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What’s for Dinner on Mars?

Food scientist explores how to keep Mars astronauts well-fed and healthy during extended stay on red planet.

If University of Idaho food scientist Helen Joyner were part of a mining mission to Mars and knew she’d be growing and eating three crops the entire mission, she’d grow potatoes, soybeans and corn.

Deciding which crops to take to Mars is the essence of a case study Joyner and colleague , a Washington State University astrobiologist, prepared for science teachers in October 2015. Joyner is a teacher and researcher in UI’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and based in the School of Food Science, which is operated jointly by UI and WSU.

The case study, “,” presents 12 grains and vegetables and adds fish as potential foodstuffs suitable for production on the red planet. The study was published in 2015 by the National Science Foundation-funded National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science at the University of Buffalo.

The scenario is simple: A mining party of 100 sets out for Mars with enough resources to bring 1,000 acres into cultivation. For the sake of simplicity (and as an academic exercise), the party is limited to three crop choices.

Her choices, she said, were made because potatoes, soybeans and corn can be combined into many combinations for meals. And, when combined, soy and corn produce the complete protein people need to survive. And, depending on the types of materials you have available to process the foods, you can get quite inventive with those ingredients.

All the foods change their flavor significantly when roasted, Joyner said, and altering their texture can also provide a new experience. Potatoes are high in vitamins and minerals, leaving potential space pioneers with few nutritional deficits.

The combinations would hopefully provide “enough variety that you don’t hate eating,” Joyner said.

Potatoes and corn can be processed into sugar. Soybeans can become tofu. Soy powder and water can create almost an egg white-like substance too, Joyner said. Fermented soy makes soy sauce. And fermented potatoes can become vodka.

The exercise creates a lot of dialogue. “If you asked five food scientists, you’d probably get five different answers,” she said.

Article by Savannah Tranchell, University Communications & Marketing

Helen Joyner
Assistant Professor Helen Joyner

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