Space travel to accelerate food science discoveries

Related tags Food Food safety

Space travel to accelerate food science discoveries as the US space
organisation NASA calls on food researchers to answer the needs of
its astronauts, reports Lindsey Partos.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), as part of its Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) programme, is seeking a host of developments within the context of its 'Advanced Life Support: Food Provisioning and Biomass' topic.

The development of long duration, shelf-stable food to allow 3 to 5 year storage, food preparation equipment, and "highly automated|​ equipment to process or prepare crops grown in space or bulk stored ingredients are among the areas requiring new research, says NASA.

Understanding the most extreme conditions for food products has already brought gains for product formulation on Earth, and to innovative food firms opting to invest in ambitious development areas.

Danish food firm Arla Food Ingredients, for example, recently developed a new yoghurt for consumption by NASA's astronauts.

The dairy ingredients supplier worked with US food technologists at the Johnson Space Centre to design safe, health-promoting, lightweight foods.

When the expedition 11 crew took off to the International Space Station in mid-April, Arla's fruit flavoured yoghurts were on board.

"In the near and mid-term, new products are expected to arrive on the shelves, influenced by our experiences for the International Space Station,"​ Carsten Hallund Slot, project manager at Arla Foods Innovation told

Working with such radically different criteria gave us the opportunity to learn more about product development, and crucially the impact of foods on human health, he adds.

At zero gravity (space conditions) the body demineralises resulting in bone and muscle loss. For astronauts this happens fast, as much as 1 per cent a month, explained Slot, compared to on Earth where bone loss occurs when we grow old. Between 50 and 60 years of age we lose 10 per cent of bone loss.

"For Arla, a food company with expertise in dairy foods, space exploration created new challenges: as well as the opportunity to expand our knowledge by pushing forward our understanding of bioactive compounds,"​ said Slot.

In Space, the number one challenge, for dairy products in particular, is microbiology: food safety must dominate, slicing away any risk that the astronaut will get food poisoning.

Food safety in space 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.

The shelf-life of dairy products is normally short, particularly outside the cooling chain, as is the case in Space.

Arla opted for dehydration, not vacuum pressure, or irradiation, to solve the problem, designing a powdered yoghurt with a shelf life of over two years.

The firm claims knowledge gained in this area from the space project will be transposed onto improving the shelf-life and texture of dried dairy foods sold to Middle Eastern, and other 'pastureless' markets.

In parallel to the yoghurt formulation, Arla's own space exploration involved investigations on separating milk into different peptides, and then "putting these back" into freshly designed products.

The firm has come up with 'milk bites' for the astronauts; essentially a chewy, bite-size protein bar that gives the space travellers a dose of calcium and protein.

Proposals for NASA's solicitation are due by 5pm on September 7, 2005. The solicitation can be downloaded from:

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