Additive manufacturing - often known as 3D printing - might seem more suited to high-tech industrial factories, but it can support many other sectors, such as healthcare, a panel discussion said yesterday.
Khoo Teck Puat Hospital (KTPH) senior principal dietitian Gladys Wong said 3D-printed food can feed the elderly and those with chewing or swallowing difficulties, such as patients with stroke, progressive dementia and those who might be too frail to eat.
But most pureed food does not look appetising and may be rejected by patients, resulting in malnutrition. This is where 3D-printed food can be created in appealing shapes, while being pureed and containing the necessary nutrients.
Ms Wong said: "We (can) personalise palatable and visually presentable pureed food (to create) a dignified and pleasurable dining experience that is affordable...
"So we look at safety and also from a visual perspective, the food should look appealing such that they are willing to eat more."
KTPH is working with the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) and Nanyang Technological University on several 3D food-printing research projects.
The hospital will be the test-bed kitchen when the research is completed, with a printer, food inks and food safety regulations in place.
"All this is in line with creating a healthcare system that is ready for our ageing population," said Ms Wong, who was on a panel discussing the commercialisation and adoption of 3D-printed food that was held in conjunction with the Industry Transformation Asia-Pacific event that ended yesterday.
"From a food-service production perspective, we want to feed the elderly with safe 3D-printed meals with consistent texture repeatedly and that are palatable, so we can prevent malnutrition and sarcopenia," she added. Sarcopenia is a condition where a person loses muscle mass and strength.
Ms Wong said any food that is nutritious can be 3D-printed, including insect protein, bones, cartilage, "ugly" produce and seeds that would otherwise be discarded.
These materials can be ground into paste form and printed into visually attractive 3D creations.
Another variation would be to customise 3D-printed food as personalised nutrition, based on an individual's needs and preferences.
Besides healthcare, 3D-printed food can also solve current food security and sustainability issues, say experts.
SUTD's head of pillar for engineering product development Chua Chee Kai said: "An important aspect is food security and sustainability, where we can literally pulverise any food, whether food waste or food and insect protein which otherwise will not be acceptable by the majority to eat as they are."
Professor Chua, who is also leading a digital food project, added that it will be up to technologists to create food with flavours that can taste like anything an individual wishes.
Dr Ling Ka Yi, co-founder and chief scientific officer of cell-based seafood company Shiok Meats, is also exploring 3D-printed seafood.
"We're still developing the rest of the technology to scale up how we produce the proteins, and then we (have to) create the shape and texture that consumers are used to."