Extra 3-D Printed Cheese, Please

A 3-D "chocolate" printer was displayed during the Salon du Chocolat (Chocolate Fair) in Porte de Versailles, in Paris, on October 2015. JACQUES DEMARTHON/AFP/Getty Images

In the summer of 2016, a Texas company developed a device for NASA that made a pizza using 3-D printing technology. Now, a group of Irish nutritional scientists have made a topping for pizza — 3-D printed cheese. 

Also, known as "additive manufacturing," 3-D printing uses different materials to create, or "print" complex objects including toys, spare parts for cars, and even walls to a house. The items are built from plastic, metal or in this case — melted processed cheese.   

Scientists at the University College Cork in Ireland wanted to know how 3-D printing would affect the structure of processed cheese. So, they first melted cheese at 167 degrees Fahrenheit (75 Celsius) for 12 minutes. Next, they put the gooey mess through a commercial 3-D printer designed to print plastic that they modified with a syringe.  

Scientists ran the melted cheese through the printer at high and low speeds, then took the printed results and refrigerated them for 24 hours. Afterward, they compared the printed version to the original processed cheese to see how the chemical structure may have changed.

That's because when foods like cheese are printed, their physical properties can undergo microscopic changes; first when they're heated, and then when the printer squeezes them out. These changes can alter taste and texture.

So what does 3-D cheese taste like? Unfortunately, the sample sizes were a bit too small for detailed tasting, but the scientists did determine that the 3-D printed cheese was nearly 50 percent softer than the original processed cheese. And it was slightly darker in color and easier to re-melt. The printed cheese was also less sticky because, the researchers surmised, the oils rose to the top during the printing process.

The implications for 3-D printed cheese, and other 3-D printed foods, are far reaching. For one thing, kitchens of the future could be equipped with 3-D printers. More importantly, astronauts on deep-space voyages, such as those to Mars, could use the technology to manufacture food on their journey.