The researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Tangible Media Group said their discovery is akin to edible origami. They found a way to take flat sheets of gelatin that, when submerged in water, turn into three-dimensional structures, including pasta shapes like macaroni and rotini as well as flower shapes.

Playing with their food has led the researchers to create flat discs that wrap around beads of caviar and spaghetti that divides into smaller noodles when placed in a hot broth.

Besides the culinary possibilities, the ability to shift shapes also might reduce shipping costs. The edible films could be stacked together for shipping and then morph into another shape later after being immersed in water.

“We did some simple calculations, such as for macaroni pasta, and even if you pack it perfectly, you will end up with 67% of the volume as air,” says Wen Wang, Ph.D., a bioengineer and designer. “We thought maybe in the future our shape-changing food could be packed flat and save space.”

Dr. Wang is a co-author of a paper on the research that was presented at the Association for Computing Machinery’s 2017 conference on human factors in computing systems.

The researchers created a flat, two-layer film made from gelatin of two different densities. The top layer of gelatin was denser and thus able to absorb more water. When the two-layer film was immersed in water, the top layer curled over the bottom layer to form a slowly rising arch.

The researchers then used three-dimensional printing strips of edible cellulose, which absorbed little water, over the top gelatin layer. The strips became a water barrier and controlled the amount of water exposed to the top gelatin layer. Printing cellulose in various patterns onto the gelatin allowed the researchers to control the structure’s response to water and the structure’s final shape.