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Could the path to a more nutritious pizza be illuminated by laser beams?

New York City has been known for its pizza for decades, but now a surprising oven innovation is attracting new attention. At Columbia University, a lab is crafting ways to improve nutrition by 3-D printing pizza to precise dietary specifications -- and cooking it with laser beams. Science producer Nsikan Akpan shares this first-hand look at how engineers are lighting up new ways to cook a slice.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, New York City is known for pizza, but you have never seen a pie prepared like this one.

    Our science producer, Nsikan Akpan, visited Columbia University, where engineers are lighting up new ways to cook a slice.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    The New York pizza slice as the world knows it has been around since the 1930s. That's when Frank Mastro, an Italian immigrant and salesman, invented the gas deck oven. This simple innovation turned New York pizza from a laborious item that could only be made in bedroom-sized coal ovens into the easy-bake, grab-and-go food that you find on street corners worldwide.

    But just as New Yorkers rarely sit still, the pizza oven continues to evolve. Uptown at Columbia University, a lab is crafting ways to improve nutrition by 3-D printing pizza and cooking it with laser beams. That's right, laser beams.

  • Jonathan Blutinger:

    It's very easy for a machine to kind of layer in different types of nutritious elements into your food without you even knowing it and without the taste changing too much.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Jonathan Blutinger is a grad student in Hod Lipson'S Creative Machines Lab, where this tech was invented.

  • Jonathan Blutinger:

    So the printer has an array of food cartridges, where, in each one of these cartridges, you can have a different material, so, dough, sauce and cheese, for example, as three different ingredients.

    And then on this cartridge, our machine can pick up one ingredient, extrude it onto a platform, that's moving around in a 2-D way, and then it can pick up another ingredient and do the same and follow this over and over again.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    Once the cheese and tomato sauce are spread or, should I say, squeezed onto the dough, everything gets tossed into their mini-oven.

    There, lasers shine at two mirrors, which are angled in certain directions by commands given through custom-built software. This selectively cooks parts of the food with much greater precision. That's good for printed food because the ingredients are packed close together, and their final pizza is millimeters-thin.

  • Jonathan Blutinger:

    So the pizza you're going to see, yes, it is very small. It will naturally scale up as we kind of improve the printing process and we get more efficient with it.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    The end result is delizioso.

    In truth, it tastes much more like a crunchy pizza bagel. But in many ways, their approach mimics the thinking behind that original pizza oven. Much like Mastro's invention, 3-D printing could make pizza even more personal.

  • Jonathan Blutinger:

    The biggest value is the fact that you can customize nutrition for someone. A big space where this could be a great value is in hospital settings, where people maybe have certain nutritional deficiencies, and you can supplement that either with medicine or with certain vitamin additives.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    NASA has invested in 3-D printing pizza for deep space missions, but Blutinger sees stellar prospects for this tech closer to the ground.

    He thinks digitizing food can help people stay healthy. Imagine a printer and an app that learns your eating habits. It could schedule the preparation of meals and improve your diet.

  • Jonathan Blutinger:

    In five to 10 years, we think this could be a clear possibility. The technology's there. It's just a matter of time and marketing it in the right way for people.

  • Nsikan Akpan:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nsikan Akpan noshing on some za.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Not sure how appetizing it is, but thank you, Nsikan.

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