The Dairy of the Future Could Come From 3-D Printers, Not Cows

Making milk, cheese, butter, and other products by printing with sodium caseinate may be healthier and more sustainable.
(Photo: Jason Lugo/Getty Images)
Apr 18, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Tove Danovich is a journalist based in Portland, Oregon.

Almond and soy “milks” or nut-based “cheeses” have changed the way we think about “dairy” products. Now 3-D printing is set to redefine real dairy—which may no longer have to come from a cow.

As 3-D printing has become accessible, its uses in food have become more elaborate. NASA is studying 3-D printing to save crew time and reduce waste during missions. Here on Earth, sweets makers have used the process to form desserts into intricate shapes that resemble art projects or molecular structures more than food. Still, few food-related innovations enabled by the technology have focused on everyday, terrestrial food consumption. Eating 3-D-printed food on a spaceship to Mars is one thing. Drinking 3-D-printed milk on a daily basis is another.

Wageningen University in the Netherlands is partnering with dairy cooperative FrieslandCampina to reimagine the future of foods such as cheese, milk, and butter. Milk consumption has been sliding in the U.S. since the 1970s, but even for those who have swapped 2 percent for soy, far fewer people are giving up cheese, despite its high carbon footprint and cholesterol. The Dutch project is hoping that reengineering dairy from the bottom up means there will no longer be any reason to avoid it.

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Unlike efforts to “biohack” dairy products—manufacturing milk proteins with yeast instead of cows—3-D printing will not remove livestock from production, but it may make products healthier and cut back on waste. Thanks to 3-D printing’s ability to tinker with the makeup of a product, one day food processors might create cheese, for example, that tastes delicious and is full of protein yet does not have the high fat or cholesterol content.

The key to making a printer nozzle, rather than a cow’s udder, a dairy source is sodium caseinate, a protein found in milk. It has a “liquid feel” and quickly solidifies once it’s dispensed from the printer, said Maarten Schutyser, a professor of food process engineering at Wageningen and a researcher on the project.

But sodium caseinate alone is nothing like milk. To get the same fluidity (not to mention flavor), researchers and food processors will have to add ingredients to fashion it into products ranging from cheese to milk to butter and more. Yet with the addition of those ingredients and their tweaked quantities, Schutyser said that “it is questionable if you still may call it milk.”

We’re a long way off from commercially available 3-D-printed cheese. First the researchers have to perfect printing individual ingredients. Once the technology aspect has been worked out, phase two of the project will involve collaborating with product developers, Schutyser explained. Once he and his colleagues know the limits of working with sodium caseinate, they can work within those boundaries when creating foods.

Printed food exists in a strange gray area as far as health, nutrition, and public acceptance is concerned. On the one hand, many consumers are suspicious of GMO agriculture and “unnatural” alterations in foods. However, most people eat processed foods that use preservatives and artificial ingredients to both flavor and extend the shelf life of products. Milk 2.0 is still in its early stages, and it’s hard to say which side of the food-tech divide it will fall on when publicly available. According to a 2014 Pew study, only 20 percent of Americans say they would eat meat grown in a lab.

While companies are creating vegan cheeses from nuts and other non-animal ingredients, this project still relies on animal agriculture to create dairy products. Sodium caseinate, a common ingredient in nondairy creamers, is obtained from milk acidified and neutralized with sodium hydroxide. But, Schutyser said, he and his colleagues plan to explore 3-D-printing plant proteins “in the near future,” though the final product may not be plant-based “dairy” items.

These experiments with 3-D printing are all in the name of creating new commercial foods. The biggest overall challenge, according to Schutyser, is developing “an attractive 3-D-printed food that has an added value over existing foods.” He explained that this means being creative with the base materials. How do you engineer something to come out of a 3-D printer and result in a food that tastes good to eat? Unless 3-D foods have a large advantage over their whole counterparts in cost, taste, or nutritional content, it’s unlikely many consumers will purchase them.

It’s one thing to make chocolate or fruit purees, Schutyser said. The goal of this project is to design healthy and sustainable foods “that can only be created with 3-D printing.” The sustainability aspect of the project will not likely come from reducing the reliance on animal agriculture. Rather, it could help reduce waste from spoiling or production losses as milk moves from cow to cheese.

So far, consumers seem to see 3-D printers as a high-tech version of kitchen devices like a stand mixer or a frosting tool: Food goes in one side and comes out the other, largely unchanged. This may not be the case with multi-ingredient foods such as printed milks or cheeses in which the final product is something different from the sum of its parts.