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Rocket science: Why does food taste different in space? –



Ever since man first walked on the moon, humans have set their sights on the next big challenge: a mission to Mars. 

While presumably countless challenges face space agencies in getting there, at least one revolves around food.

Calorie deficits

According to findings from life onboard the International Space Station (ISS), astronauts typically consume only 80% of their daily calorie requirements when in space.

While this calorie deficit is not of serious concern for astronauts who spend up to 12 months aboard the ISS, it does present risks for longer missions. A mission to Mars, for example, is expected to take 30-36 months to complete.

“As the prospect of long-distance space flight looms in the not-too-distant future, the importance of ensuring that astronauts maintain a healthy diet becomes an increasingly important issue,” ​explained Charles Spence, an experimental psychologist at the University of Oxford.

“However, while much work has gone into providing nutritionally sufficient meals for astronauts, a recurring problem is that many astronauts do not consume sufficient food while in space and hence tend to lose weight as a result. While this doesn’t matter too much for short missions, there is a great deal of concern about what this might mean for astronauts on a multi-year mission (e.g., to Mars and back).”

Does food really taste different in space?

The European Space Agency therefore commissioned a research report from a group of international experts working in flavour perception and the chemical senses to assess why this might be happening – and whether ‘poor taste’ might be a key factor leading to under-consumption, Spence told FoodNavigator.

The team of experts included representatives from Swiss flavour and taste company Firmenich, UK flavour solutions provider Flavormetrix, and numerous universities and research institutes across the UK, Germany, France, Belgium, and Italy.

Spence, who co-authored the peer-reviewed research report, noted that funnily enough, astronauts do not seem to complain about the taste of food in space. “At least, not in a way that would obviously explain the reduced consumption that time and time again has been reported,” ​he continued.

“The one complaint that does crop up time and again is the lack of perceived ‘freshness’ of the food.”

The report concludes that there are likely a number of factors responsible for the change in taste and experience of food and drink in space.

Airflow, background noise, stress levels

According to the findings, one of the major problems is that the lack of gravity in space means more blood tends to flow into the head than is normally the case here on the ground, Spence explained. “This can lead to swelling that can block or else seriously reduce the amount of air that can flow through the nasal passage.

“The importance of this constriction becomes clear when it is realised that 75-95% of what we think we taste really comes from the volatile-rich aromatic air that is pulsed out of the back of the nose when we swallow. This is what is known as retronasal olfaction – contrasting with the orthonasal sense of smell when we sniff.”  

The experimental psychologist also drew our attention to the dry air present aboard the ISS – much like that present on an aeroplane. “That may also impair the perception of aroma/flavour too, as it has been shown to do for aeroplane passengers.”

Beyond airflow in the nasal passage and dry air, astronauts on the ISS also have to put up with constant background noise. While this is typically lower than the 80-85 dB of engine noise that passengers have to contend with in a commercial aeroplane, the background noise on the ISS may still exert a significant masking effect.

“One of the other things to note,”​ Spence elaborated, “is that while we typically eat while seated down here on Earth, eating takes place in rather a different posture up in space, and this may influence the tasting experience more than we realise.”

The possible build-up of trace amounts of volatile compounds in the air/water supply, given the repeated recycling of both, should also be considered. As well as the fact that the foods are rehydrated.

“Other factors that might be relevant are that stress levels are likely to be higher and this has been shown to influence how food tastes,” ​Spence told this publication. “There is also a sense that normal diurnal and seasonal rhythms are muted in space, and I can’t help wondering if this might not also have some impact,” ​he added.

How should food makers respond?

Given these findings, how can manufacturers help make food more appealing for astronauts in space?

According to Spence, the answer does not lie in the development of a magic pill formula. “The one place where you might imagine that a meal in a pill would be useful is in space. [However, the astronauts] say that you can mess with anything, but not the food.”

The experimental psychologist puts this down to the ritual of mealtimes, which offer crew members an ‘important opportunity’ for social interaction. They can also provide a nostalgic or comforting link back to Earth, which Spence said ‘can seem like an increasingly distant memory, the longer the mission’.

“I think that the importance of psychological factors relating to foods undoubtedly becomes much more important in space.”

Making food more sensorially appealing could be one way to help avoid calorie deficits in astronauts. Drawing on the analogy between the loss of chemical senses with ageing and the reduced olfactory component due to swollen nasal passages in space flight, Spence suggested we look to ‘other channels’. This could include making foods more tempting by adding ‘a little oral pungency or spice’, he said.

The co-author has been especially interested in how to convey a sense of ‘freshness’, he revealed, “which is likely to be as much psychological as anything else”.

“One can think of freshly-made, simply garnished [food] with some space-grown microgreens. Or perhaps of how the noisier food – be it fresh produce like fruit and veg, or dry and baked goods – we tend to associated with freshness.”

Spence noted that some interesting work has been undertaken to determine whether letting the astronauts decide how to combine their meal components, or to specify what will be on the menu each day, makes a difference to their overall calorie intake.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, giving people choice and some degree of control over what they eat tends to increase liking.”

The experimental psychologist continued: “Studying food and drink in space highlights, at least for me, how much of our relationship with, and experience of, food and drink is psychological/social. And this is something that food manufacturers here on the ground would do well not to overlook.”

Source:Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety
‘Factors affecting flavor perception in space: Does the spacecraft environment influence food intake by astronauts?’
DOI: 10.1111/1541-4337.12633
Authors: Andrew J. Taylor, Jonathan D. Beauchamp, Loic Briand, Martina Heer, Thomas Hummel, Christian Margot, Scott McGrane, Serge Pieters, Paola Pittia, Charles Spence.

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MOXIE Could Help Future Rockets Launch Off Mars – NASA's Mars Exploration Program – NASA Mars Exploration



NASA’s Perseverance rover carries a device to convert Martian air into oxygen that, if produced on a larger scale, could be used not just for breathing, but also for fuel.

One of the hardest things about sending astronauts to Mars will be getting them home. Launching a rocket off the surface of the Red Planet will require industrial quantities of oxygen, a crucial part of propellant: A crew of four would need about 55,000 pounds (25 metric tons) of it to produce thrust from 15,000 pounds (7 metric tons) of rocket fuel.

That’s a lot of propellant. But instead of shipping all that oxygen, what if the crew could make it out of thin (Martian) air? A first-generation oxygen generator aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover will test technology for doing exactly that.

The Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, or MOXIE, is an experimental instrument that stands apart from Perseverance’s primary science. One of the rover’s main purposes is capturing returnable rock samples that could carry signs of ancient microbial life. While Perseverance has a suite of instruments geared toward helping achieve that goal, MOXIE is focused solely on the engineering required for future human exploration efforts.

Since the dawn of the space age, researchers have talked about in-situ resource utilization, or ISRU. Think of it as living off the land and using what’s available in the local environment. That includes things like finding water ice that could be melted for use or sheltering in caves, but also generating oxygen for rocket fuel and, of course, breathing.

Breathing is just a side benefit of MOXIE’s true goal, said Michael Hecht of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the instrument’s principal investigator. Rocket propellant is the heaviest consumable resource that astronauts will need, so being able to produce oxygen at their destination would make the first crewed trip to Mars easier, safer, and cheaper.

“What people typically ask me is whether MOXIE is being developed so astronauts have something to breathe,” Hecht said. “But rockets breathe hundreds of times as much oxygen as people.”

Components of MOXIE: An illustration of MOXIE and its components. An air pump pulls in carbon dioxide gas from the Martian atmosphere, which is then regulated and fed to the Solid OXide Electrolyzer (SOXE), where it is electrochemically split to produce pure oxygen. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download image ›

Making Oxygen Requires Heat

Mars’ atmosphere poses a major challenge for human life and rocket propellant production. It’s only 1% as thick as Earth’s atmosphere and is 95% carbon dioxide.

MOXIE pulls in that air with a pump, then uses an electrochemical process to separate two oxygen atoms from each molecule of carbon dioxide, or CO2. AnchorAs the gases flow through the system, they are analyzed to check how much oxygen has been produced, how pure it is, and how efficiently the system is working. All the gases are vented back into the atmosphere after each experiment is run.

Powering this electrochemical conversion requires a lot of heat – about 1,470 degrees Fahrenheit (800 degrees Celsius). Because of those high temperatures, MOXIE, which is a little larger than a toaster, features a variety of heat-tolerant materials. Special 3D-printed nickel alloy parts help distribute the heat within the instrument, while superlight insulation called aerogel minimizes the power needed to keep it at operating temperatures. The outside of MOXIE is coated in a thin layer of gold, which is an excellent reflector of infrared heat and keeps those blistering temperatures from radiating into other parts of Perseverance.

“MOXIE is designed to make about 6 to 10 grams of oxygen per hour – just about enough for a small dog to breathe,” said Asad Aboobaker, a MOXIE systems engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. “A full-scale system geared to make (propellant for the flight home) would need to scale up oxygen production by about 200 times what MOXIE will create.”

[embedded content]

Could NASA’s MOXIE Help Astronauts Breathe on Mars? MOXIE engineer Asad Aboobaker of JPL explains how the instrument works in this video interview. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. Download video ›

The Future Martians

Hecht estimates that a full-scale MOXIE system on Mars might be a bit larger than a household stove and weigh around 2,200 pounds (1,000 kilograms) – almost as much as Perseverance itself. Work is ongoing to develop a prototype for one in the near future.

The team expects to run MOXIE about 10 times over the course of one Mars year (two Earth years), allowing them to watch how well it works in varying seasons. The results will inform the design of future oxygen generators.

“The commitment to developing MOXIE shows that NASA is serious about this,” Hecht said. “MOXIE isn’t the complete answer, but it’s a critical piece of it. If successful, it will show that future astronauts can rely on this technology to help get them home safely from Mars.”

More About the Mission

A key objective for Perseverance’s mission on Mars is astrobiology, including the search for signs of ancient microbial life. The rover will characterize the planet’s geology and past climate, pave the way for human exploration of the Red Planet, and be the first mission to collect and cache Martian rock and regolith (broken rock and dust).

Subsequent missions, currently under consideration by NASA in cooperation with ESA (the European Space Agency), would send spacecraft to Mars to collect these cached samples from the surface and return them to Earth for in-depth analysis.

The Mars 2020 mission is part of a larger program that includes missions to the Moon as a way to prepare for human exploration of the Red Planet. Charged with returning astronauts to the Moon by 2024, NASA will establish a sustained human presence on and around the Moon by 2028 through NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration plans.

JPL, which is managed for NASA by Caltech in Pasadena, California, built and manages operations of the Perseverance rover.

For more about Perseverance:

News Media Contacts
Andrew Good
Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.

Alana Johnson / Grey Hautaluoma
NASA Headquarters, Washington
202-672-4780 / 202-358-0668 /

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Many Canadians gaining weight during COVID-19: poll – Medicine Hat News



By Maan Alhmidi, The Canadian Press on November 24, 2020.

People work out at an outdoor gym in downtown Montreal, on Friday, Nov. 6, 2020. A new poll suggests many Canadians are gaining weight because they’re eating more and exercising less during COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

OTTAWA – A new poll suggests many Canadians are gaining weight because they’re eating more and exercising less during COVID-19 pandemic.

Nearly one-third of respondents in the survey conducted by Leger and the Association for Canadian Studies said they have put on weight since March, compared to 15 per cent who said they lost weight over that time.

As well, about one-third of respondents said they’re exercising less, while 16 per cent said they’re working out more since the first wave of the pandemic landed in Canada in the spring.

Jack Jedwab, president of the Association for Canadian Studies, suggested that one reason may be a rush for comfort food to deal with pandemic-related anxieties.

Respondents in the survey who said they were “very afraid” of COVID-19 were more likely to report gaining weight, eating more and exercising less.

“The more anxiety you have, the more likely it is that you know you’re eating more,” Jedwab said.

“People who are least anxious about COVID (are) the ones that are not eating more than usual and are not gaining weight.”

The online survey of 1,516 Canadians was conducted Oct. 29-31 and cannot be assigned a margin of error because internet-based polls are not considered random samples.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff, an associate professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa, said there are plausible reasons to connect weight gain or loss with the pandemic, but he hadn’t seen any studies to convince him that’s the case.

Some people are “not reliant on restaurants constantly” and “cooking more frequently in their homes,” which Freedhoff said may be leading to weight loss or better dietary choices. Others are eating more, he said, relying on comfort food “because they’re anxious as a consequence of the pandemic, or the tragedies that have gone on in their lives.”

Jedwab said the country needs to also be mindful of mental health issues that can affect the physical health of Canadians.

“With the winter coming, it’ll be even more challenging, in some parts of the country, to maintain a healthy lifestyle in terms of walking, in terms of doing basic things that will help us address our anxieties,” he said, pointing to lack of access for some to gyms subject to local lockdowns.

Some of those exercise classes have gone online. Gabriel Shaw, a kinesiologist from Victoria, B.C. said he has offered virtual classes to give his clients an chance to be physically active.

Shaw said the classes don’t provide people with a sense of community like in-person classes, which he said is important for some people to exercise consistently.

“The best bet for people is to find a way they can enjoy it. That might be going out for a social distance walk or hike or run or bike with a friend,” Shaw said. “That might be finding a Zoom thing that you can get on like dancing or even other activities where you have friends.”

Shaw said people should also try learn a new skill like dancing, yoga, rock climbing, or take up running to keep things fresh and enjoyable, which is key to exercising long and well.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020

– –
This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Facebook and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

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Alberta researcher gets award for COVID-19 mask innovation – CTV News



Salt that crystallizes with sharp edges is the killer ingredient in the development of a reusable mask because any COVID-19 droplets that land on it would be quickly destroyed, says a researcher who is being recognized for her innovation.

Ilaria Rubino, a recent PhD graduate from the department of chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, said a mostly salt and water solution that coats the first or middle layer of the mask would dissolve droplets before they can penetrate the face covering.

As the liquid from the droplets evaporates, the salt crystals grow back as spiky weapons, damaging the bacteria or virus within five minutes, Rubino said.

“We know that after the pathogens are collected in the mask, they can survive. Our goal was to develop a technology that is able to inactivate the pathogens upon contact so that we can make the mask as effective as possible.”

Rubino, who collaborated with a researcher at Georgia State University in Atlanta to advance the project she started five years ago, was recognized Tuesday with an innovation award from Mitacs. The Canadian not-for-profit organization receives funding from the federal government, most provinces and Yukon to honour researchers from academic institutions.

The reusable, non-washable mask is made of a type of polypropylene, a plastic used in surgical masks, and could be safely worn and handled multiple times without being decontaminated, Rubino said.

The idea is to replace surgical masks often worn by health-care workers who must dispose of them in a few hours, she said, adding the technology could potentially be used for N-95 respirators.

The salt-coated mask is expected to be available commercially next year after regulatory approval. It could also be used to stop the spread of other infectious illnesses, such as influenza, Rubino said.

Dr. Catherine Clase, an epidemiologist and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, said the “exciting” technology would have multiple benefits.

Clase, who is a member of the Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials in the engineering department at McMaster, said there wasn’t much research in personal protective equipment when Rubino began her work.

“It’s going to decrease the footprint for making and distributing and then disposing of every mask,” she said, adding that the mask could also address any supply issues.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recently recommended homemade masks consist of at least three layers, with a middle, removable layer constructed from a non-woven, washable polypropylene fabric to improve filtration.

Conor Ruzycki, an aerosol scientist in the University of Alberta’s mechanical engineering department, said Rubino’s innovation adds to more recent research on masks as COVID-19 cases rise and shortages of face coverings in the health-care system could again become a problem.

Ruzycki, who works in a lab to evaluate infiltration efficiencies of different materials for masks and respirators, is also a member of a physician-led Alberta group Masks4Canada, which is calling for stricter pandemic measures, including a provincewide policy on mandatory masks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 24, 2020

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