Space travel pushes food science forward

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food

Food makers may eventually benefit from imminent food technologies
designed to prolong space travel as NASA calls on food scientists
to provide food solutions that will enable humans to travel far
from Earth - to the Moon or Mars - creating new opportunities for
exploration and discovery.

The impossibility of regularly re-supplying a six man Mars crew means that enough supplies - pre-packaged shelf-stable food, ingredients, and equipment - for three years will have to be carried with them.

"Development of highly acceptable, shelf-stable food items that the use of high-quality ingredients is important to maintaining a healthy diet,"​ said NASA in a recent statement.

"Foods should maintain safety, acceptability, and nutrition, for the entire shelf life of 3-5 years."

In particular, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme is looking for methods to process potential food crops.

"As the crew remains on the Moon or Mars surface, crops will be grown to supplement the crew's diet, using plants to revitalise the air and water supply. Methods are needed, therefore, for processing,"​ said NASA.

Potential crops cited by NASA include lettuce, spinach, carrots, tomatoes, onions, cabbage, bell peppers, strawberries, fresh herbs, and radishes. Other baseline crops that require processing would be wheat, soybeans, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, peanuts, dried beans, rice, and tomatoes.

The space agency has identified a range of areas that need to be tackled by food scientists. These are: long-duration, shelf-stable food; advanced packaging; food processing, and food safety.

"Once on the lunar or planetary surface, it may be possible to use bulk packaging of meals or snack items. These food products will require specialised processing conditions and packaging materials."

Food systems which use chemical, physical, and biological processes are being developed to support 'future human planetary exploration,' said NASA. One such system might grow crops using hydroponics - growing plants without soil in water containing dissolved nutrients - and then processing them into edible food ingredients or table-ready products.

The raw materials - the crops - could vary in quality, yield and nutrient content over the long-duration missions, meaning that new solutions are likely for food processing and storage systems.

"Such variations might affect the shelf stability and functional properties of the bulk ingredients and ultimately, the quality of the final food products,"​ said the space agency.

Food safety will focus on monitoring the shelf stability of processed food ingredients and on identification and control of microbial agents of food spoilage, including the development of countermeasures to better their effects. For all food production and processing procedures, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) must be established.

Pushing the final frontier has motivated an array of food technologies - notably dehydrated foods and space-saving packaging, now used by food manufacturers in everyday food products.

Recent research in Europe into improving the diet of astronauts and the shelf life of foods could find a place in the NASA galley kitchen. In April this year Franck Salzgeber from the European Space Agency told​ that a batch of Mediterranean foodstuffs preserved under high pressure were the focus of a new experiment at the International Space Station. The first food experiment of its kind in space, astronauts at the ISS assessed the food products for taste, texture and colour.

"The first step is to investigate the possibility of preserving foods for more than three months, a criteria for the space station,"​said Salzgeber.

The Mediet experiment consists of an ergonomic tray, made of aluminium, with five items of Mediterranean food from Italy: dried tomatoes, mature cheese, piadina bread (Italian white bread), peaches and chocolate. Italian food firm COOP supplied the food that had undergone the High Pressure Processing (4000-6000 atu) technology, which eliminates enzymes and bacteria without altering the properties of the fresh food.

Full details on the NASA​ programme can be obtained from the website.

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