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Welcome To The Future. Would You Like Some 3D Printed Milk?

Dutch scientists are trying to make animal-free dairy products a reality

We’ve already seen 3D printed candy.

The Dutch tend to beat the curve when it comes to future-forward thinking; they started building the first dykes back in Roman times. Now, they’ve set their sights on redefining the dairy industry—not by removing cows from the equation altogether, but by producing milk via 3D printers. Indeed, their motto could be something like “3D printing: It does the dairy good.”

The research is being conducted by scientists from Wageningen University (the same school that wants to farm on Mars) and a dairy cooperative called FrieslandCampina, TakePart reports. If successful, the team believes their lab-made liquid could lead to both healthier and more environmentally sound cheeses, butters and other dairy products.

Cheese made through traditional processes is loaded with cholesterol and carries a high carbon footprint. It’s actually the third worst food offender when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions—surpassed only by lamb and beef—which really stinks, but not in a tasty, Camembert kind of way. (TakePart points out that in vitro milk gets sustainability props not just by displacing cattle, but by cutting back on the copious waste “from spoilage or production losses as milk moves from cow to cheese.”)

So what if engineers could create a tasty dairy product with equal protein, sans cholesterol and high fat, and with green brownie points to boot? That’s the thinking behind the new milk, which will be based on sodium caseinate, a key protein found in cow-produced dairy. That compound comes from acidified and neutralized milk, so animals would still be involved, but researchers are keen to point out that they’re interested in exploring plant-based proteins in the future.

For now, though, sodium caseinate is their best bet. When combined with additional ingredients and loaded into a 3D printer, the milk magicians believe they could produce a near-milk (or near-cheese, or near-butter) substance. For now, though, researchers are still at the experimentation level; we’re years off from actually being able to print a healthier chunk of cheddar.

Of course, milk and its many derivatives aren’t the first food that scientists have thought deserve a tech makeover. Since 2000 or so, innovators have sought to “disrupt” the meat industry with 3D printed and lab-grown flesh. Modern Meadow, a Brooklyn-based startup, has raised millions from Silicon Valley investors to pursue 3D printed meat and leather (the company refers to the building blocks of its products with the less-than-delicious term “bioink”). And NASA imagines 3D-printed food aboard spaceships to save on costs and waste.

But many diners and shoppers are looking for more than just a “high-value protein for human nutrition,” as Joseph Sebranek, an animal scientist at Iowa State University, described it to Global Meat News. Flavor, of course, is important, but so are health, price as is the origin of the product. Lab-grown anything might strike some as just too weird to try out, and indeed, a 2014 Pew study found that just 20 percent of Americans said they’d be willing to try meat that didn’t originate from an animal’s body. Wageningen researcher Maarten Schutyser acknowledges this obstacle, but notes that he and his fellow dairy engineers seek to create something that “has an added value over existing foods.”

It’s possible the Dutch, with their long-time progressive views on everything from prostitution to drug use to antibiotic-free pork, could be more willing to give something like 3D printed milk a shot. In the meantime, the American synthetic food industry may benefit from an image makeover—perhaps starting with a more palatable term than “bioink.”

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