Next-gen nutrition: How new Korean 3-D food printer can meet individual dietary needs

By Lester Wan

- Last updated on GMT

Like in the 3-D printing of other materials, a film-type material is deposited layer by layer to build up a three-dimensional food block.
Like in the 3-D printing of other materials, a film-type material is deposited layer by layer to build up a three-dimensional food block.
A new 3-D food printer that can create food items to meet an individual's nutritional needs at the push of a button has been unveiled in South Korea.

Researchers from Ewha Womans University have created a prototype 3-D printer to create food with micro-structures that replicate the physical properties and nano-scale texture they have observed in actual food samples.

Associate Professor Rhee Jin-Kyu, who leads this revolutionary research and project, said the cartridges' food ingredients (essentially carbohydrate and protein powders) are dispensed then structured by following digital ‘recipes’ based on personal health data.

Rhee said this makes it able to “supply food to satisfy special needs like low-GI and allergies​”.

The impact of this could firstly be, for example, food that meets the separate, individual nutrition needs of each person in a household — all at the push of a button.

Rhee also said customised absorption would enable nutritional or other properties of food to be optimised to be better than in those of regular food. This would especially come in useful in applications such as preparing food for the “aged generation”​.

He added that its functionality also allows it to suit personal preference in texture and flavour.

The capability to 3-D print (customised) food on a large scale could also greatly reduce food waste and the costs involved in storage and transportation.

How it works

The process begins with food materials being pulverised under ultra-low temperatures close to -100 degrees Celsius. The micro-sized food materials are then reconstructed into a porous film-shaped material by jetting bonding an agent under optimised water content and heat conditions.

Like in the 3-D printing of other materials, a film-type material is deposited layer by layer to build up a three-dimensional food block.

“The exterior and internal micro-structure of a food block with specific porosity is designed to give texture with controlled human body absorption while eating and ingesting,”​ Rhee stated in his plans.

Rhee said the team is still in discussions with some food companies on possible collaboration and commercialisation of the 3-D printer. He believes this “will be determined soon”​.

Currently, they are working with hardware developer Linc Solution on the 3-D food printer and its elements, and on processing and supply chain for the food cartridge. A "database" designer will also come on board to structure and coordinate “digital recipes” — food ingredients and formulations together with the structure and shape of food to be printed.

“We are still open to meet with investors and collaborators,​” said Rhee.

He said once the 3-D food printing technology is finalised, they will proceed further in their research on the food ‘inks’, especially in the powdered ingredients and types of (edible) ink, as well as on the algorithm for constructing food micro-structure.

Next level

"We are only in early stages, but we believe our research will move 3-D food printing to the next level,” ​he said.

“By the end of this year, a very practical and realistic (new) prototype of this 3-D food printer, with food cartridges, will be available.”

He believes the 3-D food printer together with various types of cartridges will be available in the market within three to five years.

The research project was designed and lead by Rhee, the principal investigator, and has been ongoing since 2015. The team has been collaborating with other researchers from the Catholic University and Hoseo University, as well as companies such as Linc Solution and Quantum Solution.

The project has received aid through a government-issued fund mainly from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Korean Food & Drug administration (KFDA), for developing “high value added food technology”.

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