When you’re colonizing a planet millions of miles from home, comfort food is key.
Thankfully, Washington State University scientists developed a way to triple the shelf life of ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese.
The development, described in a paper published by the journal Food and Bioprocess Technology, could keep pre-prepared meals safe and edible for up to three years.
Plastic packaging currently provides a 12-month buffer for food stored at room temperature. (But does the environment no favors.)
The trip to Mars itself takes about seven months. Which means even if humans never stepped foot on the Red Planet, they’d run out of edibles before returning to Earth.
“We need a better barrier to keep oxygen away from the food and provide longer shelf life similar to aluminum foil and plastic laminate pouches,” WSU professor and study co-author Shyam Sablani said in a statement.
“We’ve always been thinking of developing a product that can go to Mars, but with technology that can also benefit consumers here on Earth,” he added.
Researchers are working with the U.S. Army to improve “Meals Ready to Eat” (MREs), helping to make them appetizing and healthy for longer.
During taste panels conducted by the Army, three-year-old mac and cheese was deemed just as good as the previous version, which was stored for nine months.
The food itself is purified in plastic (with a metal oxide layer for increased longevity) using a microwave-assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) system developed by WSU’s Juming Tang.
These new MREs will be tested under field conditions—stored longer then sent to deployed soldiers.
“If they like the taste of the packaged food there, then that’s the ultimate test of new films,” Sablani said.
It is admittedly more challenging to field-test for space travel. But Sablani & Co. hope to meet with NASA to discuss trialing their packaged food—perhaps on the International Space Station.
NASA will require storage of up to five years. The team is aging other recipes that will be tasted once they reach the half-decade mark (which takes only nine months in WSU’s 100 °F incubator, which rapidly speeds up food quality changes).
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