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 When It’s OK To Play With Your Food: 3D-Printed Food For Patients With Dysphagia

 

  PERFORMANCE - PERsonalised FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs

 

NASA brought the public Tang and freeze-dried ice cream. Now biotechnology is returning the favor to both the space industry and to elder care through the advent of 3D-printed meals.

Last week in a consortium in Brussels, European experts in the fields of 3D printing, dysphagia, and personalized food presented the results of a three-year, 3 million euro project among five countries called PERFORMANCE (Personalized Food for the Nutrition of Elderly Consumers). The ambitious project uses Foodjet 3D printer technology—think inkjet printers but with pureed food instead of ink—to create appetizing, nutritious, and easy-to-swallow 3D-printed meals for the elderly. (NASA has shown an interest in using this technology for future astronaut missions to Mars.)

“Printed pureed food needs to be firm after printing, but liquid enough to dispense from the printing heads,” said founder and chief executive officer of PERFORMANCE project partner Foodjet, Pascal de Grood, at the consortium. “A gelling agent supports the shaping of the pureed and strained food. On the one hand the gelling agent needs to be compatible with the printing system, while on the other hand the printing system must support food matrices such as meat, carbohydrates, and vegetables.”

Nutrition and feeding often present a unique challenge in elder care. Chewing and swallowing issues—collectively known as dysphagia—arise from conditions such as stroke, dementia, or Parkinson’s disease. Patients with these issues face an increased risk of choking, food ending up in their lungs, or developing malnutrition. Studies suggest that up to 75 percent of nursing care center residents experience some degree of dysphagia, and that as many as half of all Americans over 60 will experience dysphagia at some point after that age.

Current solutions include serving pureed or mashed-up food, as well as thickening beverages with broth. Taste is not the only sense involved in eating—smell, sight, touch, and sound also play key roles. When taking into consideration all the senses, these food manipulations are understandably unappealing and demoralizing for patients and often lead to loss of appetite and eventual malnutrition.

Headed by the German food innovation company Biozoon, the PERFORMANCE project has been able to recreate—down to their taste and texture—classic comfort foods, including peas and gnocchi. The group has even taken a page from Jessica Seinfeld’s “Deceptively Delicious” cookbook by sneaking in specific nutrients needed by the patient. (An algorithm created by German information technology company Sanalogic monitors the nutritional needs of each patient based on their size, weight, gender, and health needs and automatically enriches the 3D-printed meal to ensure a well-balanced diet.)

So far foodies from nursing centers give the food generally positive results: In a preliminary study presented at the consortium, 54 percent of responders rated the meals’ texture as good, 43 percent would choose the PERFORMANCE meal in cases of swallowing or chewing difficulties, and 79 percent found the meals equally heated (Danish Technological Institute and the Italian partners FEMTO and University of Pisa developed “active packaging”—a split plate with perforated microwave reflectors placed on top and beneath it.)

PERFORMANCE products have some way to go until they become commercially viable. But the future is not so far off. Chocolates, candies, cake decorations, and 3D-printed pizzas already have rolled off of these printers and onto consumer plates and tables. In the Netherlands, 3D-printed beef burgers could be sold in supermarkets by the year 2020.

Jackie Oberst is Provider’s managing editor. Email her at joberst@providermagazine.com or follow the magazine on Twitter @ProviderMag or @ProviderMyers.

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