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NASA food science: We’re 20 years away from foods with extended shelf-lives

By Stephen DANIELLS , 05-Dec-2012

The quest to have food to survive a five-year mission to Mars is at least two decades away, but ‘we’ll get there’, says Dr Michele Perchonok, advanced food technology project scientist at NASA in Houston.

Dr Perchonok, a 12-year NASA food science veteran, is part of a team examining how to provide food of sufficient quality, quantity, and variety to allow astronauts to venture out on extended missions beyond Earth’s orbit.

NASA’s food science program is evolving, she explained in an interview with FoodNavigator-USA. Going where nobody has gone before means that there are a lot of unknowns, and that a lot of work two to three years ago was focused on filling knowledge gaps. Now, they are moving towards research and tech development.

“We’ve got about 20 years to go, and we need to be aiming in 2018 or 2020 for a packaged food system that can go to five years,” said Dr Perchonok. “We don’t have it yet.”

And having one or two foods that can last for five years is not enough, she notes. “The variety of foods is still the issue, along with nutrition and acceptability.”

Packaged vs regenerative

According to a recent review in the Journal of Food Science , a mission to Mars would require different sets of food: One would be pre-packaged foods, similar to those currently used on the International Space Station (ISS), which can be consumed in transit. The second set of food would be a store of food actually located on Mars for the crew to eat on arrival. A third possibility is to find ways of growing produce.

Data from a preliminary study into this was finished recently, explained Dr Perchonok, without thinking about the overall system, just looking at the food system.

“The results came back that the best compromise is a combination of packaged food system and a regenerative food system,” she said.  

Dr Perchonok, who will be presenting NASA’s food science program developments at the inaugural Food Vision event, also noted that data from the ISS (International Space Station) is showing how much nutrition food loses to become shelf-stable and be stored for up to three years.

Processing will degrade the nutritional content of the foods, she noted, with vitamin C and the B vitamins amongst the first to go.

“Overall, if you fly the food into space immediately after processing (which doesn’t happen) then there is adequate nutrition.”

Flavor, stress-management, and protecting vitamins

Dr Perchonok is collaborating on three current research projects: The first is in the second year of a three year project investigating how flavor changes based on weightlessness or partial gravity. Under such conditions fluids that usually drain down the body do not behave the same, she explained, and a person has the feeling of being stuffed up, and this can affect flavor perception.

“Does this affect flavor perception, and how does it affect it,” she asked.

The second project is investigating how food can reduce stress on board a cramped space vessel. Perhaps something simple like eating together can help, she noted. This project is less than a year old.

Dr Perchonok speaking with FoodNavigator-USA at the IFT annual meeting in 2011

The final project is examining how to protect vitamins in foods, and the effects of different processing techniques.

Collaboration

When FoodNavigator-USA spoke with Dr Perchonok  in 2011, she noted that NASA was attempting to partner more with the food industry. Over one year on, and she says: “We continue to work with small businesses and with the DoD, and it has a lot of collaboration with universities and industry.”

Regarding innovation, she admits that this has slowed down in recent years. A lot of attention had focused on food packaging but their studies have shown that, currently, “there is not a material out there that we want”, and that “even with the best packaging we cannot get to a five-year shelf-life without looking at other factors, like formulation, processing, and storage.”

Dr Pechonok and her co-workers are considering a range of emerging processing technologies, including high-pressure processing and microwave sterilization to provide solutions.

While some may see NASA’s approach to food processing as counter to the general demand from terrestrial consumers for minimally-processed foods, Dr Perchonok argues that they are exploring forms of processing that produce products with better taste and higher quality.

Frozen food is a great example of this, she says, with many fruit and vegetables that are quickly frozen after harvesting having greater vitamin content than ‘fresh’ vegetables and fruit that have been sitting at a grocery store for several days.

Will we get to the fabled five-year shelf life to help humankind make another giant leap ? “We’re not there yet,” she admits, “but we’ll get there.”

Dr Michele Perchonok is an invited speaker at the inaugural Food Vision event, to be hosted in Cannes, France from March 20-22, 2013.

For more information about this please visit: www.foodvisionevent.com

IFT

Dr Perchonok is a proud and active member of the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), and she and members of the food science team in Houston, Texas, were the subject of an award-winning video from IFT. Please click here to watch “A Day in the Life of a NASA Food Scientist ”.