February 28, 2012

Martian Menus in the Making: Cornell Profs Fight Food Fatigue of Astronauts

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Cornell researchers are cooking up new ways to combat menu fatigue in astronauts. And no, they are not seeking the help of Ithaca’s new Chipotle restaurant.

Prof. Jean Hunter, biological and environmental engineering, defines menu fatigue as a loss of interest in eating that occurs when people are on a restricted diet.

“If astronauts get tired of the food on their menu, they will not find eating as appealing as it ought to be,” Hunter said. “This is dangerous because their physical condition will degrade more quickly if they are not eating enough.”

Hunter is investigating if menu fatigue can be delayed if the crew cooks for itself.

“You might call this a 19th-century approach to feeding because that is what the old sailing ships and polar expeditions did,” Hunter said. “They bought staple foods and cooked for themselves.”

Hunter said that although cooking requires more labor than simply opening prepackaged foods, it gives the crew a chance to introduce creativity into the menu. Additionally, preparing special foods for certain occasions, such as birthdays, adds variety to the astronauts’ diets. Hunter said this diversity will help delay menu fatigue.

Hunter also said that transporting canned food is very costly because it contains a lot of water, which adds more weight to the space shuttle. As a result, foods are often freeze-dried to lessen the costs of transportation. One major drawback of this process is that these foods are often not very appetizing. To help make freeze-dried foods more palatable, Hunter is working with Prof. Rupert Spies, hotel administration.

“[Spies] is going to work with these instant foods and develop some menu items,” Hunter said.

“We are going to judge these recipes based on hedonic evaluation, meaning we will have the volunteers try the recipes and rate them on a nine-point scale,” Spies said. “They are going to prepare and eat the food, and then give us feedback.”

Some of the ingredients Hunter is testing include flour, sugar, oil, shortening, rice, eggs, milk and beans. Freeze-dried meats such as turkey, chicken and beef are also being considered. “We are looking at plain home cooking. The ingredients would be the sort of things you would find in a kitchen cupboard,” Hunter said.

Hunter said she plans to assess the effects of meal preparation and menu variety during a four-month long study conducted in Hawaii. Six volunteers will live in an environment designed to simulate what astronauts on Mars would experience. These volunteers will prepare their own food using Spies’ recipes. At the conclusion of the study, the researchers will examine whether or not meal preparation and variety helped delay menu fatigue that affected astronauts in the past.

Edward Tsang Lu ’84 is a former NASA astronaut who spent six months in space as part of an expedition to the International Space Station in 2003.

“Menu fatigue is like eating in the same restaurant three meals a day, seven days a week. Even if you like the restaurant, after a few weeks you just want to eat somewhere else,” Lu said.

On his mission, Lu and his colleague had a two-week rotation of meals, but they did not follow it strictly, instead eating what they wanted.

Despite the effects of menu fatigue, Lu did have a few favorite foods while he was in space. “I did enjoy the crawfish etouffe and the Russian lamb with vegetables,” he said.

Original Author: Nicolas Ramos