Microencapsulation research sets sights on extending nutrition in space

By Asia Sherman contact

- Last updated on GMT

© cokada / Getty Images
© cokada / Getty Images

Related tags: Space exploration, microencapsulation, omega 3 fatty acids, NASA

Researchers from the University of British Columbia (UBC) are working to improve the shelf life of omega-3 fatty acids to fortify foods for longer missions to space.

“When we looked closely at the challenges surrounding food in space, the first thing that became apparent and a bit startling when considering the mission to Mars is that even if we had the rocket, the landing and the equipment in place, we still couldn’t go now because we don’t have food that can get us there and back,”​ said John Frostad, Ph.D., assistant professor in chemical and biological engineering at UBC.

Dr. Frostad and his team are applying interfacial and food science expertise to extend the two-year shelf life of flaxseed oil to up to seven years through microencapsulation technology.

Microencapsulation: A giant leap for space nutrition?

As the human body cannot produce omega-3s naturally, they must be consumed in foods like fish and flaxseed or often through dietary supplements to reach recommended daily dosage. The polyunsaturated fats are considered essential to cardiovascular and nervous system health, and NASA-sponsored studies have shown that omega-3s found in fish oil may also counteract the negative effects​ of spaceflight on bone, muscle and immune function and potentially radiation.

“For astronauts and others on space missions, the difficult part is ensuring that omega-3 stays fresh and viable in whatever form—capsules or liquid—it is stored in,”​ Dr. Frostad explained. “We have to create a good barrier to protect from degradation and make something your body can digest.”

In the Frostad lab, the team is exploring embedding omega-3 droplets in quinoa starch that could be blended into smoothies. Another contender is microencapsulation within cellulose nanocrystals to stabilize mixtures of oil and water for use in emulsions. 

“We are just getting off the ground - it’s still in the research phase to prove a technology,”​ Dr. Frostad said. Even if I could give you this powder right now, it’s not the full package. There are all the water-soluble vitamins as well.”

He added that the only real long-term solution is to grow food in space but that achieving shelf-life extension could provide nutritional stores in times of crop shortages.

Making it to Mars and back: Nutrition as fuel

The length of the voyage to Mars and the time waiting for the transfer window to return home could well exceed the current viability of nutrients in food and dietary supplements. Meanwhile, spaceflight has serious effects on the body’s systems that are offset through adequate nutrition and exercise while in orbit.

“Some are more concerning than others - bone and muscle loss, cardiovascular decondition, changes to the eyes and immune system function, to name a few,”​ said Scott Smith, Ph.D., nutritionist and manager for nutritional biochemistry at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. “Cognition, performance and morale can also be affected on long-duration missions, where isolation and distance from Earth is greater.”

Dr. Smith has been working with the Nutritional Biochemistry Lab since 1992 to determine the number of calories, vitamins and nutrients needed to maintain optimum health in space.  One of the biggest challenges is making sure space travelers get enough to eat, particularly since weightlessness is believed to make them feel full prematurely.

“Getting enough calories is a key first step, and generally, all the other nutrients will follow along if they are eating enough,”​ he explained. “We continue to work to understand how the body adapts, how nutrition can best protect astronaut health and to define requirements for longer and longer space missions with more stressors such as radiation exposure that could affect nutrient requirements.”

NASA has defined the nutritional requirements for missions to the space station and the Artemis missions to the moon, but Dr. Smith said that there is more work to be done to define needs for longer stays in space.

“Shelf life is a major issue for a Mars mission, which is still being addressed,”​ he noted. “The team of folks over in the Space Food Systems Lab have the difficult job of developing food systems which meet the requirements we define, while also having to meet the constraints put on them by the space environment.”

Astronauts currently supplement Vitamin D to protect bone mineral density and counteract the lack of sun exposure in space. The Nutritional Biochemistry Lab is also exploring nutritional interventions to address visual impairment identified in some astronauts during and after long-duration spaceflight. 

“We’re about to begin a study to see if B vitamin supplements can override the effect of genetics and mitigate or prevent this from happening in at risk individuals,” ​Dr. Smith added. “While this is more in the realm of ‘personalized nutrition’, it could be a case for nutrition as a targeted countermeasure, and one that might have importance for the general population, too.”

Back on earth

While NASA does not plan to launch astronauts to Mars until the late 2030s or early 2040s, shelf-life extension through microencapsulation may have more imminent practical applications back on earth.

“Increased shelf life has clear advantages for consumers who can safely store food longer as well as grocery stores that can stock products longer,”​ said Dr. Frostad. “The current war in Ukraine has really shaken supply chains for many items, so products with longer shelf lives could help lessen the negative impacts of such events in the future.”

The Frostad research team’s work is funded by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant and developed in collaboration with ingredients manufacturer Ingredion. 

Related topics: Research

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