Astronaut pushing a banana in zero gravity.

Researchers Design the Ideal Meal for Long-Term Space Travelers

Imagine blasting off on a multiyear voyage to Mars, fueled by a diet of bland, prepackaged meals. As space agencies plan for longer missions, they’re grappling with the challenge of how to best feed people. Now, researchers reporting in ACS Food Science & Technology have designed the optimal “space meal”.

A Tasty Vegetarian Salad 

Vegetarian salad on a table surrounded by more vegetables.
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The ideal space meal turned out to be a vegetarian salad. The researchers chose fresh ingredients that meet male astronauts’ specialized nutritional needs and can be grown in space.

Food – Not Just for Nutrition

Astronaut holding Earth planet in palm. Elements of this image furnished by NASA.
Image Credit: Elements of this image furnished by NASA.

Food scientists at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) explain that food plays a crucial role in an astronaut’s health both from a nutritional and a psychological standpoint. Food can offer comfort, break up monotony, and give a sense of connection for astronauts so far from home.

Designing Meals for Long-Term Space Travel

Sources of calcium with broccoli, milk, cheese, oats, almonds and avacado pictured.
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The researchers used food constraints that were based on NASA's recommendations. They considered 36 nutrients and 102 crops. They evaluated 10 “space dishes” for daily full-nutrient supply to one astronaut. Four of the considered dishes were vegetarian (crops only), and six were omnivorous (crops and meat).

The Nutritional Challenge in Space

Composition with food products and main minerals essencial for human body.
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Astronauts in space have unique nutritional needs. They burn more calories and require extra micronutrients like calcium. Researchers aim to develop meals that meet these requirements while considering sustainability for long-term missions.

Fresh Ingredients and Space Agriculture

Young plants and trays of sprouts growing in a lab.
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Researchers used linear programming to assess combinations of fresh ingredients. Linear programming computationally balances different variables to meet a specific goal. In this case, their model identified how well the combinations of different foods could meet a male astronaut’s daily nutritional needs while minimizing the water required to grow the foods. 

Designing the Optimal Space Meal

Vegan rainbow salad with quinoa, tofu, avocado and kale.
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The research team identifies a vegetarian meal composed of soybeans, poppy seeds, barley, kale, peanuts, sweet potato, and/or sunflower seeds as the most efficient in providing maximal nutrients with minimal farming inputs. Of the meals tested, this meal best met their goal to balance nutritional needs, minimize water usage, and ensure sustainability for growing food in spacecraft or space colonies.

Supplementation for Micronutrient Completeness

dietary supplements in a spoon.
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While the identified vegetarian combination doesn't cover all required micronutrients, the researchers suggest supplementing the missing ones. This approach ensures astronauts receive a comprehensive nutritional profile in their space diet.

Taste Testing on Earth

Table with a six plates of salad on it.
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To verify the appeal of the space meal, the researchers prepare a salad version for taste testing on Earth. Results are positive, with one tester expressing a willingness to eat it all week as an astronaut. Further tests and variations are planned.

Looking Ahead: Options for Female Astronauts

Astronaut woman drawn in vintage kitch style drinks a glass of wine.
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Future research aims to expand the computer model to provide meal options tailored to female astronauts. The goal is to diversify and enhance the variety of crops considered for space agriculture.

Source: American Chemical Society

Alissa Zorn

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