Feb 2, 2018 | By David

We’re all familiar with the experience of food being tricky to swallow, whether it’s fish, cheese or something else entirely. But what if not being able to swallow your food was a serious health problem, as opposed to just an occasional mealtime inconvenience? Swallowing disorders, or dysphagia, affect around 8 percent of the world’s population, and they can have serious consequences for sufferers’ nutrition as well as breathing and mental health. A recent breakthrough in 3D printed food, made by researchers at Australia’s Deakin University, has the potential to significantly improve quality of life for these people.

(members of the team with one of their previous 3D printed food experiments)

Deakin Disability and Inclusion Chair Professor Susan Balandin is a speech pathologist and expert in mealtime management and swallowing disorders. According to her, “People who have had a stroke, have dementia, or have a lifelong severe disability such as cognitive impairment or cerebral palsy often have difficulty swallowing food, and require their food and fluid textures to be modified’’

Current texture-modified foods are usually soft and bite-sized, minced, moist and pureed. Specialists advise people with dysphagia to avoid stringy, chewy, crumbly, crunchy and solid foods. The result of this is that the meals become functional and homogenous, spoiling what can be one of life’s greatest pleasures.  According to Balandin, ‘‘the problem is that traditionally modified meals are often considered mushy and unappealing, which leads to food refusal and poor nutrition, or refusing to eat modified foods which then increases the risk of choking or aspiration pneumonia, particularly in older people in aged care facilities.’’

In a collaborative effort between speech pathologists and engineers at the University, 3D printing was used to develop a new way to modify food. The team attempted to take advantage of the technology’s design and customization possibilities to create more palatable food items than those in the modified meals usually offered to people with dysphagia.

3D food printing allows the layering of different tastes, textures and colours into a desired shape, without needing food additives. The idea was to enable printing of foodstuffs with an easy-to-swallow texture, which were also personalized according to a particular individual’s aesthetic and taste preferences.

The ingredients chosen for the team’s 3D printing experiment were canned tuna, which is a good source of protein, along with pureed pumpkin and beetroot, to provide the necessary vitamins and minerals that fruits and vegetables have in abundance.

The 3D printer that the team made use of was an EnvisionTEC GmbH Bioplotter, an extrusion-based system that cost under $500. As this was a research study, the team didn’t want to invest too heavily, although there are a number of alternative 3D food printing techniques available. These include binding, lamination, and photopolymerization, as well as a variety of different extrusion processes depending on the particular food type that is being used.

It was decided that a fish shape could work well for this tuna-based dish, so the team created a digital 3D model of a fish in Solidworks CAD software, and then sliced it in preparation for printing. Tuna made up the main body of the fish, while the pureed beetroot was used to make its purple fins and the pureed pumpkin gave it an orange eye and gills. Total printing time was fast, at around 3 minutes from start to finish.

After a few trials, the team found that a transparency film of cellulose acetate was the best surface on which to print. The standard greaseproof paper and aluminium foil preparation surface used in conventional kitchens didn’t provide enough surface friction for the first layer of the print to attatch itself, thus affecting the rest of the structure adversely. The finished meal was tested out by a skilled chef and a couple of other amateur gourmands who confirmed that the taste of this customized 3D printed dish was good, and very similar to one that was produced in the conventional way.

Despite the success of this project, there is still a lack of knowledge about the safety of food processed by 3D printing systems, which could affect the technology’s ability to be scaled up any further. A recent report supported by the European Food Safety Authority, which has warned that there are still no rigorous examinations of the safety of 3D printed food, details an alarming inventory of potential hazards and subsequent risks. These include the formation of heat-generated compounds which could be hazardous to health, as well as microbiological risks from contaminated or dirty printer cartridges and physical risks such as printer fragments breaking off into the food. There is also the potential for food fraud, through the marketing of sub-standard raw materials in cartridges.

Hopefully these are problems that will be tackled as the technology becomes more accessible, and demand for 3D printed food grows. Deakin School of Engineering Professor Abbas Kouzani said 3D food printing technology could one day allow organizations to produce personalized food meals on a large scale, which would be hugely beneficial for the everyday running of hospitals and aged care facilities. “It’s expected that the technology will improve and grow significantly over the next five years, and further research is needed to investigate 3D food printing’s potential to improve health and wellbeing, as well as the economic advantages”, he said.



Posted in 3D Printing Application



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