3D-printed food promises to be a boon for the elderly or ill

3D food printing holds exciting potential for future food applications – and one that’s close to commercialisation in Europe is for the elderly or ill who have difficulity in chewing and swallowing. But the difference is that this food does not look like ‘liquified gloop’ – rather it looks and tastes like ‘real food’.

According to the EU’s Horizon Magazine, one in five people over the age of 50 suffer from a condition known as dysphagia. Dysphagia, characterised by the inability of the larynx to close properly while swallowing, can cause food to be redirected to the lungs, instead of the stomach, and lead to such problems as renal failure, pneumonia and even death.

It is because of this condition that 60% of nursing home residents eat liquified food and why 3D printing could contribute greatly to their quality of life.

This idea rests on ‘Smoothfood’, a concept that’s the brainchild of German company, Biozoon. Says its CEO, Matthias Kuck: “We are a food company specialising in texturising food. We take fresh food items and transform them into different textures. The aim is that the smooth food looks very similar to the original food but can be eaten by anyone as it can be swallowed without chewing.”

Kück adds that “porridge-like food” has often been the solution to feeding people with dysphagia. But, he points out, “This can feel frustrating – especially when the plates of fellow residents are filled with chicken fillets and vegetables. Meals are the most important social event in a nursing home – it is when they meet together, for breakfast, lunch or dinner.”

As the coordinator of the EU-funded PERFORMANCE project, Kück hopes to make eating easier and more enjoyable with 3D printing.

In many ways, the PERFORMANCE project will be an extension of Biozoon’s previous work.

The company’s scientists currently prepare foods for those with swallowing issues by performing such processes as pureeing and straining cooked items, such as a fillet of chicken, and using the resulting liquid to create a fillet in jelly form that can be safely eaten. As you might guess, such reconstruction methods are time consuming and can only serve a limited number of people, as the meals are prepared by hand. The PERFORMANCE project seeks to expedite this process through the development of a 3D food printer, to be finished in 2015.

2D food printers are already used to decorate cakes and to apply tomato sauce to pizzas. The 3D food printer will add a third axis using a gelling agent, so that the print material – liquefied food stored in cartridges of vegetables, meat and carbs – will adhere with each layer. As the printer builds layer upon layer of food material from its 48 nozzles, the shape of a food object, such as a chicken wing, will emerge.

Kück says, “The result is that when you bite on the reconstructed food, it is very soft – it melts in your mouth.”
By 3D printing the food, not only will Biozoon be able to cater to the swallowing issues of the elderly, but they may be able to compensate for dietary specifications, too.

Each week, nursing home residents will be able to select from a variety of menus, which will be created at a processing plant. During the process of printing each meal, the food can be tailored to specific people through the inclusion of different vitamins and nutrients.

Kück explains, “If you have people who don’t want vegetables, you might fortify the meat with certain vitamins – there really are no restrictions in terms of what food can be recreated.”

Visit the Biozoon website for a very real look at what food future might look like,