Olive Oil May Have an Important Role in Diets of Astronauts

Astronauts often lose weight while in space and complain about the food. Extra virgin olive oil offers key benefits during their journey, researchers say.
Italian Space Agency (ASI)
By Paolo DeAndreis
May. 1, 2023 17:01 UTC

Scientists and an Italian chef work­ing together to design fla­vor­ful and nutri­tional diets for long-range space mis­sions believe olive oil will play a crit­i­cal role.

Space alters fla­vor per­cep­tion,” Marta Del Bianco, a researcher at the Italian Space Agency (ASI), told Olive Oil Times. Food fla­vored with olive oil might prove rel­e­vant for astro­nauts’ nutri­tion and psy­cho­log­i­cal health.”

According to chef Stefano Polato, even com­par­a­tively mod­est alti­tude gains can change how peo­ple per­ceive fla­vor. As you get over 3,000 feet (910 meters), the taste of food starts to change,” he told Olive Oil Times.

See Also:Report Highlights Health Benefits, Disproves Myths Surrounding EVOO

Polato added that the lack of grav­ity means that aro­mas do not accom­pany taste as they do on Earth, mean­ing food might lose some of its organolep­tic appeals. However, adding olive oil may help pre­vent this. Astronauts said they truly enjoyed olive oil,” he said.

Astronauts in space tend to lose a lot of weight and, since the begin­ning of space explo­ration, space agen­cies have worked hard to com­bat such phe­nom­e­non,” Del Bianco added.

The biggest obsta­cle is that the food was mostly dis­gust­ing,” she said. Even after many years of progress, many astro­nauts con­tinue not to eat some of the foods avail­able. But eat­ing is cru­cial for their health dur­ing mis­sions.”

Del Bianco and Polato are work­ing with oth­ers on a research project backed by the European Space Agency (ESA) with the sup­port of ASI, the Italian olive oil pro­ducer asso­ci­a­tion, Unaprol, the Italian Council for Research in Agriculture (CREA) and NASA.

The whole idea relies on show­ing how extra vir­gin olive oil can play a key role in the func­tional nutri­tion of astro­nauts’ diet, given the sig­nif­i­cant need to sus­tain a healthy diet in space,” Nicola Di Noia, Unaprol’s gen­eral direc­tor, told Olive Oil Times.

Collaborating with the farm­ers’ asso­ci­a­tion, Coldiretti, Di Noia and Polato focused on pair­ing tra­di­tional astro­naut food with extra vir­gin olive oil brought by astro­nauts as their bonus food.” Astronauts can bring a lim­ited amount of spe­cialty food to sup­ple­ment the stan­dard diet.

The first thing to keep in mind is that dif­fer­ent extra vir­gin olive oil means dif­fer­ent fla­vors and dif­fer­ent impacts on serv­ings,” Polato said. The four extra vir­gin olive oils selected by astro­nauts as their bonus food were Coratina, Moraiolo, Itrana and Carolea mono­va­ri­etals.

Pairing food and extra vir­gin olive oil is cru­cial,” Polato said. Astronauts were given four lit­tle bot­tles of those extra vir­gin olive oils to add fla­vor to any food of their choice.”


Italian Space Agency (ASI)

Di Noia added that astro­nauts could detect dis­tinct fla­vors cre­ated by com­bin­ing extra vir­gin olive oil with dif­fer­ent types of food, such as rice with prawns, toma­toes and aspara­gus.

While olive oil has been used in the past by astro­nauts, this is the first time that a com­pre­hen­sive study on its use in space is being done.

Previously, astro­nauts brought 50-mil­li­liter bot­tles of extra vir­gin olive oil to the International Space Station dur­ing the Minerva mis­sion in July 2022.

One of the three bot­tles is sent back to Earth every six months for analy­sis. One has already been received and is cur­rently being stud­ied. Another is expected in July, and the third bot­tle should arrive by the end of the year.

Preliminary results on the first bot­tle show that minor alter­ations might have occurred, but those are unlikely to have impacted the health and fla­vor pro­file of the prod­uct.

The sam­ples will allow us to mea­sure poten­tial dif­fer­ences and even­tual alter­ations to the con­tents emerg­ing over time,” Del Bianco said.

Given olive oil’s nutri­tional qual­i­ties and fla­vors, should it show a strong resilience to the space envi­ron­ment, it could eas­ily be cho­sen to accom­pany astro­nauts in many other mis­sions,” includ­ing mis­sions to the moon or Mars, she added.

Del Bianco said any food des­tined for Mars would need to be sent a year before astro­nauts departed for Earth’s near­est neigh­bor, with these stud­ies serv­ing as a pre­lim­i­nary step to see how the food would keep.

Del Bianco expects the absence of grav­ity and cos­mic radi­a­tion to impact the com­po­si­tion of extra vir­gin olive oil dur­ing the 18-month jour­ney.

Radiation has an oxi­dant effect,” she said. Olive oil has antiox­i­dants, which means it is very sen­si­tive to oxi­dant activ­ity.”

The researchers also plan to send unfil­tered olive oil to space to see how the sus­pended water drops behave.


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