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Why growing delicious food in space is more than just a matter of taste

Shane Kimbrough growing lettuce on the International Space Station.
NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough growing lettuce in the Veggie vegetable-production system on the International Space Station. NASA

Growing food in space is an important component of long-term space missions. But the benefits aren’t only practical, as two experiments currently running on the International Space Station (ISS) aim to show.

Astronauts on the ISS have grown lettuce, radishes, chili peppers, and more. But the challenges of physically growing crops on the station — in terms of light, moisture, keeping plants healthy, and so on — is only part of the picture of food in space. The other part is understanding the psychology of eating, what makes food appealing to astronauts, and how fresh food could improve astronaut’s mental well-being as well as their physical health.

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The HRF Veg experiment doesn’t involve growing any crops directly — instead, it uses questionnaires to find out how astronauts feel about the fresh food they grow on the station and what the best way to integrate it into their diet is. Psychologists believe that there is an advantage to astronauts eating fresh food beyond pure nutrition in terms of adding some excitement and variety to what can be a monotonous eating routine. Additionally, there is a psychological benefit to eating food that you have grown yourself, as you are more invested in things you had a part in creating. (This is called, delightfully enough, the IKEA effect.)

One food issue that often comes up is that astronauts report they grew tired of certain foods while serving on the space station. There is even some evidence that the sense of taste can change in space. There are only a limited number of pre-packaged meal options available, so astronauts end up eating the same meals over and over again. This leads to astronauts not wanting to eat and losing too much weight, a phenomenon known as menu fatigue. The longer a mission goes on, the more serious this issue can become, as astronauts lose their appetites and can experience nutritional deficits, or their body weight can drop in an unhealthy way.

Anecdotally, astronauts have joked about how ketchup, hot sauce, and other condiments are highly valued on space missions because they add some much-needed flavor to meals. So now, NASA is running a formal study into this topic on the ISS, asking astronauts to fill out questionnaires about what foods they do and don’t feel like eating while they’re in space. The Food Acceptability, Menu Fatigue, and Aversion in ISS Missions investigation will ask ISS crew members to report once per week on how appealing they find the food and drink they’re offered for their meals.

Both of these studies are ongoing on the ISS and aim to help researchers better understand how to prepare food for future long-term missions such as a crewed mission to Mars.

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