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In my world, humanity has made the ultimate invention: A machine that takes raw elements and converts them into anything one desires, like a universal 3D printer.

The only thing it needs is a supply of raw elements, like a "printer cartridge", and a small amount of power. The more chemically complex the item is, the more time and power it takes to create the item.

To eradicate world hunger, humanity decides to print food and ship it worldwide to struggling countries.

My question is, what would be the best food item to make with the printer? The food should be tasty, nutritious, and chemically simple. Bonus points for having a long shelf life.

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    $\begingroup$ Cereals........ $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ If you have a food printer, why ship the end product, and not the printer itself? And why shelf life if you can just print your next meal just-in -time? $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 21:44
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    $\begingroup$ It's worth noting that we already produce enough food to feed the world. Distributing that food to starving people is the technical issue we need to solve. $\endgroup$
    – ckersch
    Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 21:45
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    $\begingroup$ World hunger is caused by greedy speculation, hateful warmongers, and short sighted land and water management. It's caused by 'Not my problem' and 'Who cares?' It's caused by rich organizations who set the prices of goods by buying such large quantities that they can set the terms, and the massive industrial farms that still pretend they are 'family owned', somehow making them the victim of imagined larger forces. $\endgroup$
    – user8827
    Commented Aug 17, 2017 at 13:02

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Human dietary requirements are quite complex and even today are not fully understood. However, to simplify it somewhat, there are three primary things that humans need and cannot produce on their own:

  • Nutrients (complex organic molecules)
  • Carbohydrates (organic energy)
  • Amino acids (critical components for building proteins)

I think the issue you will run into with your device is your requirement that the produced food is 'chemically simple'. Almost by definition, complex organisms (like humans) require complex organic molecules for food.

Nutrients

These are chemicals required for regulating internal processes. In emergency situations, the human body is capable of manufacturing these chemicals but usually at a great energy deficit and only by cannibalizing needed chemicals from other systems. One of the most common examples is Vitamin K which helps to regulate blood coagulation, but nutrients can also refer to lipids (fats), salts, and minerals.

For the most part, nutrient molecules are pretty simple and the human body doesn't require them in huge quantities. One-a-day nutrient supplements usually only weigh a couple of grams, and quite frankly most supplements are largely unnecessary due to the truly miniscule quantities that humans need the nutrients in.

Your machine should be able to make all the needed nutrients a person needs with minimal effort.

Carbohydrates

Now we're starting to get a bit more complicated. Carbs are where humans get their energy; each carbohydrate molecule is like a little chemical battery that the digestive system can extract energy from. Carbs can take many, many different forms including simple sugars (glucose and fructose) and complex hydrocarbons (grain and wheat).

While the individual molecules that make up a carbohydrate (like glucose) are not complex, they are large. Very, very large. And perhaps more importantly, different carbohydrates are digested differently in the body meaning that a truly 'universal food' would need to balance the needs of the individual to determine the ratios of different carbs within the food itself. That may be getting outside the scope of the problem though.

The machine should be able to make carbs with little difficulty, but it will take a lot of time and raw materials.

Amino Acids

And here's the catcher. Amino acids are the building blocks of literally every biological system on earth, comprising everything from bacteria to humans. Amino acids make up organic molecules, which make up proteins, which make up cellular structures, which make up cells, which make up organs. Without amino acids life doesn't exist for very long.

Fortunately, the human body can make 11 of the 20 amino acids by breaking down nutrients and building the amino acids using energy extracted from carbs. Unfortunately, humans (and indeed all life forms) need all 20 amino acids to survive. The 9 amino acids that humans cannot produce are called the Essential Amino Acids, because we must find them in our diet or else we will die.

This is where I think you will run into a problem. Amino acids are usually acquired in nature by eating protein, which is itself is comprised of amino acids that we can break down and reuse. Proteins, however, are immensely complex and difficult to make. Not impossible, but difficult.

In Summary...

You need a food that has proteins, carbs, and the essential nutrients. Your most efficient option would be to make a protein and carb packet of some sort, not that dissimilar from the MRE's used by the modern day US military. For simplicity, include only one type of protein, a balance of different carbohydrates, and a daily serving of nutrients. This also has the advantage of lasting nearly indefinitely on the shelf if kept in a sealed container. I won't necessarily speak to the taste though...

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    $\begingroup$ Thanks! An MRE is a great idea. The chemicals for heating the packet could be made along with the food itself. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 20:59
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First of all, if you want to start from raw elements, it won't be "a small amount of power"; it will be a lot of power.

To be useful as food whatever you produce must contain energy and you'll have to supply it to synthesize the "product".

Second our food can't be "chemically simple".

We need, at the very least, sugars (about the simplest compound needed), some fats, amino-acids and vitamins.

These compounds start at molecular weight 180 Da (glucose) and go up to the sky (proteins with over 3 MDa are known).

Keeping things simple, however (i.e.: confining ourselves to essential molecules, with weight <= 1357 Da (B12)), will not produce something with acceptable taste and texture.

Once you have the basics (essential nutrients) choosing flavors is a matter of taste.

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The simple answer to your question is a power bar or any one of the dozens of nutrition-oriented "all-in-one" bars you find in grocery stores today. Tasty(ish), filled with nutrition, can be stored almost forever, easy to ship (if you can, see below), the only other thing you need is water.

If that doesn't work, the next best thing is an MRE. "Meal ready-to-eat" (MRE) meals are self-contained, designed for long-term storage, etc.

However:

While this is a clever idea, the politics are far more important than the tech. As mentioned by @ths and @ckersch, we have enough food to feed the world today, so "printing" food doesn't solve the problem. A benefit might be had if you ship the machine and the raw materials because raw materials are usually cheaper and easier to ship than finished products. But that's an efficiency issue. We could solve the problem today. Except....

Whether you print-first-ship-second or ship-first-print-second, the problem isn't technology — it's politics and economics.

Politics: One reason we can't solve the problem today is (e.g.) the local warlord keeps the food for himself and sells it for a profit. Worse, I can easily imagine (if not prove it on the spot) that some countries control distribution to control their people. A hungry person may be desperate, but they're often too weak to do anything about it. Your machine doesn't solve this problem at all.

Economics: The reason we can't solve hunger in (e.g.) the United States is because poor people can't afford food and few are willing to just give it to them. Once again, The U.S. has all the food it needs to guarantee no one goes hungry. But, generally speaking, farmers have bills to pay, too, and no government subsidy completely covers the nut. This same issue applies to world-wide hunger. The cost of shipping to (e.g.) Africa makes it difficult to get food to hungry Africans. Your machine only solves this problem if it is considerably more cost efficient than other manufacturing methods.

Without solving the how-to-get-it-to-the-people problem, the technology is only useful in developed countries as a natural time-saver in homes and restaurants. It isn't useful in undeveloped countries where the cost of shipping raw supplies might be as great as shipping final products (especially, as you propose, if you're still only shipping a final product). Where it would be useful is in space-limited situations like spaceships and loft apartments where space for the kitchen is recovered in favor of the much smaller printer.

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In my world, humanity has made the ultimate invention: A machine that takes raw elements and converts them into anything one desires, like a universal 3D printer.

The only thing it needs is a supply of raw elements, like a "printer cartridge", and a small amount of power. The more chemically complex the item is, the more time and power it takes to create the item.

The elements that are more important to life are usually not found pure in nature, so to obtain them it would probably necessary to kill living beings and destroy their bodies. So you would have to pick an eggplant and disassemble its chemicals into elements, and then... rebuild, or "print" an eggplant. The process isn't likely to be economical.

Of course, you could also pick those elements from already dead organica matter, such as corpses and faeces, and use them to "print" food. But as far as I know, nothing does this more efficiently than living beings, particularly plants. So I doubt that you could replace plants with bio-printers at an advantage.

To eradicate world hunger, humanity decides to print food and ship it worldwide to struggling countries.

They won't do that. Instead, they will sell the printers to those who can pay. Those who cannot pay will still starve, because the distribution of goods in a society like ours is made via market.

My question is, what would be the best food item to make with the printer? The food should be tasty, nutritious, and chemically simple. Bonus points for having a long shelf life.

It isn't likely to be more tasty or more nutritious than what people can achieve by themselves as long as they have access to land and water that they can use in agriculture or husbandry.

I am sorry, but your invention is not the solution for the problem.

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My approach to this question would be to pick the most cost efficient option(s) that provides the greatest caloric intake, and taste just so happens to be better off than I initially would've thought:

Glucose

Pros: Simplest of all sugars

Cons: I haven't fed anyone straight glucose before, but I suspect hyperglycemia could result; taste??

Sucrose

Pros: Literally table sugar (taste); not too much more complicated than glucose; fairly calorie dense

Cons: People eating straight table sugar

Triglyceride (fat)

Pros: Even more calorie dense than sugars; taste

Cons: People eating straight fat; a little more expensive to 'print'

Economically, these are and other very simple molecules are by far the best answers I can think of, despite some obvious flaws. Compare these answers to something like...

Steak, potatoes, and asparagus (seasoned to preference)

Pros: Hearty, nutritional meal; great taste; narrowing of social divide (even if you're impoverished, you'd be at least eating like upper middle-class/wealthy citizens of developed nations)

Cons: Way too complicated expensive to produce according to the printer's rules, world hunger likely goes unsolved

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  • $\begingroup$ Potatoes and other starches are an interesting idea. $\endgroup$ Commented Aug 16, 2017 at 21:03
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Plants already produce food from basic raw materials at low cost, and they themselves can reproduce. They make a great variety of foodstuffs and many people eat only plants. Yet there is still hunger.

I don't think a 3D printer would change much.

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