How a 3D printer “cooks” food for sick children
Malnutrition in hospitalised children is a major problem. That’s why the Bern University of Applied Sciences, together with the Fribourg University of Applied Sciences, is developing a process in which high-calorie drinkable food can be printed into personalised and attractive pancakes.
Cables, pumps, displays: the room doesn’t look like a kitchen. But in this lab in Marly, pancakes are being made. A 3D printer presses the viscous dough layer by layer onto a hot plate where, after a few minutes, a finished pancake lies in the shape of a rocket. The special thing about the pancake rocket: It contains nutrients that are especially important for malnourished children.
Hospital setting spoils the appetite
The idea of the nutrient-rich spaceships to bite into came from researchers at the Department of Nutrition and Dietetics at Bern University of Applied Sciences (BFH). “Malnutrition is a problem in hospitalised children,” says Natalie Bez, a research assistant at BFH’s Department of Health. Medical circumstances such as therapies and medication or the unfamiliar hospital setting can contribute to reduced food intake and make the recovery process more difficult. That is why hospitals often use high-calorie drinkable foods. However, these do not taste very fine and are not very attractive, especially for children.
“Our goal is to create a snack suitable for children that meets the clinical demands of a hospital,” explains Natalie Bez. 3D printing of food seems to be a promising technology for creating meals in new, attractive forms. In various interviews, Bez and her colleagues asked experts and parents about their idea. “The feedback was basically very positive,” says the nutritionist. Experts only feared that eating could become a game. A concern that the parents did not share. On the other hand, they underlined the potential of attractive snacks for children with eating difficulties or autism.
Finding the right recipe
In a next step, the researchers, together with the iPrint Institute of the University of Applied Sciences in Fribourg, developed a dough that not only tastes right, but is also printable. According to Head of Research and Education Dr. Gioele Balestra, this is a challenge: “In order for us to get a pancake with the right texture, the consistency of the dough and the temperature of the hot plate have to match.”
The specialists at iPrint combined different technologies to achieve an attractive result: The rockets are first applied to a 160 °C heated plate using the 3D printing technology “Direct Ink Writing”. The small space shuttles are then taken to another printer, which decorates them with edible ink. The use of these technologies would make it possible to have fully personalised pancakes produced. Balestra’s vision: “Kids could draw the shape of their snack on a tablet and have their name or a drawing printed on the pancake.”
In a next step, the researchers want to investigate whether the pancake really increases the children’s food intake. This also raises the question of what effect a possible personalisation could have. The biggest challenge, however, is to implement the entire technology in a hospital setting. To do this, the process would have to be scaled down and speeded up and also meet the clinical requirements of a hospital. So more research and development is needed before the pancake rocket can take off.