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Could 3D printers one day sit in our kitchens alongside the Mixmaster and Thermomix?Blueprint for Livingtakes a look at the future of 3D-printed food and finds the technology may be particularly useful for the elderly.

There is something of a special alchemy about taking a recipe, carefully measuring the ingredients and preparing a meal from scratch. But what if the food of the future comes via a 3D printer, with our individual dietary needs and taste buds taken into account?

For scientists working in this rapidly expanding field, the future of 3D food is already here. There are ongoing trials involving 3D-printed pasta, chocolates, biscuits and even entire meals.

Dr Kjeld van Bommel is a research scientist with TNO, the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research, and for the past five years he has been working at the forefront of the new technology.

Among his projects is EU-funded research which aims to create 3D-printed vegetables and meat from puree for elderly patients in nursing homes.

Its a very specific group of elderly people, people that are suffering from a condition thats called dysphagia, which means that they cannot chew and swallow regular foods, he says.

What they get at the moment is sort of baby foodthey have a plate of food and it has a blob of potato puree, a blob of carrot puree and a blob of salmon puree, and it doesnt look very appetising and thats the problem.

These people already have problems eating, they see this not very attractive food, and they get malnourished.

Van Bommel says that while you need food to print foodraw ingredients in the case of printed biscuits or melted chocolate for printed chocolatethere is an additional benefit to printing purees. Ingredients can be added to ensure that each portion fits the dietary needs of each patient, with customisable levels of fat, vitamins, minerals and protein.

You tell the printer to mix the ingredients in different ratios and every portion is then sent to the printer and different products come out with different compositions, van Bommel explains, and thats something that regular technology cannot really do.

As well as nursing home application, more fanciful food printing projects are under way.

Together with Dutch Michelin-starred chef Wouter van Laarhoven and food designer Marijn Roovers, the TNO scientists have developed a dessert of printed chocolate. Its a globe with the three main cocoa producing continents depicted in gold on the outside.

Its not just top chefs that are taking note, however. Big food companies are as well.

Barilla [the pasta company] would like to place these kind of printers, for example, in a restaurant setting, where people can order plates of pasta, maybe design it themselves, maybe theyll tweak the composition, add gluten-free, vegetable pasta etcetera, and then print a plate of pasta live in front of them, says van Bommel.

People would be willing to pay more for that than just a regular box of pasta.

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At the start of Barillas 3D printing project four years ago, one piece of uncooked pasta took 15 minutes to print. Today that has improved to four pieces in a couple of minutes. Although the technology still has a way to go until it can be employed commercially, van Bommel is confident is has a strong future.

According to the Dutch scientist, the next frontier for the technology is being able to replicate the texture of the food, so when you chew the food ideally it would taste like a real carrot, or it would be the most crispy cookie that youve ever had.

Thats the research that were going into now. Can we make something creamy, juicy, crispy, things like that? Nobody knows how to do that with 3D printing yet.

Van Bommel, however, admits the technology still has a way to go before it becomes a mainstay in peoples kitchens.

I think home printers will be created in the future but then they have to be able to do a variety of things they should be able to do pasta, cookies, chocolate and maybe three or four other things.

Otherwise, if you use it once a week it will become the next bread making machine. It will end up in the attic after a couple of years, and thats not what we would like.

Listen to this episode ofBlueprint for Livingas it looks to the future when one day there could there be a 3D printing machine to print food specially designed for our own individual tastes and dietary requirements.

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Blueprint For Livingis a weekly rummage through the essential cultural ingredientsdesign, architecture, food, travel, fashionfor a good life.

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