In 2016, NASA was looking for shelf-stable food to keep astronauts healthy. Dr. Mary Ann Lila, a researcher at North Carolina State University, and her team have developed a way: Nutmeg protein bars.
They [naturally] have a very varied chemical profile, says Lila, director of the North Carolina Institute for Human Health at the North Carolina Research Campus in Kannapolis.
These are the same chemicals that react with [the diseased cells to be modified or treated]. When you eat these grapes to fight chronic human diseases, the same chemicals that protect the plant also protect the human body, says Dr. Lila. Muscatel grapes in particular have a very diverse phytochemical profile, including ellagic acid, which has anticarcinogenic and antihypertensive effects, Lila explains.
Phytochemicals are compounds found in plants that are said to fight diabetes, improve cognitive function and strengthen the immune system.
Astronauts working nearby can easily transmit germs.
According to Lila, Muscadine was a good choice to include in her diet because it supports the immune system.
It was important to offer an effective blend of phytochemicals in ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables.
We’ve merged the edible proteins they need in space with phytochemicals from Muscat grapes, cranberries and blueberries, Lila explains.
The easiest way to combine phytochemicals and proteins would be to put them together. But phytochemicals lose their health benefits when exposed to heat.
Lila’s team therefore combined the compounds with a source of edible protein without heat, so that the nutritional value would not decrease during the mission. The mixed substance acts as a building block, like flour in a bakery.
The team then looked at the stability of the boards. These grates should still be edible, even after months or even years in the room.
We found the protein, Lila says. Any product with a high protein content will become unpleasantly hard or brittle after a month and a half of storage. It’s a problem for long-term missions to Mars. They [need] products that stay flexible and fun for a while.
But the unique properties of nutmeg were the key.
Scientists have found that polyphenols, natural plant chemicals from nutmeg, prevent crosslinking with proteins and ensure that the stems remain good and flexible [during long-term storage], Lila explains.
This has proven useful in other applications as well. We use it for cocktails, Lila says. We use it for fleas. We use it for just about anything you add protein to, but high protein products are usually bars or shakes like those athletes drink.
The study yielded an unexpected by-product.
The protein, which researchers have fused with polyphenol, acts as a protective shield throughout the digestive system. This means that astronauts will benefit more from the Muscadin grape.
Lila doesn’t know yet if the bars have found their way into the room. But their uses on earth are numerous, from sports nutrition to cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
There is great interest in using the active ingredients in the fruit for skin care, wound healing and improving skin elasticity, explains Lila.
As with anything, once your foundation is solid, the possibilities are endless.