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Food for People Who Can’t Swallow Is the Ultimate Culinary Challenge

What do you get when a dentist, a chef, and people with dysphagia walk into a lab? Savorease, a self-dissolving cracker that may help millions of people enjoy solid food again.

A plate of Savorease.

A plate of Savorease.

Photographer: Holly Andres for Bloomberg Businessweek

For the more than 10 million American adults who have trouble swallowing, the average 28,000-product supermarket might as well be a barren wasteland. The typical store stocks just three product lines geared specifically for people with dysphagia, as their condition is known, and they’re all ultrasweet liquid meal replacements: Ensure, Boost, and a generic equivalent. These $1.50-a-pop thickened beverages are often stocked less like food and more like toiletries, down near the contact lens fluid and the toothpaste.

Most of us hardly think about how food goes from mouth to gut, but it’s a complex process involving the teeth, the tongue, and dozens of muscles and nerves. If even one part of the system isn’t working properly, a lot can go wrong. (Food or drink can slide down the wrong pipe, into the lungs, for example.) Dysphagia is common in people with autism spectrum disorders, Down syndrome, Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and cleft palate, and it can be a problem for people who have multiple sclerosis, who are undergoing chemotherapy, or who’ve recently been on an IV feeding tube or a ventilator. Although some overcome dysphagia, others don’t. Many are staring down a lifetime of Ensure and Boost, hoping to maybe work their way up to applesauce. Flavors of the nutritional supplement drinks rarely venture outside those of the ice cream family, and none of the options fulfill most people’s nutritional needs.