Out-of-this-world research

April 16, 2012 —

I’m a fan of our own DMU Magazine, and the spring issue is no exception. It showcases great ideas and writing about our work here in the areas of obesity and nutrition. At DMU, we have scientists, scholars and students working on a number of different approaches to both the disease of obesity and the food policy that drives larger health care issues. I enjoy reading of the work of my colleagues on campus and around the country.

Here’s a fun twist: A group of researchers at Cornell and the University of Hawaii are doing some interesting research that is a little out of this world but may have implications here in Iowa and throughout the rest of the country. The Hawaii Space Exploration Analogue & Simulation (HI-SEAS) is a 120-day Mars exploration analogue mission to take place in early 2013 on the Big Island of Hawaii. What this will be is a simulated space mission on Mars, and six researchers will simulate life in a Mars-spacecraft environment. Can you imagine four months living, cooking and eating in a 50-square-meter habitat?

Why are they studying this?

Mars_Desert_Research_Station
Researchers will spend 120 days in a habitat like this studying food preferences for space travel that may impact family food options. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Astronauts have a wide selection of prepackaged meals available to eat during missions.  But quoting the researchers, “Humans eating a restricted diet over a period of months ultimately experience “menu fatigue,” also known as food monotony.”

Hmmm, sounds a little bit like some American homes, eating the same pre-packaged food week in – week out.

The researchers continue: “The major disadvantage of cooking on a space mission is the cost of resources required for food preparation and cleanup: equipment, power, water, and crew labor…Little is known about the break-even point in crew size, at which cooking would become more labor-efficient than eating instant foods out of individual packages.”

Wow, hello! This is the same issue we see in many American homes: the choice between cooking and eating “instant” food.

Researchers also know that over time, nasal passages can become blocked during prolonged space flight, and the loss of the sense of smell directly influences taste. In addition to their own research initiatives, these volunteer researchers are going to compare prepackaged space food with food cooked in the mock-up environment from shelf-stable ingredients for taste and convenience.

I am looking forward to seeing the outcome of this study. The researchers are looking to develop recipes and cooking strategies for future space travelers. This is one of those projects where the scientific exploration of space travel can have direct influence on hungry children at home. The potential for new ways for families to use shelf-stable ingredients in their homes could come to the rescue of both families who struggle with obesity and families who live in food deserts – those parts of the U.S. where fresh food is not easily accessible.


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