Wednesday, October 15, 2008

AFJ in Houston Day One Session Two

"The Future of High Tech Foods" was moderated by Nancy Stohs of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Michele Perchonok of NASA shot down a long held misconception that Tang was designed for NASA. It just happened to fit with NASA's needs and is still in use. They need food to be safe, acceptable (no crumbs in the switches) and use resources carefully. Astronauts usually lose muscle and bone density in flight. The space shuttle astronauts used 4 lbs. of food per person a day. The new Orion spacecraft, which will resemble a bigger Apollo capsule with 4-6 astronauts, will only allow for 2.5 lbs. There's no refrigeration in space so the foods must be shelf stable. They use freeze-dried foods, thermostabilized foods and some existing dried foods repackaged in vacuum sealed packaging. The astronauts find the foods are not as flavorful mostly because microgravity reduces smell conveyance. Also, the food is not piping hot. And, the astronauts are congested and swollen, leading to a phenomenon known as "Charlie Brown face." Plus, they are stressed by being away from the familiar. One astronaut never eats mac and cheese at home but craves it in orbit. Water is an issue due to weight and storage but recycling even of urine for longer missions, will become standard. As Perchonok pointed out, "We recycle urine on Earth, it's just someone else's urine."

Gene Lester, a research plant physiologist from the USDA, presented a handout on comparing studies of nutrients of organic vs. conventional foods. Some of the studies he went over in his handout were not statistically significant, and there was only a minor different between the types if the soil profile was comparable. He also talked about additional funding being available from the new Farm Bill for the next five years to research food crops more thoroughly.
Quote of the day: "We know more about outer space than what's going on six inches under the soil where most of our food comes from."

Marcia Walker, vice president technology and microbiology with Fresherized Foods, talked about ultra-high pressure food processing as a way to eliminate pathogens in raw produce. They produce Wholly Guacamole, which has an average shelf life of 30 days compared to chemically stabilized guac of 7-10 days. The pressure is about 100,000 psi compared to 60,000 psi at the deepest depths of the ocean. The machinery costs about $1.8 million and can process 215 liters per batch. There's a new, larger machine that can hold 350 liters. The capacity depends on the packaging. Hormel is using the technology for sliced deli-style meats and it's shown some promise with salsa.

This was a fascinating session and it was nice not to hear anything about molecular gastronomy. Any other attendees who remember more about the Q&A feel free to comment. I really needed an apple.

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