3D Food Printing: Healthy and made-to-order
3D printing not only uses plastic, concrete, metal and wood to build new designs: it also opens new avenues for the food industry, paving the way for healthier foods or foods tailored to individual needs. Wageningen University & Research (WUR) is working on these and other innovative food applications.
Image above: examples of 3D printed food- dough, chocolate and pasta
Whereas an ordinary printer stops at a single layer of ink, 3D printers build up layer after layer. The structure is provided by a computer model, without the use of moulds or intermediate steps.
Although 3D-printing technology has existed for around thirty years, the applications have only recently taken off. Last year, for example, a concrete cycle bridge (Dutch) was 3D-printed, and 2019 will see 3D-printed houses in Meerhoven (Dutch). However top chefs are also creating works of art made of pasta, thanks to the researchers developing the process.
New forms and flavours
The 3D layer-by-layer printing process has enabled the creation of completely new foods, with new shapes, ingredients, textures, forms and flavours. WUR and the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) have already demonstrated the technology’s potential in a range of international research projects.
One advantage of 3D printing is the ability to situate extremely precise quantities of ingredients with great accuracy. Creating molecular distributions that differ from the regular baking process should enable products to taste just as salty or sweet while using less salt or sugar, for example. This process is often referred to as ‘reformulation’.
Hard to swallow?
3D food printing can also help people who have difficulty swallowing (‘dysphagia’, which can be the result of a brain haemorrhage or other condition). Researchers have discovered a way to print a variety of dishes (e.g. boiled potatoes, carrots and chicken) in familiar shapes, but with a texture tailored specifically to these patients’ needs. This means that they see a ‘normal’ meal on their plate instead of watery puree, making meals a more pleasant experience.
Printed meals of this type can also be supplemented with additional nutrients such as protein, vitamins or minerals – again, tailored specifically to the patient’s needs. The technology has now reached the stage where it can be scaled up for use by caterers, hospitals or perhaps even innovative food trucks.
‘Looking forward, the focus will be on personalised nutrition’, explains researcher Martijn Noort from Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. ‘Research is giving us more and more insight into how people’s dietary needs are influenced by personal factors, such as intestinal flora, genetic predisposition, behaviour or physical activities. 3D printing allows for flexibility and variation in the exact type and quantity of ingredients used, enabling the manufacture of unique, personalised foods that are perfectly tailored to individuals’ tastes and nutritional requirements.’ Elite sportspeople are one example – perhaps in a few years’ time, they will be able to print a perfectly balanced energy bar for consumption during exercise or for fast recovery, and which even tastes better than the current bars.