“The most popular meal on board the ISS is shrimp cocktail”
An interview with Prof Martina Heer, Professor of Nutritional Science at IUBH and leading expert on space food.
What sparked your enthusiasm for outer space? As a kid, did you want to grow up to become an astronaut?
Prof Martina Heer: No, actually it happened by accident. As a student assistant in the Department of Underwater Medicine at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) I provided the volunteers who were doing deep-diving experiments with the right diets to keep them healthy. I then had an opportunity to work on an analogue study that looks at physiological changes in outer space. It simulates, here on earth, the effects of being in space. So, that is what sparked my enthusiasm.
What does space food for astronauts look like? One often imagines it as liquid food.
Heer: The meals are prepared as similar as possible to meals we eat on earth. We have, for example, scrambled eggs and ratatouille, and in total over 600 different products. However, the most popular product on board the ISS space station is shrimp cocktail. In space, all food tastes as if you have a cold. Since your taste buds are dulled, you prefer spicy foods.
What else is important about food in outer space?
Heer: It is especially important that the food is free of germs. It would be terrible if a mission had to be aborted because an astronaut had food poisoning. For this reason, food is freeze-dried or canned. In addition, food needs to be supplemented with vitamin D, and one needs to make sure there is not be too much iron in the food. Metabolism works a bit differently up there due to the environmental conditions.
Does the nutritional science programme at IUBH address space food?
Heer: I think it will come up mainly in project work, bachelor theses and advanced courses. Space research does not only benefit the few astronauts who travel in space. We also use zero gravity to better understand and treat physiological processes on earth.
What is exciting about the nutritional science programme at IUBH?
Heer: We teach our students everything that is currently relevant in the field of nutritional science and this gives them an outstanding preparation for starting their career. The focus is on quality management and nutritional consulting.
During their studies, our students acquire the knowledge needed to qualify for the certification programme at the German Society for Nutrition (DGE) to become a certified nutritional consultant. No additional courses need to be taken to qualify, regardless of which area they chose to focus on. This keeps all options open to them if they want to re-orient themselves later.
Healthy food is currently trendy. How has the field of nutritional science changed over time?
Heer: The subject area is now more highly regarded than when I was a student. The issue of nutrition for certain sectors of the population, especially the elderly, is becoming increasingly pertinent. Related to this are topics such as allergies and food intolerances. Since populations around the world are getting increasingly older, until 2030, the World Health Organisation (WHO) plans to investigate healthy aging. The focus is on keeping people healthy and fit for as long as possible. In order to pursue this research the WHO has now also collaborated with the European Space Agency (ESA). In addition, universities are now involved with the nutritional trends propagated in the lay press, on blogs and by influencers.
Who is a good candidate for the degree programme?
Heer: There is more natural science content than one might think. Therefore, one should have an interest in natural sciences and medicine. Aside from that, suitability depends on what area one wants to work in later. For nutritional consultancy, communication skills are important, for quality management one definitely needs to like documents.