11th May 2017

3D food printing – Could this be the future of eating for dysphagia?

For some time, 3D food printing has been of interest to NASA as a potential solution for astronauts on their future visits to Mars. But there is also an interest right here on earth as 3D food printing could enable food formulations for specific dietary needs.

Whilst we perhaps don’t immediately think of care homes in regards to the latest technologies, 3D food printing is now being explored in relation to dysphagia in care homes. Dysphagia is the medical term for swallowing difficulties. It is often associated with diseases such as stroke and dementia and is prevalent in care home populations.

Could 3D printed foods improve the lives of people with swallowing disorders?

The texture modified foods needed for those with dysphagia can often look unappealing. This is thought to reduce enjoyment and decrease intake – contributing to an increased risk of malnutrition. As a service provider, modifying foods and liquids for the daily requirements of people with dysphagia to standard consistencies using the conventional approaches can be challenging. In addition, people on modified food diets may develop a dislike for the pureed foods and thickened liquids because as well as their poor visual appearance, there can be a lack of variety and taste can become diluted because of liquids added to achieve the modified texture. This impacts on both health and quality of life for people with dysphagia, and increases the efforts required on service providers who must always consider their food preparation and safety in provision of meals.

This is where 3D food printing might help. 3D food printing allows layering of different tastes, textures and colours into a desired shape. The process involves food design on computer-assisted design software. The food material is prepared, loaded into the printer, printed, and cooked afterwards if necessary.

3D food printing could be used to:

  • Automate the production of pureed foods and thickened liquids
  • Improve the consistency and repeatability of produced foods in term of texture and moisture
  • Enhance the taste sensory experiences in texture modified meals
  • Manufacture visually attractive pureed foods and thickened liquids for people with dysphagia

So printed food could improve the visual appeal, as well as enabling a standardised and appropriate texture to ensure safety. This is important because being provided with the wrong texture of food can increase risk of choking. It could also give residents with dysphagia some control by allowing them to be part of the design and creation of the 3D-printed food. Another advantage could be the ability to personalise the food – for example, to fortify the food materials to meet individual nutritional need.

At the moment, commercial 3D food printing is still something more likely to be found in a sci-fi film than in a care home – it is a technology venture for the future. But increasingly improved technologies mean more food textures, flavours and colours can be combined as they are printed into edible shapes. And this technology is starting to be tested, albeit on a very small scale in German care homes.

Crucially though we have no real evidence on the experiences of people with dysphagia eating these foods. We don’t know yet if these foods would be acceptable or safe for people to swallow. The European Food Safety Authority has warned there are no rigorous examinations of the safety of food made by 3D printing. As well as potential benefits, there are potential hazards to consider including microbiological risks that could come from a contaminated or dirty printer cartridges, physical risks such as printer fragments breaking off, and food fraud through the marketing of sub-standard raw materials in cartridges.

We need to know more

As such technology develops people with dysphagia need to be included in the design of 3D-printed foods. And we need clear evidence of safety and acceptability before this could be considered as a technology of benefit.

*All information is correct at the time of publishing

Ayela Spiro

Nutrition Science Manager, British Nutrition Foundation

Ayela is a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, where her role involves providing expert advice on nutrition and health issues to a number of key audiences including consumers, health professionals, charities, the media and the food industry. At the heart of her work is the communication of nutrition science that promotes understanding of nutrition and health and contributes to the improved wellbeing of all.

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