DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And we've been reporting recently on cutting-edge technology in our food. And some of the most high-tech cooks are in the military. Army scientists have spent decades concocting meals that can last without refrigeration and survive the most extreme conditions, like high-altitude airdrops. Well, now the Army is eyeing a new form of cooking - 3-D printing. Yes, food fresh from the printer - or fresh as it can be. Here's NPR's Aarti Shahani.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: Imagine soldiers who are strapped head-to-toe with sensors, sensors that measure if they're high or low in potassium or cholesterol.
LAUREN OLEKSYK: We envision to have a 3-D printer that is interfaced with the soldier. And that sensor can deliver information to the computer software.
SHAHANI: Lauren Oleksyk is a food scientist at the Army's Natick Research Center.
OLEKSYK: And then they would be able to have either powdered or liquid matrices that are very nutrient dense, that they have on demand that they can take and eat immediately to fill that need.
SHAHANI: Liquid matrices that are nutrient dense. And you print them? You heard that right. The Army is turning to 3-D printers for a nutrition project to stamp out the equivalent of power bars but personalized for the battlefield. The Department of Defense has just approved research funding. And it's going to take a lot of research. While regular printers put ink on paper, 3-D printers blast liquids and powders into complex shapes. But it's not clear if printers could mold a solid, like carrots, and what would happen to the food's nutritional value.
OLEKSYK: There's synthetic types of meats. There's real beef. There's real meat. And we would see what that does in the printing process to that protein, whether it's animal-based or plant-based.
SHAHANI: And of course, the 3-D food will have to pass a taste test, just like the current rations - which are called MREs - meals ready to eat. Oleksyk mailed me a bunch that I'm now trying to pry open with my bare hands.
I reach in for a jalapeno pepper jack patty and try it. I mean, I like it. I like the flavor. It does taste very processed, like someone had to jam a lot into a little patty.
OLEKSYK: Well, it is thermally processed, so it's, you know - it is completely cooked.
SHAHANI: Overcooked even. The kitchens that make this patty use flaming-hot ovens and extreme heat to sterilize it. Oleksyk says if the 3-D printers could use less heat, the patty could also taste better - less like a compact muscle and more like fresh ground meat.
OLEKSYK: We hope so. You know, it's not being done, so it's something that we will investigate in our project.
SHAHANI: In the food world, 3-D printing is just getting started. And it's a sweet start, literally.
LIZ VON HASSELN: So can you kind of see, Aarti, that there are two beds here inside the printer?
SHAHANI: Liz von Hasseln is giving me an online tour of The Sugar Lab, a 3-D printing outfit in Los Angeles that turns sugar into sweet candy sculptures for wedding cakes and fancy cocktails. The startup is sharing its technology with the military.
VON HASSELN: So basically what the printer does is a lot like making frosting in a bowl. It basically adds the wet ingredients of the frosting to the dry ingredients very, very precisely in very fine layers.
SHAHANI: Von Hasseln has sent me some samples to try, and they're very different from the military food. I unwrap a delicate sphere that's a little bigger than a lollipop.
SHAHANI: (Chewing) Reminds me of Sweet Tarts - used to eat that when I was a kid.
VON HASSELN: (Laughter) Yes.
SHAHANI: It's hard for me to imagine this technology producing anything nutritious or durable. But Von Hasseln's cofounder and husband, Kyle, says the printer's ability to vary textures - to make food soft or hard - would be critical for soldiers who are injured or on the move.
K. VON HASSELN: Dialing in the exact density of food could mean that they could eat more easily. And because of that, as a consequence, they might even eat more or be healthier.
SHAHANI: 3-D printed food sounds sci-fi. But according to military scientists and 3-D experts, these meals for soldiers are on track to be ready by 2025. Aarti Shahani, NPR News, San Francisco.
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