AUSTIN, Texas — South by Southwest Interactive returns this week, and the food panels look a little different from those in recent years.
Usually, we see a mix of panels including sessions about food in new media (social media, Yelp, blogging, apps), the influence of food celebrities (Anthony Bourdain, Eddie Huang) or changing restaurant culture (food trucks, pop-up dinners). But the majority of this year’s sessions focus on food production, specifically, how we might make food in the future and how we can make more of it to feed a growing global population.
The interactive conference always features at least one or two panels in this area, including agritechnology and tech initiatives to help alleviate world hunger, but I’m surprised to see so many panels pushing for manipulating food even more than it already is. (You can see the full list of food panels at austin360.com/relishaustin).
By far the most talked-about innovation in processed food in the past year has been 3-D printing of food, a niche within a niche that has two dedicated sessions at this year’s conference, one a presentation from Bonin Bough of Mondelez International, which has experimented with 3-D printing one of its most popular products: Oreos.
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Another session features Austin entrepreneur Levi Lalla, 31, a local guy who has been fiddling around with 3-D printing — also called additive manufacturing — since his days at MIT.
Last year, Lalla started piq Chocolates, which uses both molds and 3-D printers to make customized chocolates that customers order online (
The majority of his orders are fulfilled using molds, a process that takes far less time to complete than printing and one that has been around for more than a century, giving us such treasures as Cadbury eggs and hollow chocolate bunnies.
But some of the most exacting designs require one of his two 3-D printers. One uses a syringe filled with liquid chocolate, and the other uses lasers to fuse chocolate powder together.
His original machine works almost like an automated pastry piping bag, squirting just the right amount of melted chocolate in the right place to build 3-D structures or write a message on a bar.
You can make more intricate shapes with the laser printer, but its taste might surprise some chocolate lovers.
“Everything has a trade-off,” Lalla says. “Since you’re fusing powders together, it’s not going to taste like traditional chocolate. It has more of a consistency of a sugar cube because the powder has more surface area. You get a lot of chocolate flavor all at once, but it’s not the silky, milky, creamy chocolate experience.”
And experience, Lalla has learned, is just as important to some eaters as ingesting sustenance is for others.
“The two reasons why one would 3-D print food is if you need a specific shape, like a highly customized or personalized shape, or if you really need to put flavors in particular locations,” he says. “It allows you to play with the experience of eating food.”
For instance, he says, if you used one of the 3-D sugar printers that were one of the most buzzed-about displays at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, you could make a sugar cube with alternating layers of tart, sweet and salt, or create one in a geometric shape straight out of M.C. Escher’s brain.
Despite knee-jerk comparisons to the replicator in “Star Trek,” in which you push a button and an item of nutritional value appears, 3-D printers require an input of physical materials that are simply layered on top of one another. “In reality, all you’re doing is changing the shape of something,” he says.
But Lalla is concerned that the more mechanical the food, the less appealing it will be to eat, especially for those of us who enjoy the process of cooking.
“If you’re processing it so much so that it fits through a syringe, with enzyme pastes that have nutritional value like amino acids, starches and proteins, and then extruding it so it prints a power bar — I mean, I don’t want to eat that,” Lalla says.
We already have automated cooking and food-production devices at home. The microwave might be the most ubiquitous, but think about all the tasks a stand-up mixer can do (whisk eggs, grind meat, roll pasta) that once had to be done by hand.
Lalla says he could see a company setting up “an army of printers on a countertop” programed to finish product after product with little to no hands-on effort from a person. “The reality of the situation is that you need a lot of orders” to pay for all those machines and their programming, he says.
There are infinite 3-D printing designs, and more automated food production at home is almost a certainty, Lalla says, and it’s easy to get caught up in the possibilities without seeing the big picture of how we eat and live. “If you don’t need a precise amount in a precise location, you don’t need 3-D printing,” he says. “You could just as easily dump it in the middle of a cookie sheet and cook it.”