Shapeshifting Food Could Make Novel Haute Cuisine While Reducing Shipping Cost

Researchers at MIT have developed 3D-printed noodles that can be shipped flat and twist into new shapes when immersed in water.

It’s dinnertime in the future. You’ve decided on pasta. Now you’re choosing between long strips of linguine, butterfly-shaped farfalle, and tubes of penne.

You may be able to call up any of those — with exact specifications for diameter, chewiness and texture — by throwing flat 3D-printed material into water and watching the noodles twist into their final shape before your eyes, according to new research from MIT.

And if you had a commercial 3D printer at home, you could create the design yourself.

Scientists from MIT’s Tangible Media Group have pioneered a kind of edible origami in the form of strips of gelatin and starch that bend into bespoke shapes when they touch water.

Their technique yields both traditional pasta varieties, like macaroni, and more unorthodox designs like flowers or horse saddles.

“With this tool, we want to democratize the design of noodles,” said Lining Yao, lead author of a paper presented this month at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2017 Computer-Human Interaction Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

While home-kitchen 3D-printed pasta may take a while to materialize, Yao and his colleagues recently took their invention to renowned chef Matthew Delisle of Boston’s high-end French restaurant, L’Espalier, and invited him to design something new.

One result: a transparent edible film that wraps itself around fish caviar when immersed in water to create miniature fish egg-filled cannoli.

RELATED: MIT Has Designed a Workout Suit Covered With Living Cells to Keep You Cool

Delisle helped the scientists show that, if the concept catches on, it could put a new tool in the hands of high-end chefs to invent new types of never-before-seen pasta, or dining experiences in which the food emerges into its final form at the table before the eyes of the diner.

Shape-changing pasta might also turn out to be a maximally efficient way to ship food — either for long-distance hiking trips, or for astronauts in search of the most effective means of hauling sustenance along on spaceships.

“When you buy pasta in the supermarket, up to 80 percent or 90 percent of what’s in the package is just air,” said Chen-Yi Cheng, one of Yao’s co-authors. “If you can reduce the size of the package, you can send more and better food into outer space.”

Shape-changing noodles start with the fact that gelatin expands when it absorbs water in varying degrees depending on the relative density. Using a 3D printer, the researchers created gelatin film with density that varied in different sections. That meant the film would fold over itself when exposed to water as different parts grew to greater or lesser extent.

In addition, they added layers of edible cellulose on top. The cellulose, which absorbs very little water, acts as a natural barrier. As a result they could determine which part of the noodle would expand in water, and by how much — making the pasta “programmable.”

In theory, said Cheng, the principle could be applied to other types of food as well.

“As long as the ingredient has water inside it, and the food is either boiled or fried, and there is some kind of distribution of different densities, then we could in theory achieve this kind of transformation and bending behavior,” said Cheng.

That could open the door to a whole new family of shape-changing cuisine.

WATCH: Ants Are Growing Food and They're Better at It Than We Are