3D printing started off as a prototyping tool. While it is still used for testing and iteration, 3D printing has evolved into so much more. Today, 3D printing is increasingly used to build everything from high-performance parts for engineering and footwear to surgical instruments.
On a more modest scale, 3D enthusiasts are using printers to make everyday items like phone cases, car cup holders, cosplay armor, and more. There is almost no limit to what can be made with a 3D printer.
A frequent question raised about 3D printing is how safe it is when it comes to food. Can you drink or eat out of items made from a 3D printer? It is possible to use a 3D-printed item to hold food and liquids. There are, however, some important considerations to take into account before a 3D-printed cup can be said to be food safe.
In this article, we look at 3D printing and food safety. We look at how you make a 3D-printed utensil safe to eat or drink from. At the end of the article we also take a look at using 3D printing to make a drink. If you are curious about whether a 3D printer can be used to make your favorite beverage then you want to read until the end!
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Are 3D Printed Items Food Safe?
Food and liquid printed containers safty is largely dependent on the material used. Certain materials such as PLA and PETG are considered safer to print items that will come into contact with food. Other materials like ABS are too toxic to print food contact items.
There are several other factors to consider besides the materials. To start with, it’s important to define the term “food safe”. This is a broad term that covers three aspects, namely food grade, food contact surface and food safe.
- Food grade simply means something is safe for human consumption or, in the case of 3D printing, safe to come into contact with food.
- Food contact surface is a surface that can come into direct contact with food. For something to qualify as a food contact surface it must be made from non-toxic materials, be able to withstand the environment it will be used in, as well as any chemical used to clean it with.
- Food safe means the printed material will not create a safety hazard if it is used with food. Source
These are the key definitions encompassed by the term food safe. Food production is a highly regulated industry. This covers not just the production of food itself but food containers and packaging as well. According to the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) Food Code, a material that is food safe has to satisfy the following criteria:
- No migration of deleterious substances
- Does not impart colors, odors, or tastes
- Safe under normal use conditions
- Durable, corrosion-resistant, and nonabsorbent
- Sufficient in weight to withstand repeated washing
- Finished to have a smooth, easily cleanable surface without breaks and sharp internal angles
- Resistant to pitting, chipping, crazing, scratching, scoring, distortion, and decomposition
- Accessible to inspection. Source
FDA or EU approved material includes both the raw polymer and its additives.
Can You Drink Out Of 3D Printed PLA?
PLA is one of two, the other being PETG, filaments that are considered food safe. The critical component in the classification of a filament as food safe is its material composition. This determines its toxicity. PLA is a bio-plastic so it is less toxic than petroleum based plastics such as ABS.
Bacteria and toxicity are the biggest risks of using 3D-printed items with food. It is very easy for bacteria like E.coli to build up between the layers of a 3D-printed item.
Filament is a toxic material in itself. They also use additives to give them a different color, better impact resistance, flexibility, or a specific attribute the manufacturer wants to add. These additives increase the toxicity of the filament.
PLA is plant-based so it is safer to use to print items that will be used for food. It does, however, have the downside of being vulnerable to heat. PETG is the stronger, more heat-resistant food safe printer material alternative to PLA.
How Do You Make A 3D Printed Cup Safe To Drink From?
The most important step in making a 3D printed item food-safe is using the least toxic materials. PLA and PETG should be the first, if not the only options. The second step is to coat or seal the 3D-printed item to reduce the chances of toxic particle transfer and bacteria buildup.
Before printing anything that will hold the food you want to be sure the filament you intend to use is certified as food safe by an independent board like the FDA or EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). Check the label as well as the specifications to see what additives it has. Here are a few FDA and EFSA food-approved brands:
- Copper3D MD Flex
- FormFutura Styx-12
- FormFutura Hdglass
- FormFutura Python Flex
Your 3D printed cup can be sealed in a food-grade epoxy or polyurethane resin or any FDA-approved coating like Teflon. This prevents the toxic particles contained in the filament from transferring to any food the item is used to carry. Source
You should also consider smoothing your prints. This will remove gaps or spaces on the surface of your prints where bacteria can easily collect.
Aside from the material, your printer matters as well. There is a probability that toxic compounds will be transferred from your printer to your filament during printing. The best way to reduce the chances of this happening is to clean your printer and not print with a brass nozzle.
Brass is a hazardous material, especially with anything that will come into contact with food. This is because brass contains up to 3.5% lead. Switching to a steel nozzle will reduce any chances of lead seeping into your print. Source
Can You 3D Print Drinks?
Drinkable fluids are an emerging 3D printing technology. There are companies in bio-medicine and end-user products that are producing liquid 3D prints. One such company is Print-A-Drink which uses a high-end robotic arm to inject edible drops of a natural ingredient into a cocktail.
Researchers in Germany have integrated liquids into biodegradable plastic materials. When the plastic breaks down, the liquid is released. This application of 3D printing has great potential for bio-medicine.
With that being said, there’s still some way to go before printers that can produce drinks become viable.
Also, check out “Does 3D Printed Food Taste Good (Meat)? How Does it Work!“