The European Union, concerned about the special needs of its rapidly aging population, is spending more than $4 million to develop 3D printers that will produce food that is optimized for the elderly.

For The Elderly, Better Eating Through 3D Printing

The program is called PERFORMANCE: an over-labored acronym that stands for "PERsonalized FOod using Rapid MAnufacturing for the Nutrition of elderly ConsumErs." It's one of many initiatives that the EU is undertaking as it prepares for a future where one in five of its citizens will be 65-years-old and over by 2025.

As we age, our nutritional needs change, especially since health problems may require us to follow strict, specialized diets. Moreover, studies suggest that between 15 and 25 percent of people over the age of 50 have difficulties swallowing their food—a condition known as dysphagia. (In assisted living facilities, the numbers are higher, ranging from 30 to 60 percent.)

As a result, people eat less and are malnourished. Plus, as one study has noted, there are psychological effects that contribute to depression:

Eighty-four percent of patients felt that eating should be an enjoyable experience but only 45 percent actually found it so. Moreover, 41 percent of patients stated that they experienced anxiety or panic during mealtimes. Over one-third (36 percent) of patients reported that they avoided eating with others because of their dysphagia.

Alternative nutrition—porridge-like foods that have been pureed and mixed together from a variety of ingredients—doesn't exactly improve quality of life.

So, the dilemma: how to mass-produce meals that are palatable and nutritious, locally made, and personalized to meet the special needs of each individual?

And that's where 3D printing comes in. It's a technology that is ideally suited to the mass production of specialized, niche products. PERFORMANCE envisions a system whereby healthcare workers and nutritionists compile individualized profiles—portion size, nutritional needs, food texture—which is then embedded as data in QR codes that are stamped on plates. A local 3D printing facility scans the codes and produces appropriate meals, which are then delivered to homes or assisted living facilities.

Food printers that produce chocolate, pasta and pizza are already on the market. The PERFORMANCE printers are more ambitious, using cartridges filled with liquefied vegetables, meat and carbohydrates.

For The Elderly, Better Eating Through 3D Printing

The printer begins by creating a two-dimensional version of the food—for instance, beef roulade—with liquid from the meat cartridge and shaped by 48 nozzles in the printer head. A gelation agent, still under development, would be added, so that, as additional layers are added, they retain their shape. Eventually, the finished product emerges: a beef roulade, maybe with sides of pasta and vegetables.

It's called "reconstructed food." Perhaps not the most appealing term, but it's better than a diet of Jell-O.