Could Printed Cheese Be Next on the Menu?

NASA is tinkering with the dairy of the future, and considers that it could come from 3D printers and not cows. Almond and soy "milks" or nut-based "cheeses" have already come into focus in the dairy world, and now, 3D printing may redefine dairy foods, which NASA and others may find no longer have to come from cows. 3D printing is more visible in the market, and its uses in food have become more elaborate. NASA is studying the technology to save crew time and reduce waste during missions, while confectioners have used the process to create desserts in intricate shapes that resemble art sculptures or molecular structures. Few food-related innovations enabled by the technology have focused on everyday food consumption, however. Eating 3D-printed food in space is far different than drinking 3D-printed milk every day.

TakePart.com recently discussed the concept, and while Americans drink far less milk these days than in the 1970s, fewer will give up cheese, despite its high fat and cholesterol. A Dutch project at Wageningen University, partnering with the dairy cooperative FrieslandCampina, is examining ways to re-engineer dairy foods such as cheese, milk and butter so that there may not be reasons to avoid them. Manufacturing milk proteins with yeast instead of cows, 3D printing technologies may not eliminate livestock from dairy production, but it may make products healthier and reduce waste, the researchers are finding. For example, 3D printing reconfigures product composition enough that going forward, processors might be able to develop an appetizing cheese that's high in protein yet has no fat or cholesterol content, or even lactose.

Maarten Schutyser, a professor of food process engineering at Wageningen and a researcher on the project, says that unlike cheese alternatives currently available 3D-printed cheese would still be dairy-based, just without the "bad stuff," such as the high cholesterol content. "The key is sodium caseinate, a protein found in milk," he says. It’s a natural 3D printing material, according to Schutyser, and has a "liquid feel," but quickly solidifies once extruded from a 3D printer.

But solidified sodium caseinate does not equal cheese, which is where things get tricky. Additional ingredients must be added to the printer system to achieve an extruded product that matches the flavor and texture of cheese or butter. The Dutch project is still very much in the experimental stages in terms of what those ingredients might be or how they might be combined. Protein might be the final product, low-fat, great-tasting and lactose-free dairy with a lower environmental impact than traditionally manufactured cheese. But after all that tinkering, is it still “real” milk, cheese or butter? Is it wise to fool with Mother Nature?

Environmentalists are concerned about our reliance on livestock and the waste generated but 3D printed dairy foods won’t take cows out of the equation, say the scientists. Cows’ milk will still be needed for its sodium caseinate, which acts as the base of such products, though sodium caseinate as-is isn't at all like milk. To provide adequate fluidity and flavor, researchers and food processors will have to add other various ingredients to develop products ranging from cheese to milk to butter , etc. Tinkering with adding those ingredients in modified quantities, Schutyser says that it's questionable if the final product could still be called "milk."

But the environmental benefits would mean reduced waste from spoilage during production, but would the resulting 3D-printed dairy products be worth it? The bigger point is whether 3D printing technology will eventually be refined enough to create healthier, good-tasting food or have enough advantages over traditional dairy to surpass its novelty, not to mention the stigmas associated with modifying food, as in GMOs. We can only wait and see if the experiment will actually amount to anything. But the old adage still remains: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.