May 5, 2000 ITHACA, N.Y. -- In a remote corner of Cornell University, 16 volunteers recently dined exclusively on space food for 30 days. As if they were marooned in a Martian space colony, the volunteers ate nothing but extraterrestrial cuisine: sweet potato pancakes, lentil loaf sandwiches, seitan tacos, carrot drumsticks and chocolate soy candy.
To stick to the space food regimen, one volunteer had to forgo her wedding banquet and a taste of her wedding cake, while another brought a cooler with his soybean loaf to eat at one of Ithaca's finest restaurants so he could take his girlfriend out for Valentine's Day.
The space food diet consists primarily of vegan (no meat or dairy) foods and enough dishes for 10 days, alternated for variety. The dishes, all previously tested in weekly taste panels at Cornell, were plant-based foods that had to be tasty, nutritious and economical. They also had to be low in salt (because sodium from recycled urine in a space colony would be bad for crops), low in iron (for space adaptation), not labor-intensive (astronauts' time is at a premium) and sparing in their use of any ingredients difficult to produce in a space colony (cargo weight also is at a premium). The menu also had to be derived from a very limited list of crops, mainly wheat, rice, soybeans and other vegetables that can be grown hydroponically in artificially lighted, temperature-controlled space farms.
"We're trying to find out if our space foods wear well and maintain their appeal if consumed as a complete diet for 30 days," says Jean Hunter, an associate professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Cornell who is heading up the NASA-funded project. To find out, the space-cuisine team is analyzing acceptability ratings from the participants and food consumption (all servings and leftovers were weighed). In addition, the team is analyzing the physical and psychological side effects of the low-salt, high-fiber diet by tracking body weight and daily measures of health, well-being and mood.
"We've noticed for example, that nobody liked our dairy substitutes, such as soy and rice milk, during our taste panels. But our subjects got used to them and accepted them just fine once they started eating them regularly," says Hunter. She also noted that participants tended to lose between 3 and 7 pounds on the diet, probably because of its low sodium content.
Findings from the space-food diet panel not only will help NASA plan on how best to feed an extended space mission team but could better inform the health-care industry: "We know that on a monotonous diet, intake goes down due to food boredom. That's why so many restrictive weight-loss or special health-related diets fail in the long term," says David Levitsky, professor of nutritional sciences and of psychology at Cornell, and one of the study's collaborators.
The space cuisine team also included Rupert Spies, a chef and lecturer in food and beverage management in Cornell's School of Hotel Administration. He used Cornell's food science pilot plant to produce some of the dishes, recruited about 20 hotel and nutrition students to help with food preparation and collaborated in recipe and menu development. In addition, the team included Adriana Rovers, formerly a caterer and teacher of vegetarian cooking, who supervised the preparation of the recipes, many of which she adapted from vegetarian cookbooks. She was aided by Ammar Olabi, a graduate student in food science.
"To do a 30-day closed study like this, we prepared 60 to 80 dishes a week with the weekend meals going home in coolers. On Monday morning, we weighed all the leftovers from the coolers," says Rovers, who estimates that the project has generated about 250 recipes ready for space.
The month also was a challenge for the volunteers. "The hardest part was not being able to eat what we wanted when we wanted, such as late at night. But in general, I thought the food was delicious and I'm trying to make my diet more like theirs," says Elizabeth Babcock Woodring, a laboratory technician in plant science at Cornell who got married during the study and had to freeze a piece of her wedding cake to eat at a later time. "We're all waiting on pins and needles for a cookbook the space food team said they want to publish," she says.
In addition, the team is developing a database of food-processing information including nutrient, cost and acceptability data for individual recipes, labor and equipment cost analyses for each ingredient and recipes that take into account time, power and space constraints. They also are developing a menu of at least 100 primarily vegetarian recipes of familiar and new menu items based on crops raised in a bioregenerative life support system. Such a system, in which plants and microorganisms would regenerate air, water and food for the crew, is envisioned for long-term space exploration. The team looks forward to using their results to develop a food-related decision-making expert system for NASA to use for multiyear missions such as a lunar scientific colony or Martian surface exploration.
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