ESA's Commercial Promotion Office and TNO Food and Nutrition are evaluating opportunities to use space research to support the development of healthy and functional food.
TNO Food and Nutrition is a part of TNO Quality of Life. The aim of TNO Quality of Life is to help safeguard and improve health and human performance through innovative, applied research and consulting. In an interview Dr Jan Pieter van der Lugt, Marketing and Sales Director of Food and Nutrition at TNO, explains the further benefits of nutrition research in space.
A sceptic might say "The space and the food industry don't go together". What would you answer?
Space and food have a great deal of common ground. Food is a key ingredient for the wellbeing of human beings. The new trend is not curing illnesses, but rather securing health - through balanced and healthy food. But high quality, balanced food can do much more than securing health: it can enhance the performance of a person.
Cognition and concentration for instance can be largely influenced by the kind of food you eat. Astronaut food is the ultimate challenge for nutrition - they have to give top performances every day in the most hostile environment in which a human being can survive. So the requirements of the food are extremely high: it has to be not only highly balanced, healthy and tasty, but also weigh as little as possible as the payload capacity in spaceflights are limited.
Not an easy task.
A challenging task, but absolutely doable. And forward-looking. Right now, we at TNO are talking about projects together with ESA to develop astronaut food that – additional to all other criteria – is as fresh as possible and storable at room temperature. The knowledge can easily be transferred to Earth applications: food systems for people who have to deal with extreme conditions in their day to day life like athletes or armed forces who require similar standards.
Where's the benefit for a nutrition company in developing space food?
The most striking asset is, of course, the exposure: by getting involved into space nutrition, a large food company can show that it is at the forefront of innovation and aims for nothing but the highest standards in its area. It is a great marketing tool and it is expected to trigger significant return on investment. But this is just the most obvious benefit. Space is the ultimate platform for nutritional innovations, in which astronauts are a unique “lead user” for product innovations.
What kind of innovations deriving from space activities in the food and nutrition area could you envisage?
As mentioned before, the key issues of food today are that it tastes good and has optimum ingredients. But what is just as important is that the food is digested in the right way. With the increase of knowledge about the human genome, the genetic information that each human being carries in every cell of its body, we are gaining more and more understanding of the metabolic processes.
We are working on 'metabolic typing'. As people digest different kinds of food in a different way, a nutrition profile can be created for foods that are appropriate for a person. Then, an individual diet can be developed that is tailored to the needs of one person.
We envisage that people will be grouped into five or six different 'metabolic' categories with compatibility with different foods. Diets will be developed on this basis and will ultimately be sold off the shelf.
This will be the future for nutrition – to move away from producing nutrition for the majority of people, but instead focussing on individual diet development. Of course, we are still far away from it, but it will surely come. And astronaut food will be the first landmark in its development.
Are nutritional Research and Development activities on the ISS important for the food industry?
Absolutely. The body reacts to food immediately: nutrition has effects on blood pressure, bone health, concentration and cognition, just to mention some. We already know quite a bit about the overall reaction of the body to food.
Researching this with astronauts in space, those effects are considerably increased and can be monitored and pinned down a lot better. Space is the perfect place to study the relationship between food and mood in more depth. The findings are not only important for the wellbeing of astronauts but for everybody.