Good News, Future Colonists! Mars Meals May Feature Nutella

And also seafood chowder ... and curried noodles ... and Spam.
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A team member, leaving the dome, ventures out into the "Martian" landscape. (NASA)

On the northern slope of the Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii, on a barren lava field at 8,000 feat above sea level, six researchers have spent the last four months living in a dome. And, when venturing beyond the dome, wearing space suits. And, beyond that, sleeping. And eating. And cooking.

Their task? To simulate what life on Mars might be like for humans -- barren terrain, clothing requirements, and all. Their specific task in all this was to focus on the food: to think about what culinary concoctions might be appropriate for the Mars colonists of the future.

To do this, the researchers -- selected by both the University of Hawaii and Cornell University and funded by NASA -- prepared meals from a pre-determined list of foods: foods that are dehydrated, preserved, un-perishable, and, for all that, generally unpalatable. It was essentially Iron Chef, with the mystery ingredient being Mars. The team's job was to make the food, somehow, enjoyable and interesting -- the better for Mars colonists to combat both the malnutrition and the food boredom that can come with long-haul trips to other planets. They did their cooking in the kitchen area of their two-story, Mars-appropriate dome.

So what did the researchers -- and the people who suggested recipes for them to try out -- come up with? Lots of stuff involving Spam, for one thing, including a Cajun jambalaya and a dish that married the canned meat with curry and fried noodles. A chicken-spinach-enchilada soup, for another. Seafood chowder, for another. And borscht. Freeze-dried fruit, too, they found, was surprisingly similar in taste to fresh produce. As for comfort food -- crucial when it comes to the combating-food-boredom aspect of things -- a universal hit was ... Nutella. "It's something we craved," team commander Angelo Vermeulen told the AP. "We had a limited supply so we had to ration it."

Now that the food-experiment stage is over, the team will now be processing the data gathered from their four-month-long Mars simulation. They're planning to present findings at the International Astronautical Congress in Beijing later this year. In the meantime, though, one data point is clear: Future Mars colonists will likely be missing their access to farmers' markets. One of the first things the team members did when they emerged from their "Martian" habitat, the AP notes, was to have a buffet breakfast. "They went straight to the fruits and vegetables," Kim Binsted, a UH-Manoa associate professor who helped oversee the study, pointed out. "They seemed delighted to have fresh fruits and vegetables."

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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