Thinking Unconstrained

Examining the world with a critical eye. Topics span a wide range including but not limited to, observations, insights, problems, solutions, proposals, and hypothetical scenarios.
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By G.I. Bergstein
I've heard said that when performing a study on what life would be like on extraterrestrial habitations, one of the most important aspect facing the inhabitants was the lack of fresh foods. This got me thinking that hydroponics would be important in such settings. The conclusion isn't groundbreaking as we've seen plenty of indoor growth facilities for colonies, space stations and exploration vessels in science fictions to convince us that it would be quite normal if such places existed.

But what about meat and sources of protein? The storage requirements and the complexities of obtaining fresh supplies of jerky and microwavable minced meat would be difficult to say the least. An alternative is to get proteins from legumes and that may be enough for some. Dry beans store well and can be planted if need be in hydroponics systems to produce more, should supplies wane. However there may be nutritional deficiencies in such diets and supplementary forms may be needed. It may also be difficult for non-vegetarians to adopt to this diet and the monotony of eating bean-based meals would be too much for some. Thus protein powders like those derived from whey or soy can be used, and they can even be fortified as necessary similar to how it is done for wheat flour and rice. Since powders store well and since other dried carbohydrates would need to be brought in as supplies in these hypothetical facilities, I would expect protein powders can also be provided as one of the main staple food sources. But how do you eat it?

In its most basic form, one adds water and down the hatch it goes. Or add to other sources of food containing water, and let it dissolve and become a part of the meal. Neither of these options are what one would call an appetizing cuisine. In another ideal setting, the protein powder would be prepackaged into a consumable form such as that of an energy bar or part of a processed microwavable food. If that option isn't available (for whatever reason in a myriad of potential isolated habitations) then you're still left with the powder to consume in some way. I would expect that some people will be forced to come up with recipes to improve this process. How would one go about doing this?

With flour, one adds water and a rising agent to create a dough. This is then cooked typically in an oven to create a basic bread. Surely something similar can be done with the protein powder. It may be that the powder can be added directly into the dough to make a protein-bread, although that might create a sawdust consistency if the powder isn't fully dissolved. The bread may not stay together either and may crumble easily. Conversely it may make the bread sticky and not very appetizing. Rather than applying the powder to existing foods, it should be possible to use it as the central food ingredient in unique dishes. Consider a protein powder that can be baked similar to bread. One adds water, an appetizing agent (let's call it... agent 'R' for rising agent in bread) that you can shape into a dough. With it you can create meat loafs, burgers, sausages and minced meats. This would likely be done similar to how pasta can be made from bread by working the dough to the correct consistency and cutting it into pieces.

I'm sure that the imitation meat industry and processed foods industry have looked and continue to look into similar possibilities. The difference here is that of allowing the end customer to create the food using the given ingredients rather than simply cooking a pre-processed food item. I believe that if we are to seriously consider habitations in isolated places, food storage and semblance of normal human environments will be important and this is a part of enabling that overall vision.
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By Sybilla
When thinking about the logistics of interplanetary or remote site supply chains, bags of powder might have about as enough shelf life as flour or rice, and can be stored more efficiently. It makes sense when you look at fast food chains and how they have migrated to using powdered milk, potato and eggs rather than using fresh ingredients. I wonder however if consuming protein powder would have adverse health effects similar to fast foods. Perhaps if the sugar, fat and chemical contents are low, they won't be so bad. It might be that you can combine these forms of powders to make new dishes and cooking them in various ways will produce something palatable. You might boil one combination and fry another for example.

Other kinds of powdered foods are instant noodles and powdered gravy/soups. They're not exactly high quality staple diets but you can see how varied the flavors can be. Spices can be transported just as easily and should have as long a shelf life as the rest of the powders. I'm sure you can also make curries too if enough oil/ghee (substitutes derived from something else?) is available. Then mix it with cubes of proteins/cheese-flavored-balls and veggies from hydroponics. Hummus is another possibility but it might be easier to just transport chickpeas and grind it to make that. In all these cases, I think oil would be the main factor in making the food edible rather than the different flavors or consistencies. If healthy edible oil can be derived from processes on the remote sites, then that would be preferable to transporting it. Although whether that's feasible or not is a different issue.

Then there are also dried nuts and fruits that last quite a while and store well. Making nut roasts using these is a good substitute for meats, and they can be be served with instant mashed potatoes and hydroponic veggies. No protein powders needed here. But then again, you might be able to add some to "fortify" it with extra protein and perhaps vitamins/minerals since that will likely be an issue too.
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By Candideto
A traditional oven might not be available in these remote sites, but a microwave oven is likely to be present. So any proposed recipe should first be targeted using a microwave oven. Pressure cooking is another likely possibility and perhaps other non-thermal/open-flame heating mechanisms such as induction cooking might also be available. These kinds of cooking methods are precise and predictable, and it is possible to have a system that can be programmed to carry out specific combinations to make meals without human intervention. As for ingredients, water is essential and at least a little bit of oil is needed to maintain a healthy diet. Whether there would be enough oil and the means to allow frying in these remote settings is not something that we can make a clear judgement on. But indeed oil would be needed to improve the palatability of foods. A cargo shipment would need to bring in supplies of water, oil, and the various food items, all of which should last for at least 12 months. Hopefully the fresh water problem would be solved locally either through a reclamation/extraction effort, creation through water reactors/generators, or by utilizing some other local resource specific to the habitat. In any case, fresh water is going to be needed in far larger quantity than anything else that might come in a cargo so it would be best to not have to carry that.

The lack or absence of gravity is another factor to consider as the simple act of ingesting can be a challenge in extraterrestrial conditions and may even incur digestive complications. Maybe this problem can only be overcome by using food tubes rather than plates and bowls as they do on the ISS and space shuttles. One only needs to watch an episode of the Simpsons where Homer performs a zero gravity waltz attempting to eat suspended potato chips to understand the possible ramifications of floating food items. So anything that needs to be consumed in zero gravity needs to be contained and away from any risk prone areas.

There are also plenty of different types of MREs, but these require the foods to be prepared and packaged properly before being sent out. They're the next generation of military foods, seemingly replacing canned goods, and can persist for many years. Perhaps they can be transported better and provide improved nutrition and variety to the isolated habitats. But MREs are not meant to be something that should replace regular meals nor should they be used as such. So my personal take is that MREs should come in cargo supplies along with canned foods, but I also agree that the problem of local food production in isolated environments needs to be solved before a serious consideration of actual long-term habitation can be entertained.
The aforementioned scene in the Simpsons episode ends with Homer crashing his head into an experimental zero gravity ant colony. I don't recall if they specified the reason for having the ant colony in the first place, but this reminded me that ant larvae (and other types of larvae) are eaten in many parts of the world. In fact many non-Western nations have cuisines that utilize insects/bugs. If the "icky factor" can be overcome, it's theoretically possible that we could see insect colonies in remote settings as part of a sustainable source of protein. The farms may also serve other purposes depending on the situation.

While the thought of eating insects or other creepy crawly critters is not an appetizing thought to many people, dried powdered forms may be more approachable as they're similar in concept to protein powders derived from whey or soy. The difference being that the insect variants may be more conducive to a sustainable ecosystem and small operations. It's reasonable to expect that eliminating the need for cargo in preference to local production would make sense in isolated places. For example, a small-scale mealworms farm can be kept indefinitely by feeding the worms vegetable kitchen scraps and grains. They don't need much space, light, or effort to operate, and surely automation can make the entire setup very easy to manage. Dry roasting the mealworms and grinding them would then produce the protein powders, which can be prepared and consumed in a similar way to the proposal in the original post.

Additionally, the mealworms can double as feed for other larger animals such as reptiles, fish and birds. Hence it's possible to have fresh eggs and white meat, if circumstances in those facilities allow them. Having a readily available source of eggs would greatly enrich the diets of these would-be inhabitants. They're versatile and have many applications, even outside of culinary fields, although using eggs outside of the kitchen may not be hygienic or even necessary if the colony is well stocked. But it does provide a back-up alternative in difficult situations. Aside from eggs, eating the larger animals fed on mealworms (and other kitchen scraps) is also an option, although I would hope that that would not be necessary in most circumstances. It's likely that attachments and bonds to other living creatures would be even more pronounced in isolated environments and the prospect of eating something akin to a pet would be morally offensive to many sensitive people.