From swirly corn chips to sour apple sugared candies, you can 3-D print practically any kind of grub. But aside from the obvious—like computer-generated cake icing—3-D food printers have reached new heights. Just like a coffee machine or a microwave, you can score your own Natural Machine’s Foodini (only $1,400!) or, if you’re an astronaut, you can get an outer space 3-D pizza printer from NASA, which costs $125,000. Anyway, if oozing goo from the pores of a printer doesn’t sound appetizing, it can be a life saver.
Over in Germany, 3-D food printing has hit the weirdest heights. One project fills the cartridges of a 3-D printer with liquefied veggies, meat, and carbs for a cuisine called Smoothfood. Created for senior citizens in old folks’ homes, the meals are made from fresh ingredients—asparagus, meat, potatoes—which are then puréed for patients who have difficulties chewing and swallowing. Instead of making the meals in nursing home kitchens, they’re custom made off-site in a printing plant in a Dutch city called Nijmegen, ordered through a QR code, and served on plastic plates. Typically, these meals would be hard to digest for people with dysphagia, so as the food melts in their mouths the patients are saved from choking.
We spoke with Sandra Forstner, the project manager at Biozoon, about the taste of 3-D printed food and the favorite meals in old folks’ homes.
MUNCHIES: What kind of plates do you serve in the nursing homes? Can you give an example of what is on the menu? At the moment we have six foods in the project, which we use as reference material: vegetables (cauliflower, peas), meat (chicken, pork), and carbohydrates (potatoes, pasta). These components will be used for the first meals. After the project, other food can be investigated on their printability. Do you use gelatin so the food keeps its shape? No, gelatin does not provide a gel at high temperatures. We screened a lot of texturizers, such as agar-agar, and found a suitable combination now—which we would like to keep secret, of course. How does the 3-D printer produce the food? It can be compared with a normal inkjet printer, but instead uses food material as “ink.” (See the website of the producer Foodjet.) The material is then printed in layers on a special plate, which is also developed within the project. For the printing, it is important to make sure that the layers merge without visible layer formation, but are strong enough that the food items do not collapse. Can you explain how you can adjust the printer to make it taste and look like the real thing? The printer is controlled by software where you can program, more or less, every kind of shape. The printing material itself will provide the taste since it’s normally spiced food purée combined with the newly developed texturizing system that will be printed onto the plate. This means that with the printer we cannot adjust the taste, only the shape. Where did you get the printer or was it made with SeneoPro? The printer itself is already applied for 2-D printing of tomato sauce, and in the PERFORMANCE project it was targeted to also bring the system in the third dimension. What’s the PERFORMANCE project? So the PERFORMANCE project is a project funded by the European Commission. The consortium consists of 14 beneficiaries from five European countries developing the PERFORMANCE technologies, products, and services. It is an industrial-driven research project with the majority of partners (eight out of 14) being small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which illustrate high innovation potential and industrial applications. The consortium is completed by research institutes in the field of food technology, process technology, packaging, and logistics, as well as two nursing homes. Foodjet is one of our partners in the consortium and one of the experts when it comes to the printing technology. They currently sell the technology working in 2D. Is everything produced by Biozoon and SeneoPro? Biozoon is the coordinator of the project, and beside the management, we are mainly involved in the development of the texturizing system together with the Hochschule Weihenstephan-Triesdorf. SeneoPro is only our product line for preparing so-called Smoothfood, which is currently in nursing homes. Right. Do you have 3-D printing chefs in each nursing home? Or is the pre-prepared food delivered? The project concept is to include a fixed production site on which all the meals would be manufactured and delivered to the consumer. After the project, of course, it might be possible to also install the production in the nursing homes, but this would only make sense for bigger institutions/nursing homes. If this is for patients with dysphagia, does it appeal to anyone else? Our main goal is to address people having problems with chewing and swallowing normal food (like those suffering from dysphagia), as the meals will always provide a soft texture unlike the normal food. So the meals will be produced for elderly, but also for younger people who suffered a stroke or have cancer or had an accident that led to dysphagia. How many scientists are with the company? From the approximately 20 employees (including production), we count about seven studied scientists. Nevertheless, the project consists of 14 different partners from five European countries—which can be found on the website—all working together on the targeted results. OK. Have you tried the food? What does it taste like? The food tastes like normal food. It is made from fresh ingredients, so the taste doesn’t change. One of our goals is not to change the flavor; the texturizing system doesn’t change it.