NASA food science: Complete nutrition, emerging technologies, and the Mission to Mars

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By Stephen Daniells contact

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition, Space exploration

NASA is exploring all forms of cutting edge technology, from 3D printing to high pressure processing and more to be able to transition its food system from the International Space Station to a Mission to Mars, says Grace Douglas, PhD.

Dr Douglas, Advanced Food Technology Scientist at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, told FoodNavigator-USA at the recent IFT Annual Meeting and Expo in Chicago that they are exploring how to work with the food system to promote health.

“We have a single source food system,”​ explained Dr Douglas, “so we have to make sure we’re providing everything. And that means all the phenolics and the omegas, everything you normally get from fresh foods, we have to make sure you’re getting.

“We have seen things happen in space flight like immune changes, so is there a way to work with the food system to promote health. We’re working with the nutritional biochemists and the immunologists at NASA to see how we can maybe build our food systems in a way that would promote health, and what foods we would need to add or how we would need to stabilize it to ensure they’re getting those critical nutrients.”

NASA is also now seeing maintenance of bone and muscle mass in its astronauts, which it hadn’t seen before the past couple of years.

But what about going to Mars?

The ISS gets several resupply missions per year, with new foods delivered each time. “Freeze-dried foods only have about a six-month shelf life, and by the time you make it, package it and ship it, it may be six months old. By putting it in an aluminum over-wrap you get an additional year and a half because you’re reducing your oxygen and moisture transfer,”​ she said.

“Our retort thermo-stabilized foods get about a two, sometimes three year shelf-life, so because they’re able to get resupplied this system works. However, when you’re talking about a Mars mission this system the food would have to still have the acceptability that will keep them eating, it needs to have the variety so that they want to eat and they don’t get food fatigue, and it needs to have the nutrition. We’ve measured the nutritional degradation in some of our foods and we’ve seen some of the vitamins degrade to a very concerning level over that time.

“So we’re looking at other strategies like fortification, but you cannot over-fortify so much at the beginning that you have a concern there, and in general if you see nutrient degradation you’re also going to see acceptability degradation, so what we really want is stability.”

Emerging technologies

Dr Douglas said that NASA is looking at 3-D printing technology as a way to add precise nutrition. “You can be very precise because you’re using a 3D printer that calculates how much it’s adding and add it in a very precise way, and you don’t need much crew time to do that because it’s automated.”

Dr Douglas will present more about NASA’s food system and innovation at Food Vision USA​ in October. To register for the event, click HERE​.

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Related topics: R&D

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