Living gummy bears made from lettuce 3D printed

The Katholieke Universiteit Leuven, or KU, has a world first in 3D food printing. Never before has lettuce been printed, but KU researcher Valérie Vancauwenberghe successfully did so. The green gummy bears printed at the Bio-systems Department are alive. “Living plant cells give our food a juicy and crunchy mouthfeel,” she says. “That’s why we wanted to make them printable.”

For now, no one has tasted the bears. They come straight from the laboratory. “They’re not poisonous, but they haven’t been approved for consumption yet either,” the researcher says. “It doesn’t make much difference for science. The point is we’ve developed a protocol to print plant tissue. It’s about the technology, the description of the materials, the optimum recipes and conditions. I’ve personally built a 3D bio printer, developed ink and experimented with print models.”

Virtual fruit
Valérie works for the research group of professor Bart Nicolaï, who has dedicated himself to mathematical models of food for years. Virtual fruit is his speciality, with a digital library of mathematical apples, pears and tomatoes. The models are used to research how fruit and vegetables can get a longer shelf life.

With professor Jeroen Lammertyn, the idea came about to find out if the structure of fruit could also be actually imitated, rather than just on computers. “Printing plants was the logical next step,” Valérie says. “Ink of chocolate, hummus and sugar icing are already used in the food industry, but without scientific publications. Printing experiments with meat have been described. However, no one has ever printed living plant cells before. During my doctorate, I researched whether plant tissue can be created and how to print living plant cells. The result is both natural and artificial. The ink contains pectin and living cells I isolated from lettuce. I used this to print gummy bears. But honeycomb structure and squares are also possible, with a different structure each time, airy or less airy.”

Facade gardens
Real lettuce contains 100 million living cells per millimetre. Printed lettuce contains 1 million living cells per millimetre. Valérie: “The amount of cells present isn’t large enough yet, but they’re surviving the printer head. In future, it should become possible to have them grow after they’ve been printed. 3D food printing is an emerging technology.Artistic and gastronomic applications are obvious.But it also offers opportunities in medicine. Many patients experience difficulties swallowing. By printing living plant cells, we can maintain control of structure and texture of meals. Besides, presentation is much more appealing than with mashed food.”

Besides, Valérie also believes in personalised food. “A bio printer could be integrated in kitchen robots, designs can be downloaded and food printed adjusted to your own needs, whether you’re a professional athlete or recovering from an illness. With a bio printer, you can print the exact amount of nutrients needed. But the future of 3D printing with living plant cells doesn’t stop with food. In Singapore, for example, they were interested in my protocol for printing facade gardens on skyscrapers. Living gummy bears from labs are only the beginning. With innovation manager Pieter Verboven, other knowledge centres and interested companies, we’ll continue to develop this technique.”

Source: KU Leuven

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