Ever wondered what the food of the future is going to look like? Well, you might be eating your insect burgers with a side of 3D-printed origami shape-shifting pasta.
Researchers from MIT’s Tangible Media Group have created edible sheets that can morph into three-dimensional shapes when dunked into water. It isn’t just a cool gimmick, the idea could help massively cut down on shipping costs and packaging.
The pasta shapes are 3D-printed strips of edible cellulose over the top of a gelatin layer. But if that sounds kind of gross, fear not, lead author Lining Yao said in a statement, “[t]hey had great texture and tasted pretty good.” Of course, the dream is to eventually apply these ideas to real pasta, not gelatin-cellulose strips.
It’s all to do with the way the food absorbs water and expands. The pasta is a two-layer film made from two different densities of gelatin. The top layer is more densely packed, meaning it is able to absorb more water. So, when the pasta is dropped in water, the top layer absorbs the most water and curls over the bottom layer, creating the shape. It sounds simple, but this was a finely-tuned process where the researchers had to find ways to control where and how the pasta folds up.
“We did many lab tests and collected a database, within which you can pick different shapes, with fabrication instructions,” Wen Wang, a co-author on the paper and research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, explained. “Reversibly, you can also select a basic pattern from the database and adjust the distribution or thickness, and can see how the final transformation will look.”
They also collaborated with the head chef of a Boston restaurant because, well, scientists are not known for their culinary skills. Together they created two dishes: transparent discs of gelatin flavored with plankton and squid that wrap around caviar, and long spaghetti strips, made from two different gelatins that spontaneously divide into two when dunked in water liquids.
As you can see in the video, the pasta makes for an impressive showpiece. However, the development has some real practical potential to reduce packaging and transportation costs, and therefore lowering the price for the consumer.
“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you still will end up with 67 percent of the volume as air,” said Wang. “We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”