UCL Engineering


Hard to swallow?

How a mechanical simulator is helping to prevent choking

Skull x-ray

14 February 2020

Eating and drinking are fundamental to life, but an estimated 590 million people worldwide can’t eat or drink safely or effectively.

The reasons vary: stroke, dementia and surgery are common causes but premature babies can also have swallowing disorders. Hydration, nutrition and quality of life can be seriously reduced and the increased risk of choking is life-threatening.

Modification of the texture of foods is the common, widely accepted method of managing dysphagia and avoiding such adverse or tragic outcomes.

Dr Ben Hanson of UCL Mechanical Engineering performed laboratory tests investigating how the mechanics of food can be manipulated and classified.

Working with PhD student Andrew Redfearn, Hanson created a mechanical simulator of the mouth and tongue to study how foods and drinks behave when swallowed.

The test rig maps the pressure needed to swallow soft foods and uses lasers to visualise the flow of drinks. Hanson also worked with major medical food and drink companies to help them standardise products for those affected by dysphagia. He then helped devise simple, cheap methods for testing for appropriate food thickness, without the need for specialist equipment.

This laboratory research has helped to define international standards for classifying textures, mechanics and flow properties of various foods to help those with dysphagia.

This research forms a key part of the International Dysphagia Diet Standardisation Initiative (IDDSI), helping healthcare professionals, carers and patients understand appropriate food thickness, and promoting safe and effective swallowing.

IDDSI’s framework and resources are now being rolled out by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) and will be in use nationwide by April 2019.

The NHS aims to replace confusing, and therefore potentially dangerous, terms like ‘soft diet’ in hospitals and care homes, with accessible but more precise guidance and resources, based on the IDDSI framework.

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