NATICK, Mass. (Jan. 12, 2016) -- Traveling to the second smallest planet in the solar system can give you a big appetite, not to mention special nutritional needs.
Researchers in the Combat Feeding Directorate, or CFD, at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC, are working on two projects for NASA to help meet the nutritional needs of astronauts at a space station and astronauts traveling to Mars.
NASA contacted CFD researchers for their expertise and provided a grant for a vitamin stabilization project to help ensure the nutritional needs of astronauts are met during potential missions to Mars.
In a separate project, CFD is also working to improve and reduce the weight and volume of a breakfast meal replacement bar, originally developed by NASA, which would also be used during Mars missions and at a space station.
"The work we have done on the vitamin stabilization project then generated NASA's interest in us working on a meal replacement bar for the breakfast meal," said Michelle Richardson, a senior food technologist at CFD.
CFD is uniquely qualified to develop and improve rations for NASA due to its extensive work on military rations, Richardson said.
"The work we do in CFD involves meeting the long storage requirements combined with the nutritional demands for Army rations," said Ann Barrett, a CFD chemical engineer.
"The astronaut and the warfighter are both in austere environments, and they both need to be sustained," Richardson said. "They both need food that has to last for several years."
"They both have stressful as well as physically and cognitively challenging jobs," Barrett said. "So there are a lot of congruencies between CFD and NASA in terms of the objectives for the foods."
The mission to Mars provides many challenges in vitamin stabilization.
"You can make food that is stable, but vitamins are biological materials that degrade over time," Barrett said. "Especially if there is cosmic radiation; then they are even more susceptible to degradation. Cosmic radiation can damage vitamins and create more of a need for antioxidant vitamins for the astronauts. This could result in malnutrition."
The vitamins need to remain effective and intact during the astronauts' time on Mars, and they also need to remain stable during travel to and from Mars.
"NASA is also interested in stockpiling food there for subsequent missions, which is why they want a five-year shelf life," Barrett said.
CFD has developed a blueberry granola bar and a chocolate hazelnut drink mix to meet these requirements.
"We are looking at different chemical environments in the food to possibly help the vitamins last longer," Barrett said. "So for each item - the bar and the drink - we have a low-fat version and a higher fat version. The vitamins that NASA is interested in are A, B1 [Thiamine], B9 [Folic Acid], Vitamin C and Vitamin E.
"The vitamins are encapsulated. We are also looking at the fat level. We have a lipid-based encapsulate and a starch-based encapsulate."
Both the starch-coated vitamins and the lipid-coated vitamins were placed into low- and high-fat versions of the bar and the drink to see which combination results in the best vitamin preservation.
"We did preliminary testing and decided which versions were to be used in a five-year storage study," Barrett said. "We settled on the fat-encapsulated vitamins to be placed in the lower fat foods. And the starch-encapsulated vitamins were placed in the higher fat foods."
As part of the effort for NASA, Danielle Froio, a materials engineer at CFD, is also investigating the effects of processing techniques and packaging materials on vitamin stability in the selected low- and high-fat foods.
RAISING THE BREAKFAST BAR ON NUTRITION WHILE REDUCING THE VOLUME
CFD is working on a breakfast bar as a meal replacement to be used at a space station and possibly during a Mars mission. NASA developed the bar, and Natick is working on refining it.
"NASA is interested in a 10-percent weight reduction, and they achieved that through the bar, but they didn't have the capability to refine it," Froio said. "Natick is investigating two ways to reduce weight and volume. One is a conventional compression method, which uses high pressure.
"The other is a novel technology called sonic agglomeration that basically uses sonic waves to compress the bar and make the ingredients stick together. So, we are looking at those two technologies."
The resulting breakfast bar will be lighter weight and take up less volume, which is critical in space travel. The bars meet all the nutrient requirements for space flight and will be available in three flavors - barbecue nut, jalapeno nut and banana nut.
"The bar also needs to last for five years and taste good," Richardson said. "NASA is going to do shelf-life testing, sensory testing and nutrient testing. They are also going to do human exploration research analogs.
"An analog is actually an environment that mimics space. The bars will be tested by people in that simulated environment."
MISSION CRITICAL NUTRITION
Proper nutrition and vitamin stability are critical to the success of any space mission.
"Vitamins help with immunity," Richardson said. "It's also important that the astronauts don't lose muscle mass and bone density, which they are more prone to in a gravity-free environment."
"Antioxidants also help with neural function," Barrett said.
"Vitamins do a lot for the body," Richardson said. "So, without them on a five-year space mission, they would not be able to do their job and they would not be healthy."
"We've done other things for NASA in the past," Barrett said. "It's a long collaboration. I think the possibility of exploring Mars is a very exciting thing."
"It's great that we can assist with the sustainment of that mission," Richardson said. "If they are not properly nourished, that is going to have a huge impact."
The U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to ensure decisive overmatch for unified land operations to empower the Army, the joint warfighter and our nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.