After much hype, 3D printing technology is finally hitting retail shelves. So how much mileage is there in a mass-market proposition?

It’s felt like a breakthrough year for 3D-printed foods. First, there’s been what’s felt like non-stop innovation: the world’s first cultivated grouper fish, eel, shrimp, and even ‘The Kraken’ (a vegan octopus made from fungi), all produced using the tech.

Second – and more excitingly – the first swathe of 3D-printed products has arrived on supermarket shelves. In September, local stores began stocking a printed salmon fillet from Austrian startup Revo Foods, developed by running a fungi-based mycoprotein through 3D printing machines. Two months later, Spanish manufacturer Cocuus delivered its first batch of printed bacon into Carrefour. And in February, Co-op signed a deal with 3D-printed nutrient gummy brand Nourished to stock six SKUs in 92 stores.

After years of false starts and speculation, 3D-printed foods could finally be making their way into the mainstream.

So, are we at a tipping point for the technology? Where does it have the biggest potential application? And what challenges remain in scaling up?


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Commercialisation has been a long time coming for ‘3D-printed food’, which (roughly) describes the intricate layering of edible materials, often via syringes, to create a 3D product.

The first patent to create customised birthday cakes via 3D printing was filed in 2001, though without a working prototype. In the early 2000s, appliance manufacturers such as Philips tested the feasibility of painstakingly layering fine food using a robotic arm.

And a few years later, a group of scientists and students at Cornell University, New York, famously built a 3D printer as part of an academic project and began testing it out with raw liquid foods, such as printing on cupcakes with melted chocolate.



Spanish company Cocuus delivered its first batch of 3D-printed plant-based bacon to Carrefour in November last year – and now says it’s eyeing a UK launch. The products, which are placed in the meat aisle of the supermarket, have had “good performance” so far, says the company, and provided plenty of lessons. They’re “already in conversations” with potential UK partners for a rollout here soon.

It was never just about messing around in laboratories or experimental kitchens, though. Proponents of the technology have always insisted that, with more mainstream use in food production, 3D printing can reduce waste, allow brands to create prototypes far more quickly, create customised products tailored to complex health needs, and give remote regions access to more nutritious foods.

It could also reduce environmental impact. According to Revo Foods, for example, the manufacturing process for its printed salmon emits up to 86% less carbon dioxide and uses 96% less fresh water than conventional, wild-caught salmon.

“We’ve faced challenges, both with the technology and the recipes”

Luis Ozcáriz, Cocuus

However, despite the big ambitions, until recently 3D printing’s applications have been either incredibly niche – in 2013, Nasa invested in the technology as a way to feed astronauts without weighing down spacecraft – or gimmicky, such as the printed pop-up restaurant that opened in London in 2016, serving 3D gourmet meals for £250 per head. This failure to live up to its potential is what inspired Eshchar Ben-Shitrit, co-founder of Israeli startup Redefine Meat, to explore a wider use of the technology.

“One of the things that drove me to start Redefine Meat was frustration from the misuse of 3D printing in food to create gimmicks and items like chocolate or sweets,” he says. “You don’t need 3D printing to do that, and the world doesn’t need more of that. The key is to find printed food products that are relevant for the masses, that are relevant for scale, as that’s when they solve a problem.”


Piper Picture

Nasa spin-off company BeeHex first began developing 3D printers to feed astronauts in space but “knew that government contracts are inconsistent” so turned its attention to the bakery and dessert category instead. This year it’s set to roll out its Piper machine into Kroger stores in the US. The device allows consumers to 3D-print personalised messages and images on to cakes.

The growing alt-protein space ticked all those boxes for the former lawyer, as it was crying out for an ethical and sustainable alternative, and undoubtedly had global scale. So in 2018, Redefine created its plant-based, 3D-printed flank steak, using the technology to replicate the fibrous texture of a whole cut of meat more closely.

Plugging the taste and texture gap in the burgeoning plant-based market was also a key motivation for Austrian startup Revo Foods, which launched in 2020.

“3D food structuring is the only way to produce complex, whole cut meat alternatives that really recreate the behaviour of these meat types, such as flakiness and juiciness,” says CEO Robin Simsa.

“The process allows us to integrate a fat component directly into the plant-protein fibres while giving them an anisotropic behaviour. This has been missing with traditional processing technology, and we believe this leads to meat alternatives that are much more appealing to the average ‘mainstream’ consumer.”

The need for speed (and scale)

The progress to small-scale production was relatively swift. Redefine Meat hit a 10kg per hour printing speed within two years, launching its steak into high-end restaurants by 2021. However, scaling up to the volumes required by retail has been much slower.

Tackling the volume problem has been a key focus for Revo Foods, which is set to open a new facility with a scaled-up production line later this year.

“We were able to develop the first continuous production system with additive food manufacturing,” explains Simsa. “This means it’s no longer necessary to produce in small expensive batches, but rather have a large, continuous material supply to the individual production machines.”

At 3D-printed plant-based bacon manufacturer Cocuus, “we’ve faced challenges, both with the technology and the recipes”, says Luis Ozcáriz, commercial and marketing director.


Nourished_Stacks Macro-5

Vegan vitamin brand Nourished struck a deal earlier this year with the Co-op, which has agreed to stock a selection of its 3D-printed gummy ‘stacks’ in 92 of its stores. Owned by Rem3dy Health, the brand will sell six supplement ‘stacks’ tailored to different nutrient needs – under categories such as sleep, calm and energy – priced at £2.49 each. It follows on from the brand being listed in Selfridges.

In recent years, it’s tweaked both to achieve the scale needed to launch into retail. Its current approach to automation – using 3D bioprinting, whereby bio-inks are mixed with living cells to replicate the tissue-like structure of the meat at scale – has been an “important milestone” in moving towards commercial availability. It’s now capable of producing about 1,000 tonnes of plant-based bacon a year.

At Redefine Meat, however, the challenges around scale mean they no longer describe their flagship flank steak as 3D printed, explains Ben-Shitrit. Instead, it uses what he calls a patented additive manufacturing process – a complex series of technologies that achieves the same fibrous texture using element layering but which, insists the company, is no longer simply 3D printed.

“Some refer to 3D printing, but we think ‘additive manufacturing’ is the right term because it explains the industrial nature and scale of our process,” he says. The change was necessary to produce the volumes required to roll out six of its plant-based meat products in Ocado in November and get closer to “becoming the world’s biggest meat company”.


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But if these advances in 3D printing – or its related technologies in the case of Redefine – the question is whether it has potential beyond the alt-protein category. “It’s certainly not for all product categories,” says Simsa. Turning on a 3D printer for bog standard chicken nuggets, for example, isn’t happening any time soon.

Cost and speed also remain prohibitive for broader application, adds Peter Hatfield, director at supply chain consultancy 4C Associates. Yes, “the adoption of 3D printing in food manufacturing has increased significantly, but it still accounts for a small fraction of the overall food production processes”, he points out.

That’s because it’s slower. “While millions of chocolate bars can be produced in a single shift using traditional methods, a 3D printer might only produce hundreds per day. Due to these inefficiencies, 3D printing is thus more suitable for high-end markets where consumers are willing to pay a premium.”

Redefine Meat

RT_Rendang_Pulled Pork_NL UK 1

Redefine Meat no longer categorises its products as 3D-printed. However, the rollout of six of its meat alternative SKUs in Ocado from November 2023 remains a major breakthrough for the technologies that were first developed off the back of the concept. Its pulled pork, pulled beef, bratwurst, lamb kofta mix, burger and mince will be joined by its flagship flank steak line this year.

So far, in addition to alt-protein, that’s included products where some level of customisation or personalisation can add sufficient value to warrant the investment. The nutrient gummy stacks 3D printed by Nourished, for example, clock in at about £40 per month if opting for the personalised mix of vitamins via their DTC platform (though Co-op will be stocking single pre-made stacks at just £2.49).

Personalised products in bakery have been another area where 3D printing is making progress, as dessert decoration is a “laborious process that requires hard-to-find talent”, explains Benjamin Feltner, COO at US 3D printer manufacturer BeeHex.

This year, it’s set to debut its Piper innovation in US Kroger stores, an in-store cake decorating machine that uses 3D printing and robotics to allow consumers to use it to create personalised messages and images on cakes. “We’ve built high-throughput cookie decoration equipment [before] but there’s less ‘3D food printing’ involved with those machines than the Piper,” says Feltner.

Revo Foods


Austrian food tech start-up Revo Foods launched its 3D printed plant-based salmon into select Austrian supermarkets in September last year, as well as selling via its own DTC platform. The 100% vegan fillet is made using fungi protein and costs €6.99 (£5.89) per fillet online. The company claims its manufacturing process emits up to 86% less carbon and 95% less fresh water than conventional salmon.

Future developments

Beyond these few areas, 3D printing doesn’t make sense yet, says Lorena Savani, co-leader of the EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank.

There are lots of hurdles that remain, even in the alt-protein space, she points out. Those include cost, speed, technical complexity, regulatory challenges – “regulatory frameworks need to be established to facilitate market entry” – and consumer acceptance. “There’s still a lot of scepticism among consumers around 3D-printed food,” she sums up.

“Larger food producers could adopt 3D printing for mass customisation”

Lorena Savani, EIT Food Protein Diversification Think Tank

Once further advances are made, and the technology becomes more cost-effective, Savani remains hopeful it could be a more mainstream method of production. “Larger food producers could adopt 3D printing for mass customisation, allowing them to offer a wide variety of personalised products on a large scale,” she says.

This could include products created for those with specific dietary needs, for example. “For medical nutrition, such as for patients with dysphagia or specific dietary restrictions, 3D printing could create food that meets precise nutritional and textural requirements, improving patient care and compliance. Restaurants and foodservice providers could use 3D printing to create on-demand, customised meals, enhancing customer experience and reducing food waste.”

Feltner is even more ambitious. “It’s just a matter of time before the technology is ubiquitous,” he insists. “3D food printers may be in every home at some point, like microwaves. That’s where we see the most utility.”

“Consumers could have 3D printers at home, allowing them to print new recipes from around the world,” echoes Hatfield. “This would also enable local production without the need for extensive shipping, reducing environmental impact and ensuring fresher products.”

We aren’t there yet. Far from it. But the commercial breakthroughs of the past 12 months have proven that 3D printing technologies do have a place outside the lab and on supermarket shelves. Just don’t expect manufacturers to pack up traditional production lines any time soon.

Could 3D printing be a solution to world hunger?


Source: Getty Images

Drought has plagued much of the developing world

There have been plenty of pretty bold claims made about the potential of 3D-printed food, from cutting out food waste to customising food products for complex health needs. But the idea that the technology could help solve world hunger has to be the boldest. So, what’s behind it?

Well, according to non-profit The Borgen Project, “as 3D-printed food continues to gain traction, it will become a viable solution for the hungry in several developing countries as it effectively exponentially increases access to healthy food”. Plus, as the cost-effectiveness of the technology improves, its ability to cut out the costs associated with the transport and storage of products – as food is printed on-demand, on-site – could help developing countries combat the impact of rising costs, they say.

That’s not all. According to a research paper published last year on the potential of ‘software-controlled cooking’, the technology could create customised nutrient-dense food products to respond to the specific health needs of poorer communities at scale.

3D printing is already being used for this purpose in some western markets – German manufacturer Biozoon, for example, already creates ‘smoothfood’, a substance that is high in essential macro nutrients like protein.

And it’s also been suggested that 3D printers could be used to construct incubators for livestock, which serve as crucial food sources in periods of drought or famine.

“Although much more progress is necessary, printing food is an innovative approach to addressing global hunger and poverty,” sums up The Borgen Project.