«Because on EARTH you have all the SPACE you need»
ReadyToLunch by Argotech
In our collective imaginations, scientific research and innovation in the aerospace field may seem like something profoundly removed from everyday life. That couldn’t be more wrong, however, because the studies carried out in extreme conditions and tested ten thousand light years away are what have helped us cure certain degenerative diseases on earth, or innovate entire production sectors, or relearn how to eat healthily even when we’re pressed for time. This is why the ReadyToLunch project was born, which sells the foods consumed in the International Space Station right here on earth. We went to have a chat with Paola Cane, Food Commercialization Manager of Argotec, who worked on the project.
At the food innovation summit Seeds&Chips, there was a lot of talk about new foods like algae and insects. ReadyToLunch seems to buck the trend: it arose from research carried out ten thousand light years away, and ties in with traditional cooking on earth. What can you tell us?
That’s exactly right. With Paolo Nespoli, the next astronaut who will fly to the International Space Station, we revamped lasagna using wholegrain flour. For us, tradition and innovation go together, and that’s why we created ReadyToLunch, the brand selling astronaut food to regular people with everyday nutritional needs. Or “terrestrials” as we like to call them. For example, we think of students who don’t have much time for lunch, or businesspeople with packed schedules who have lunch at their desks: these people don’t have time to make healthy, balanced meals, and this is where our product comes in.
So they’re healthy, organic foods, but what specifically do you have on the market?
We’re offering a range of all-in-one meals. We have a quinoa salad with mackerel and vegetables (a favorite of Samantha Cristoforetti), whole grain rice with chicken and vegetables, or orzo and shrimp with a zucchini and lime pesto. We also have more refined meals like sorghum with beef, arugula and cherry tomatoes; or spelt with salmon, dill and asparagus. Then we have a line of snacks, which uses ingredients like cereals, spirulina and goji berries.
You mentioned healthy, balanced all-in-one meals, but this doesn’t sound like a new idea. Let’s take a step back so you can tell us how it all started…
ReadyToLunch was set up in 2014 for the Salone del Gusto exhibition in Turin, but really, research into food in space began in 2010 within an aerospace engineering company called Argotec, also in Turin. The actual idea arose during a training session for astronauts in Cologne, Germany, following the all-in-one meal model from Harvard School of Public Health: one quarter protein, one quarter carbohydrates, and one half vegetables.
So we’re talking about a healthy meal made with only fresh ingredients, but that can last for up to 2 years without refrigeration. How is that possible?
The secret is in the packaging. Inside are all natural and organic ingredients, without any chemical additives or preservatives of any kind. What enables ReadyToLunch meals to last for 24 months at room temperature is the package we put it in. It’s made from extremely flexible, light aluminum that’s durable and portable. To allow for all that, we use thermostabilization – the process of balancing time, temperature and pressure to kill bacteria and create a stable, safe and hygienic product. In simple terms, we try to lower the temperature to preserve the nutritional profile of the ingredients, and research the natural raw materials extensively.
Do some ingredients work better than others in this process?
Yes, absolutely. For example, we use cinnamon in our fruit smoothie because it has antimicrobial properties. Turmeric and cherry tomatoes both have acidic components that help with preservation. We try to take advantage of each ingredient’s characteristics to help our products keep better.
It almost looks like a liquid because it takes up so little space. But when you touch it you can feel the ingredients in it. Why is that?
It’s really important that the original textures, colors and flavors of all the ingredients are easily recognizable, because a healthy and balanced meal can’t overlook taste. You won’t get people to eat a super innovative food if it doesn’t taste good. That’s why we try to blend Italian culinary expertise with innovation, and preserve the sensory experience of the food.
It’s clear you’ve put a lot of thought into the ingredients, as well as creating packaging for long-term storage without refrigeration. But in practice, how does someone eat a ready-made meal like this?
They’re easy to carry in your bag or backpack, and while it’s better to empty the contents out onto a plate – presentation matters too – you can also eat it directly from the package. That’s why they’re great not only for students and office workers, but also in more extreme conditions. For example, they’re great for sport: from long cycle trips, to mountain climbing to sailing on the open sea or ocean. ReadyToLunch is the answer to all earthly needs in regards to food.
It’s a truly fascinating product, but how can something designed for outer space be useful for people on earth?
It was fundamental to make these outer space products available to “terrestrials” in order to respond to everyday food needs that weren’t being met yet. For example, the lack of gravity in space has negative effects on the human body: in 6 months in space, muscle atrophy, reduced bone tissue and cell aging will be as severe as in 10 years on earth. Working with doctors and nutritionists, we developed foods with antioxidants, antiaging and anti-inflammatory properties. These then turned out to be useful down on earth as well. Another phenomenon is the redistribution of liquids: in space, they tend to accumulate in the upper body, resulting in congestion typical of a cold, and this alters scents and flavors. Studying taste in these extreme conditions helped us to better understand alterations in the perception of flavors, which also happens in some medical treatments on earth including chemotherapy. Research in space using innovative technology and targeted studies has helped us find increasingly effective solutions for the types of common problems that are constantly growing on our planet.