If current research pans out as planned, Army Soldiers may soon be consuming meals printed by 3-D technology.
Lauren Oleksyk, food technologist for the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, is in the process of investigating 3-D food processing and product development. Leading the research team, Oleksyk states that her official objective "is to advance novel food technologies . . . to make them suitable for military field feeding needs."
Another NSRDEC food technologist, Mary Scerra, is a firm believer in the ways in which 3D food would benefit the Army.
"It could reduce costs because it could eventually be used to print food on demand," Scerra explained. "For example, you would like a sandwich, where I would like ravioli. You would print what you want and eliminate wasted food."
"Printing of food is definitely a burgeoning science," Oleksyk added. "It's currently being done with limited application. People are 3-D printing food. In the confectionery industry, they are printing candies and chocolates. Some companies are actually considering 3-D printing meat or meat alternatives based on plant products that contain the protein found in meat."
"It is revolutionary to bring 3-D printing into the food engineering arena," Oleksyk proclaimed. "To see in just a couple of years how quickly it is advancing, I think it is just going to keep getting bigger and bigger in terms of its application potential."
Oleksyk's team has specific ideas as to how the technology will assist soldiers in particular.
"We have a three-year shelf-life requirement for the MRE [Meal Ready-to-Eat]," Oleksyk described. "We're interested in maybe printing food that is tailored to a Soldier's nutritional needs and then applying another novel process to render it shelf stable, if needed."
The research team believes the technology would be particularly helpful on or near the battlefield; soldiers could set their nutritional requirements to the 3-D printer and receive meals with the requisite amount of vitamins, minerals, so that their caloric and dietary intake would be met.
"If you are lacking in a nutrient, you could add that nutrient. If you were lacking protein, you could add meat to a pizza," Oleksyk said.
Scerra further offered that an individual soldier's needs would vary from mission to mission.
"Say you were on a difficult mission and you expended different nutrients...a printer could print according to what your needs were at that time," Scerra clarified.
Oleksyk's plans for the Army are not just thorough and specific – they are also long term.
"We are thinking as troops move forward, we could provide a process or a compact printer that would allow Soldiers to print food on demand using ingredients that are provided to them, or even that they could forage for," Oleksyk envisioned. "This is looking far into the future."
Oleksyk, admittedly skeptical when she was first introduced to the 3-D printer idea, is now convinced of its utility and the likelihood that the plan will come to fruition.
"I've been here long enough to see some of these 'no ways' become a reality. Anything is possible," Oleksyk asserted with determination.