Hungry? Why not print yourself something to eat?

At last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, one company produced edible 3D-printed pizzas and cookies in the shape of dinosaurs. And that’s just the beginning. Imagine printing out a chocolate rose or sports car for your sweetie or a wedding cake topper that’s an exact replica of the bridge and groom.

That’s the future of 3D food printing, and it’s nearly here.

3D printing started out as a way to print toys, product parts and gadgets. As the technology improved, 3D printers began turning out prosthetic limbs and casts for broken bones. Now some people who own them are having fun with food.

But how edible is this fare, really? It’s made of normal food ingredients. But here’s the catch: The vast majority of 3D printers are designed for uses other than printing food. The machine that squeezes out a pizza may have been designed — and also used — to print plastic parts.

Paul Bates, lead development engineer at UL and a 3D printing expert, says in many cases, the safety of printed food comes down to the device you’re using.

“There are very specific machines for this because you want one that you can clean,” Bates says. “If you have a machine that can’t be cleaned, the risk of contamination or bacteria is high.”

3D food printing is a niche industry, and only a few products are available that are designed with food printing in mind, he notes.

Related: Buying a 3D Printer? UL Has Some Safety Advice

Still, if you have a machine and you’ve cleaned it according to the manufacturer’s instructions, you’re ready to try printing food. Bates says you’ll need ingredients with a viscosity similar to butter or cake frosting and the right tools, such as a large syringe, as well as a design created using modeling software.

For your safety, Bates says most companies that offer 3D printers don’t provide the raw food. Think of it like “a bread maker, where you buy your own dough.”

3D-printed food(Photo: Stefano Tinti/Shutterstock)
Companies and even governments are thinking 3D food. Last year one company, working with Hershey, debuted a printed candy machine dubbed the Cocojet. And the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is investing in 3D-printed food for use in space.

Packed with the right ingredients, Bates says, a 3D food printer can produce many things you already make by traditional means. Best of all, he notes, there’s no worry about making too much. “The whole point to this is there’s no waste and you only consume exactly how much you print.”

Related: 9 Ways to Prevent Food Waste

The bottom line: As long as you use the right machine, there isn’t much difference in the safety of 3D printed food compared to food made the old-fashioned way. “If you follow the proper procedures for cleaning and preparing the machines, it’s as safe as any food-producing methodology,” he says. “You have to be conscious of cleanliness. And if you have to cook it afterwards, make sure you cook it to the proper temperature.”

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Don Reisinger is a longtime technology journalist and product reviewer.