During the Mercury missions, astronauts ate terrible food: freeze- dried powders and semi-liquids in aluminum tubes. Decades later, though, astronauts now have meals prepared by celebrity chefs and access to everyday items like shrimp cocktail, stir-fried chicken, and fettuccine alfredo. While the culinary selection has improved, the developers of these gourmet delights are still faced with a number of challenges.
Space foods, which can be available in rehydratable, thermostabilized, irradiated, and natural forms, are tested for their nutritional value, appeal to the senses, storability, and packaging. The foods are also tested to ensure that they are low in weight and mass, require little energy to prepare for eating, have a minimum of 9 months shelf life for shuttle missions and 1 year for use on the International Space Station (ISS), and are stored at room temperature.
Additional challenges include the need to develop foods and equipment that take up very little space, are easy to operate and clean, and require minimal water use, while also creating minimal air pollution and odors, which can be hazardous to the health and well-being of astronauts. The foods must be crumb-free to eliminate excess floating particles. Space foods must also be free of pathogenic microbes and create minimum waste and mess.
Finally, space foods have to taste good, while still managing to be healthy. Toward this effort, NASA testing helped in the development of a revolutionary new fat substitute that cuts calories and extends shelf life.
The NASA Glenn Garrett Morgan Commercialization Initiative (GMCI) is a program for small, minority-owned, and woman-owned businesses that can benefit from access to NASA resources. GMCI provides services that enable companies to grow and strengthen their business by leveraging NASA technology, expertise, and programs.
Diversified Services Corporation, a minority-owned business based out of Cleveland, Ohio, was able to take advantage of this NASA program for technology acquisition and development, and for introductions to potential customers and strategic partners, such as the NASA Food Technology Commercial Space Center, at Iowa State University (the center closed December 31, 2005), for taste tests and performance studies. Fresh ground beef (90-percent lean) was used to prepare hamburger patties formulated with or without 10-percent fat substitute. Hamburger patties without the added fat substitute served as the control in each experiment. Patties were weighed for evaluation of cooking yield, and then cooked to an internal temperature of 72 °C. The cooked product with or without fat substitute was rapidly cooled, and then subjected to freeze drying or irradiation in retort pouches to NASA specifications. Changes in volatile profile during storage, and sensory properties were determined. Addition of 10-percent fat substitute did not influence the sensory characteristics of the ready-to-eat hamburger beef patties or dramatically change its volatile profile after 30-day storage.
With the GMCI assistance, the company developed and commercialized a new nutritional fat replacement and flavor enhancement product it had licensed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is now marketing it through its subsidiary, H.F. Food Technologies Inc.
The Nutrigras fat substitute is available for commercial applications and helps to satisfy the body’s desire for the taste and mouth feel of fatty foods, even though the body does not actually need these foods—in fact, many people need fewer high-fat foods in their diets. With obesity on the verge of outweighing smoking as the number one cause of preventable death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are showing rapid rises in the prevalence of children at severe weight levels; and while the American diet continues to be reliant on large quantities of high-fat foods, nutritionists are searching for solutions.