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The 'uncanny valley' of 3D printed food could be a natural fit for astronauts

The 'uncanny valley' of 3D printed food could be a natural fit for astronauts

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In popular perception, food is something of the holy grail of 3D printing: printing your own dishes is like being able to use a real-life Star Trek food replicator or a Fifth Element-style meal packet. We're not there yet, but Wired has profiled the Cornell University Fab@Home project's ongoing efforts to make viable 3D printed foods. Unlike projects that focus on molding existing materials like chocolate, Fab@Home uses gel-like substances that can be combined with other materials (including artificial flavoring) to mimic the taste and mouthfeel of many different foods.

While the flexibility and precision of 3D printing could make it a hit in Earth-bound molecular gastronomy, the ability to make small, varied portions of food is particularly valuable for astronauts. Currently, space voyages pack rotating packets of different meal types, but with a 3D printer, those could be swapped for base materials that would then be flavored and printed. Unfortunately, Fab@Home will also have to find a way to extrude the many ingredients that can go into a good meal, all while dealing with different temperatures and textures. Even 3D printers for plastic, a much simpler subject, still tend to only print in one or two colors and materials at a time.

"It was the Uncanny Valley of food."

There's also the problem of asking people to eat something that is almost, but not entirely, like ordinary food. Jeffrey Lipton of Fab@Home says early tests of printed mushrooms or cheese "quickly ran into the yuck factor... It was the Uncanny Valley of food." For now, the team will focus on producing tasty, simple food that doesn't try overtly to mimic the real thing, leaving more complex and "natural" meals for later.