When it comes to imagining food in space, most people will probably first think of freeze-dried products like astronaut ice cream. And while canned foods will inevitably be part of astronauts’ diets for the foreseeable future, there is an increasing focus today on providing astronauts with fresh foods like vegetables and grains, at least occasionally.
Eating fresh food is important not only for physical health reasons, but also for the mental health of the astronauts. Repetitive, processed meals can be unappetizing and lead to what’s known as menu fatigue, where astronauts don’t want to eat because they’re so tired of eating the same foods over and over again. And that can be a real problem when astronauts are losing weight and not getting enough nutrients.
Fortunately, we’re getting better at growing a greater variety of foods in microgravity conditions in space. In recent years, astronauts on the International Space Station (ISS) have grown foods such as radishes, lettuce and chili peppers. And now a team of researchers has come up with an “astronaut salad” using foods that could be grown in space.
Developed by researchers at the University of Adelaide in Australia and the University of Nottingham in the UK, the salad contains a blend of soybeans, poppy seeds, barley, kale, peanuts, sweet potatoes and sunflower seeds. The exact amounts of each ingredient have been adjusted to provide the nutrients an astronaut would need, according to a 2011 NASA study—and taste great, too.
“We simulated a mix of six to eight plants that provide all the required nutrients an astronaut needs, which is different from what humans need on Earth,” said one of the researchers, Volker Hessel of the University of Adelaide. in a statement. “While there are dozens of plants that can meet an astronaut’s nutritional needs, we had to find those that pack the punch and provide the calories needed in smaller servings that can be grown in a small space.”
The researchers used a computer model to help them balance the astronauts’ dietary needs, working on a list of more than 100 plants that might be suitable for growing in space. These are foods that can be grown in a small space in a hydroponic system and require minimal fertilizer.
To keep the food appealing, the researchers chose plants with a variety of colors, textures, and flavors. “Food is such an essential part of staying healthy and happy and there are many factors that contribute to this,” said another researcher, Shu Liang of the University of Nottingham. “In addition to nutritional values and the ability to grow the plants in space, we also looked at other important aspects of a space diet to promote astronaut well-being, including color, taste, and eating together.”
A team of volunteers sampled the salad and seemed happy with it, with one saying that “as an astronaut, they wouldn’t mind eating this all week.”