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Brief Published: 9 Jun 2017

Flat-Pack Food for Compact Transportation

Using 3D printing techniques, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Tangible Media Group are creating flat-pack foods that can be transformed into 3D shapes by adding water. The edible items are made from common food materials such as protein, cellulose and starch, which are then mixed with gelatine.

The foods form part of a research project entitled Transformative Appetite – inspired by Ikea's flat-pack approach to furniture. The researchers have suggested that the gelatine sheets can be stacked together and shipped to consumers, saving space as well as making the cooking experience more engaging.

In the lab, the research team were able to create pasta shapes including macaroni and rigatoni-like pieces as well as twists and flower shapes by layering gelatine of different densities using the 3D printer. The denser layers absorbed less water, enabling the structures to curl into the desired shapes. For more irregular shapes, the team 3D printed thin strips of edible cellulose in various patterns over a top gelatine layer. These strips act as a barrier to the absorption of water.

The researchers also worked with head chef Matthew Delisle of top Boston restaurant L'Espalier to test high-end versions of the pasta, using squid ink and plankton.

We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you will still end up with 67% of the volume as air. We thought maybe in the future, our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.

Wen Wang, Research Scientist, MIT

Along with 3D printing, the research paper also outlines how similar effects can be produced using screen-printing and other more easily accessible techniques. In addition, the team are developing software that will allow users to design their own shape-shifting pasta creations.

For more on advancements in the shape and feel of food, see New Food Forms. Meanwhile, New Food Aesthetic, Food Vision 2015 and 3D-Printed Meals for the Elderly explore the potential of 3D-printed edibles.

See also New Advances for 3D & 4D Printing and Enduring Luxe: Materials.