Anyone who has taken a long plane trip will know that the food on board tastes different. Therefore, it is not entirely surprising that in space the same thing happens multiplied by a thousand. In fact, some astronauts as Peggy Whitson have acknowledged having had a bad time during their stay in the International Space Station checking that the taste of some of your favorite foods it was unbearable. Is this because the foods themselves are changed or because there are changes in the sense of taste of space travelers?
This is something that is not known for sure. There are several suspicions, which point in both directions. On the one hand, it is thought that the taste of food can be modified throughout the time spent in storage. But, on the other hand, it may be related to the congestion caused by the fluid buildup in the head because of microgravity. The result would be similar to that produced by nasal congestion when we have colds and, effectively, our sense of taste goes on vacation.
One wonders if it would be easy to solve this loss of food flavor. But the truth is that there is no clear answer. And it is that, to begin with, it is something that does not happen to all astronauts equally. Some feel that their favorite foods have a Unpleasant taste, others enjoy foods that they never liked, but those belonging to a last group do not experience any difference. Solving something that seems so personal is not easy, although some projects have already been launched to try.
Change of taste or alteration of taste?
A good way to know why the sense of taste in space is altered is to compare the situation with what happens on airplanes
To begin with, it is known that very intense and continuous noises can affect the sense of taste. Although our brain may adapt to the noise of the engines after a while, it is undeniable that it is quite loud and annoying. That is why there are changes in our way of tasting food. This includes the suppression of some flavors and the stimulation of others, especially those related to the umami. That is why airplane menus tend to be well loaded with monosodium glutamate, a substance that is related precisely to that recently discovered flavor.
On the other hand, the low temperatures in the aircraft cabin they can make us congested. When we are congested we do not perceive flavors in the same way, so we also feel that food tastes differently.
Does the same thing happen in International Space Station? Well, the truth is that the ambient sound there is also quite intense. Just look at the footage taken by astronaut Chris Hadfield in 2012.
As for the temperature, it is usually kept around 20°C or a little higher. It is not too low, nor is it hot. It can be considered nice. But there is something that congests astronauts. And it is that, due to microgravity, body fluids tend to concentrate in the Upper part of the body. I mean, in the head. This creates a congestion similar to that of cold, which could affect the way the flavor is perceived.
Food exchange between astronauts
Generally, astronauts decide on their menus in advance, before traveling to the International Space Station. Most tend to choose their favorite foods so they don’t forget them the whole time they are away from home.
That was precisely what Peggy Whitson did, who selected in her menus abundant and regular portions of shrimp. On Earth he loves these crustaceans. However, when he tasted them in space he discovered that her taste, at least to her, was very different. What would she do then with all the ones she had ordered to go?
Fortunately, according to NASA, some of the cosmonauts who traveled with her loved these crustaceans just as they knew them on the International Space Station. That’s why, They exchanged some food with her.
That is a good option. However, it is also true that NASA has been trying for some time to improve the taste of food eaten in space. For this reason, it has launched projects such as “Green Kitchen”, a program aimed at high school students who, together with scientists from the Kennedy Space Center, worked to cultivate plants whose fruits had a more intense flavor. They did it in collaboration with the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardenfrom Florida, where they grew their plants following the same protocols used in space.
This happened in 2017 and it was a very stimulating experience for the students. Though astronauts are still waiting for the perfect option. It is true that the growing conditions have been improved, which has made it possible to obtain some foods, such as hot peppers, right there. These would have the advantage of not having been cultivated for a long time. In addition, its intense flavor would overcome the barriers established by the sense of taste of some astronauts. But there are still challenges. There is still room for surprises when one of these space travelers tastes his favorite food outside of Earth for the first time. It’s a strange feeling. Still, given how inhospitable space can be, they aren’t too worrying surprises.