The food of the future? 3D printed food in the online news media

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3D printed confectionary

I have just had a journal article accepted for publication in Futures. The author’s accepted version can be found here, open access: ARTICLE – Download to Delicious postprint. (Edited to note that the journal’s version is here but behind a paywall).

In the article, I analyse the ways in which 3D food printing has been represented in online news articles and industry blogs. I identified five major promissory themes, portraying 3D printed food technologies as: futuristic; creative; healthy; efficient; and sustainable.

These themes contributed to sociotechnical imaginaries that drew on a number of contemporary preoccupations related to food cultures: novelty, entertainment and leisure pursuits; convenience and time-saving; effective production and distribution; health and nutritional aspects; and environmental impacts and global food security.

I found that the widespread adoption of the term ‘3D printing’ to describe the digital additive manufacturing process serves to position this technology as a familiar domestic device, albeit one not usually employed to generate edible products. Digital printers, while they are common as devices in the workplace and home office for printing words on paper, are not generally associated with the production of edible materials or the location of the haute cuisine restaurant or home kitchen. As food processing machines, they currently largely inhabit the status of the futuristic machine of science fiction or fantasy (as in the ‘Star Trek’ food replicator shown below).

food-replicator

A tension was evident across news reporting between attempts to emphasise the futuristic and novel affordances of 3D food printing and those that sought to render them familiar and therefore more acceptable to potential consumers. Related to this tension was the contrasting of the banal and the mundane with the sci-fi possibilities of food printing in the news reports. Some reported applications of 3D printing portrayed these technologies as little more than handy new kitchen gadgets, gimmicky machines for manipulating and presenting foodstuffs, or a more appealing way of processing and presenting everyday nutritious or easy-to-eat foods. Other reports took a far more speculative and futuristic approach in attempting to positively portray the possibilities and promises of food printing.

For the most part, scientific innovation was portrayed as a positive force in news reports of 3D food printing. The unconventional association in the news articles of digital printing technologies with such endeavours as gourmet and home cooking and efforts towards improving human health, world hunger and environmental sustainability only served to support its possibilities. The vast majority of online news reports represented food printing as ameliorative, progressive, entertaining and creative: a fine example of the marvels of modern science and digital technological developments with both entertainment and more serious purposes. Narratives on printed food drew on the conventions of science fiction and futuristic discourses to emphasise the novelty, scientific nature and potential of the technology.

The views of current or potential consumers concerning what they thought of printed food received little voice in the news media. As most of the technologies described in the news reports were not yet in use, few images portrayed people actually eating printed food products. Yet there was extensive discussion of consumers as potential beneficiaries of these technologies across the five promissory themes. 3D printed food was portrayed as offering home cooks convenience, saving them time and providing them with the opportunity to make and serve more nutritious food. People in special circumstances such as astronauts, refugees, those in emergency situations and air travellers, as well as those with chewing and swallowing difficulties, were also singled out as potential beneficiaries. Consumers who enjoyed new foods and styles of eating were another group targeted in news stories.