in 2018 and, since then, has continued to expand its plant-based 3D printing capabilities. Nova meat uses extrusion printing technology.

Cocuus

Cocuus emphasizes reducing production costs and streamlining cultivated and plant-based proteins through its 3D bioprinting technology. The company works on advancing alternative proteins through various innovations, including 2D/3D laser printing, bioprinting, and robotics.

Their focus areas include cultivated and plant-based meats and 3D-printed scaffolding for cell-cultivated products.

If you are involved in 3D printing, or know any companies developing this technology — Please reach out. We’d love to hear from you!

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