Understanding the most extreme conditions for food products will bring gains for product formulation, particularly functional foods, on Earth, says Arla Food Ingredients, the firm that has developed a new yoghurt for consumption by NASA's astronauts, reports Lindsey Partos.
For the past three years the Danish dairy ingredients supplier has been working with US food technologists at the Johnson Space Centre to design safe, health-promoting, lightweight foods.
And when the expedition 11 crew takes off to the International Space Station in mid-April, Arla's fruit flavoured yoghurts will be on board.
For Carsten Hallund Slot, project manager at Arla Foods Innovation and heavily involved in the space project, the experience has "absolutely pushed us forward".
"In the near and mid-term, new products are expected to arrive on the shelves, influenced by our experiences for the International Space Station," he told FoodNavigator.com.
"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 added. "We've been thoroughly investigating the area of functional foods."
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.
The shelf-life of dairy products is normally short, particularly outside the cooling chain, as is the case in Space, comments Slot.
Arla opted for dehydration, not vacuum pressure, or irradiation, to solve the problem, designing a yoghurt with a shelf life of over two years.
"Making a powder was the right solution for us. Arla has been involved in this area for 50 years, it is one our technical strengths," he claims, adding that Arla has been supplying the Middle East (where there is very little fresh milk) with dried dairy products for decades.
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.
Food aid could also benefit, says Slot, because the product has been designed to stay safe where there is no access to a cooling chain.
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.
"The milk bites could also be a very interesting product to introduce onto European food markets," said the Arla project manager.
Looking ahead, the firm has ambitions to provide a 'full palette' of dairy products to the astronauts, pushing its food technologists to explore new areas of product development; and to ultimately use knowledge gained to push ahead of competitors.
"During 'normal' product development we miss elements that are observed when exploring foods for space. Everything is turned upside down there, bringing new problems to solve, and ultimately new findings, new solutions.
This is what drives innovation," concludes Slot.