Long a dream of futurists and food scientists, nutritional substitutes-whether they be energy bars, diet shakes, or, that old favorite, food pills-have traditionally left a bad taste in the collective taste bud.
Why can’t they make a good food pill? According to Manfred Kroger, Professor of Food Science at Pennsylvania State University, they can. “Theoretically it’s possible,” says Kroger, “but the public looks at food pills as too coercive, too futuristic, too monotonous.”
Besides, food pills, Kroger adds, are already here in different forms: “You could look at vitaminized-mineralized breakfast cereal as eating food pills.” Count Chochula a food pill? If it were only that easy. To get the 2000 kilocalories we need to eat everyday, Kroger explains, would require “a pill of close to a pound.” Now try washing that down with some milk.
Still, it’s unlikely food pills will go away anytime soon. The reason: “technological eating,” as Kroger terms it, “would guarantee almost total food safety.” Furthermore, he adds, “We could augment it with all sorts of pharmaceutical additives, which is a hot subject these days.”
The concept of “technological eating” may be hot but the public perception of synthetic food is not. There is a general resistance to putting alien food stuffs in our bodies (witness the protests of the European community to bio-engineered foods).
The fears associated with fake food were illustrated in classic fashion at the close of the 1970s eco-disaster cult flick Soylent Green when a typically overwrought Charlton Heston realizes the mysterious substance the starving masses have been eating is people.
“Soon they’ll be breeding us like cattle!” Heston begins shouting. “You’ve got to warn everyone and tell them! Soylent green is made of people! You’ve got to tell them! Soylent green is people!”
The first brave souls (aka, guinea pigs) to taste something that resembled food pills were the astronauts. In the early 1960s, NASA contacted several leading food conglomerates hoping to come up with new and innovative ways of feeding astronauts on long-duration space missions.
The result was “food powder”-a nutritionally complete meal of freeze-dried food that was rehydrated in space and consumed through straws. To which astronauts responded: Soylent green is people!
Almost everyone agreed that space food was a pale imitation of the real thing. “The gourmet’s nightmare of a more distant future” as The Wall Street Journal concluded in 1966.
Orbiting the Earth in zero gravity, astronauts faced an unappetizing choice of bite-sized cubes covered with edible gelatin or a semi-liquid food puree squeezed out of a toothpaste-like tube.
What did the astronauts think about the culinary offerings? One headline probably summed it up best: “Space Food Hideous-But It Costs A Lot.”
To avoid the atrocious offerings, a stronaut John W. Young (right) smuggled a corned beef sandwich aboard the five-hour Gemini 3 flight on March 23, 1965. Consumed by mission mate Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, the contraband sandwich resulted in a Congressional investigation and the first official reprimand of an astronaut.
Space food had to improve and it did. By the time Apollo 11’s Neil A. Armstrong and Edwin E. “Buzz” Aldrin, Jr. sat down for the first meal on the moon, they were able to chow down on a spread of hot dogs, bacon squares and canned peaches. Well, it beat beef in a tube.
The public? They wanted to try space food. General Foods, which marketed Tang, was best-positioned to take advantage. Tang had been on every Gemini and Apollo mission and General Foods quickly launched an all-out advertising blitz that ensured Tang would become synonymous with space travel itself.
The space-crazed public found Tang new and exciting (after all, why would anybody want to drink real orange juice?). Actually, Tang wasn’t new-it had been on supermarket shelves since 1959. That mattered little to kids watching the space missions on TV. Tang was the beverage of the gods, and when they demanded it, parents had little choice but to comply.
Tang’s well-publicized splash convinced Pillsbury to get into the space food business as well. NASA had already asked Pillsbury to create an edible food snack which would not break apart and contaminate the delicate environment of a space capsule. Their response was to create a high-protein cereal which made its debut on Scott Carpenter’s five hour Mercury flight on May 24, 1962. The snack proved successful and, several permutations later, an improved version, a chewy “energy stick,” won a place on the historic Apollo 11 moon landing.
Pillsbury used their role on Apollo 11 as a launching pad for a spin-off which they imaginatively dubbed Space Food Sticks. The Tootsie Roll-like candy came in several flavors including caramel, chocolate, malt, mint, orange and the ever-popular peanut butter.
Aficionados will recall that the Space Food Sticks came wrapped in special foil to give them a space age look. The front of each pack featured an illustration of an anonymous astronaut happily chomping on a Space Food Stick. The box clarified the important role the development sticks played “in support of the U.S. Aerospace Program.”
It turns out Pillsbury’s aggressive marketing ruffled a few a feathers in the nation’s capital. One year after Space Food Sticks were introduced, the Bureau of Deceptive Practices undertook an investigation of Pillsbury’s claim they were “ounce for ounce” as nutritious as milk. A document issued by the company in response–available at NASA’s archives-asserted the snacks were “suitable as total food replacement” in the unlikely chance that no other foods were available.
Space food never really caught on. Novelties like Moon Cheeze (right) were fun, but the idea of floating around in zero gravity trying to satiate your appetite on strawberry food cubes was better in theory than the dinner plate.
Eventually, and perhaps inevitably, the brief vogue of space food novelties subsided. Space Food Sticks yielded their cutting-edge status to Pop Rocks and other forms of “techno-candy.”
Freeze-dried meals can be found at camping stores and are sold as souvenirs at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum and other museum gift shops.
As for Tang, it won an unexpected boost in 1998 when Ohio senator John Glenn requested it for his return to space. In 1962, Glenn had been the first American astronaut to perform “eating experiments” in orbit, so his desire for a second round was only natural. After all, if anything was going to quench the thirst of a senior citizen space hero, it had to be Tang.
The next step in food science? It may be “Micro-M.R.E.’s,” meal tablets with enough calories to sustain a soldier in the battlefield for 24 hours. According to Air Force 2025, a study of future military concepts conducted by the Air University at Maxwell Air Force Base, M.R.E.’s are being developed.
Also in the works: transdermal patches that will allow soldiers to feed themselves through their skin. The “transdermal nutrient delivery system” is currently being studied by the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Program.
Photographs (top to bottom): Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA; ©MGM, from the collection of Eric Lefcowitz; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA; from the collection of Ed Finn; Courtesy of NASA; Courtesy of NASA.