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Do Astronauts Get Food Poisoning?

Posted in Our Blog on August 8, 2018

As a child I was obsessed with outer space and astronauts. I remember a disc program (yes, I am THAT old) for our old IBM computer that literally held the secrets to everything astronaut and space related. I remember quoting the disc and craving to know more.

Recently in an online forum, a question was posed asking if astronauts get food poisoning. This made my mind wander to places where it really shouldn’t have because let’s face it– food poisoning is pretty gross. Could you imagine having food poisoning when your feet are not even on the Earth’s soil?

I went right to the NASA website to find out information on this and, while food poisoning itself was not mentioned, I found a lot of information on what astronauts eat and the negative effects on the body from being in space.

Astronauts eat a very basic diet; think baby food. Their foods are often in tubes like toothpaste. This type of outer space diet goes back to John Glenn who ate applesauce from an aluminum tube in 1962 and squeezed the tube into his mouth. As the years progressed, the diets of astronauts did as well and freeze dried diets became more of a staple. Things have truly changed from the John Glenn days because now astronauts have the ability to have a kitchen — that includes an oven and hot water. They also have the ability to use condiments and liquid salt and pepper to prevent the grains from floating away into space.

Time spent in space can cause digestive issues due to the loss of “good bacteria” in the stomach which some people refer to now as gut health, and they are now using more and more probiotics to help keep the delicate balance.

Can Freeze Dried Foods Cause Food Poisoning?

Freeze drying is not only just popular in space, but allows people who like to take long hikes or spend days outdoors to have readily available foods. Go Ask Alice from Columbia University covered this topic, and I learned a lot.

  • Freeze dried foods remove 98% of the liquid in fruits and veggies.
  • The process of freeze drying prevents food from spoiling while allowing the foods to maintain their flavor and texture. You also maintain the nutritional value from this process compared to others.
  • Some freeze dried foods can last YEARS.
  • Freeze drying involves chemicals and the foods that astronauts eat are freeze dried using FDA approved chemicals. Beware, as a citizen if you are purchasing freeze dried foods to know what is inside your packages.While regulated, be aware that, if you are sensitive to sulfites, you may have some adverse effects.
  • Did you know that freeze dried foods can contain more calories than before this process?  If one cup of a particular fresh fruit is 100 calories, when you freeze dry that same amount of fruit it will shrink in size. So, one cup of freeze-dried fruit will contain more pieces of fruit than one cup of fresh fruit. This translates to more calories.

The moral of this story is this: bacteria loves water, but they also love time and obviously it loves food. If water is added to freeze dried foods and is left to kinda simmer in its own element then bacteria can begin to build. The only time that bacteria does not like to grow is if the freeze dried meal is highly acidic, such as a tomato soup.

The freeze drying process has been around since World War 2 and because of the low moisture content of only 1-4% bacteria and enzymes can’t really survive. Many people compare freeze drying to the popular home canning method, but they are totally different. Freeze drying is not something that is done at home and home canning has resulted in botulism because of the amount of moisture and improper canning methods and such a high moisture content.

At the end of the day it seems like while gastrointestinal issues are pretty common in space because there is no gravity and things move around so differently in the stomach. Plus, there are issues with vertigo. Food poisoning seems like something that has not happened, and if it has then it has not been discussed.

Delving further into the topic of a sickened stomach while in space: should the astronaut happen to vomit they do have “barf bags” so to speak that have liners inside that allow the astronaut to be able to clean their face. They have zip style bags that prevent the already nasty mess from getting all over the space shuttle since this is the living quarters of the space crew and their home away from home can cost upwards of $100 billion dollars.

Treatment for many other space-related illnesses has come a very long way and telemedicine has been utilized for many things such as prescribing antibiotics which would be on the shuttle just in case. People here on Earth are using some of the same technologies when they are ill and instead of visiting a crowded doctor’s office they are hopping on camera enabled devices and speaking to doctors in real time. Pretty interesting to know we share a lot of the same life skills with astronauts and this makes me happy to know that in some ways I am living my childhood dream (or so I tell myself!)

There is plenty of room for medical advancement while astronauts are learning more and more in space every day, but thankfully food poisoning does not seem like it is a real concern at least for right now. As things progress maybe more information will be given to those of us who are addicted to all things science and love to know more about how things work on the space shuttle and in space. Perhaps one day we will learn of food poisoning on other planets.

Time will tell all, so keep your eyes posted here on MakeFoodSafe.com for more information about how our astronauts dine and how they handle the ideas of bacteria and other contaminants to their environments.

By: Samantha Cooper, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)