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Taste buds dull in space and we do not know why!

I just thought I would mention this as a conversation starter. As you can probably tell my biomedical engineering daughter is home and while I ask her to do the mundane things like change the laundry and load the dishwasher she keeps me updated on the role of fruit flies and how they are helping science decide proper diet, nutrition and food production for that trip to Mars I have on my bucket list.

Nutrition in Space
Robin Rood

But before we pack, science has to figure out how to manage our food supply. A few considerations include delivery, storage safety, transport, production, intact nutrient values and presentation all while keeping our food tasty so we don’t starve to death on the journey. I view it as when our family went on a Mediterranean cruise and we had that “out of our home element” feeling which is exciting at first, but then after some time, you are not hungry anymore and you just want home cooked foods. Well, traveling to Mars is far and unless teleporting is invented pretty soon, keeping humans whole is the real problem in space travel. There are many aspects to talk about and to solve but let’s start with this one-taste.

Our taste buds provide for us entry into the world of deliciousness, by way of food, via papillae or “bumps with sensors”, which are embedded in the tongue and act as our navigators. These “rough spots” connect with the nervous system and speak to our brain to help us decide whether what we have just tasted is yummy, and to eat more of it, or never try again, if it didn’t poison us first. The tongue network is both safety mechanism and appetite stimulator. It transcends all species, in some form or another, in the animal and insect kingdom.

Taste buds are attached to a piece of muscle in the mouth called the tongue which is attached to the back of the throat, in humans, and other animal species. When mixed with saliva and food, the action produces a variety of sensations including salty, sweet, sour, savory and bitter. It can also distinguish temperature and fat. It communicates directly to the brain the feeling of satiety, and it has physical power used to suck, push and churn foods, as well as coordination with the voice box and teeth to communicate sound and speech.

We know illness and chemicals can aggravate the taste buds to perform poorly here on earth but what happens when astronauts live in space. In a zero or reduced gravity environment can the mechanics still be counted on to perform as they do on earth? Are there long term effects on taste and satiety? If I take that trip to Mars and I lose my appetite because food just does not taste good will I stop eating and starve? Perhaps the science behind processed foods has a place here because of all the research done on bliss points and sugar, salt and fat.

What about nutrients and food safety from bacteria? The nutritional value of food stored for a long journey can degrade over time and nutrients lose their potency. Another thing to consider is that the food you eat must be digested and emptied, recently, it was discovered that the bacteria that causes urinary tract infections, p aeruginosa, can survive in space. An experiment was performed where this particular bacteria was sent up to space living in urine and then brought back and compared with its non-traveled counterpart. It was found that this particular bacteria living in space accommodated to its environment and lived despite its reduced nutrient availability.

Not good news for humans traveling to Mars, one exposure to this bacteria and there may be few options for treatment. No point in taking off for Mars just to get sick on the food I brought with me. We have a hard enough time keeping bacterial infestation out of our food supply here on earth. Eventually there will be answers to all these problems or perhaps life on Mars is never going to happen as it does here on Earth. But I am an optimist and if the bacteria can adjust to a new environment in space to survive then perhaps my taste buds will too.

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