Can astronauts live two years eating such “space-grown” foods as Hatch chili peppers?
`That’s the question NASA is asking.
254 miles over your head, astronauts are eating tacos made from fajita beef, rehydrated tomatoes, artichokes and . . . Hatch chili peppers – which Megan McArthur declared, “my best space tacos yet.”
Unlike the rest of the taco ingredients, those peppers were grown on the International Space Station itself, not imported from the ground. NASA believes astronauts will not survive long voyages without fresh foods. Fresh foods brought up from Earth won’t last long – and there are no supermarkets anywhere else in the cosmos. So they’ll have to grow their own.
The team picked 48 red and green peppers grown on board the ISS from seedlings that arrived June 5. Because some of the plants flowered, the crew is fertilizing more of them.
Although you wouldn’t know it from the recent publicity, astronauts have been growing plants in space stations since 1982. Russian cosmonauts began growing food plants in 2003. Americans began doing so in 2015. The ISS has been a garden spot for lettuce, peas, radish, Swiss chard, and Chinese cabbage.
However, chili peppers are the first flowering food plants grown in orbit. Obviously, NASA wants to learn how to maintain a self-sustaining food supply for future astronauts. It estimates the trip to and from Mars will last two years.
Also, the chili pepper plants have a short growing season, and they thrive at high altitudes.
Why Chili Peppers?
NASA said astronauts have been asking for tastier food, but hot peppers are a minority taste, at least in the United States.
What NASA no doubt found out: chili peppers are extremely nutritious.
Chili peppers contain far more Vitamin C per volume than oranges. Plus, they’re loaded with Vitamin B6, potassium, Vitamin K1, beta carotene and magnesium.
Processed foods tend to contain lots of sodium to preserve the foods and give them flavor, so NASA may realize travelers to Mars will need plenty of potassium to balance the sodium contained in their prepackaged meals.
This balance of electrolytes will no doubt help the astronauts maintain a healthy blood pressure even as they undergo a long, stressful trip.
Magnesium is essential for many biochemical reactions throughout the body. Plus, it calms your nerves, helping you to feel relaxed and go to sleep easily. It’s also required for bowel regularity, which is why so many laxatives contain it. Astronauts will presumably need help with regularity when they spend lots of time in a zero-g environment.
Hearts needs magnesium for good health. After all, astronauts have to undergo the brutal force of taking off – and then many months when their hearts have it TOO easy. Without constant gravity, their bodies may want to rob their hearts of vital nutrition.
Chili peppers also contain Vitamin K1, which is essential for good blood clotting. Hopefully, no astronauts will be hurt – blood would be terrible in the enclosed environment of a space ship. But they could suffer from internal bleeding. Also, Vitamin K1 converts to Vitamin K2, which will help keep their bones well mineralized and strong despite the zero-g environment.
A key part of our long-term survival in outer space will be learning how to keep our bodies functioning as though they are still experiencing constant gravity. If you don’t use it, you lose it – and, without gravity, our bodies will try to adjust to weightlessness.
And those of us down here on Planet Earth also need all those ingredients for optimal health.
The Most Obvious Nutrient in Chili Peppers
Of course – capsaicin.
That’s the “hot” in hot peppers. It’s what burns your mouth.
Although it may not seem like it when you’re not used to eating spicy hot peppers, capsaicin actually relieves pain. It binds with pain receptors, desensitizing them over time. This is helpful for people with heartburn.
Capsaicin is an anti-inflammatory. That means it lowers pain, itching and irritation. Many people take it orally or apply a capsaicin cream to painful, arthritic joints.
Capsaicin also speeds up your metabolism, making you feel warm. That feeling is not an illusion. Capsaicin activates TRPV1, which may reduce your appetite and help you burn more fat.
This may also be part of NASA’s strategies to make sure the bodies of the astronauts do not slow down in response to a constant, near-zero-g environment.
How You Too Can Benefit from Chili Peppers
Obviously, the best thing is to eat them.
Like the astronauts on the space station, you can buy small seedlings in the spring, then plant them – and eat your harvest.
You can buy many varieties of chili peppers at your local supermarket. For more variety, check out your local Asian food store for small red chilis and your local Mexican or Hispanic market for big green jalapenos.
You won’t always want to eat them fresh. You can buy bottles of dry, crushed red peppers. American and international food stores carry large amounts of hot sauces from Thailand, Mexico and other places where people like to eat spicy.
Be careful. If you’re not already a fan of hot peppers, start out very very small – and work your way up.
If you think Taco Bell’s Fire sauce is actually “fiery,” start out very small and work your way up to real hot flavors.
However, not everybody enjoys capsaicin, even at tiny doses. If you don’t, go ahead and take hot peppers in the form of supplements – the crushed dried peppers jammed into capsules.
Even so, be careful. Take them with food, not on an empty stomach.
For those of us who enjoy hot spices, chili peppers make us feel heavenly, even if we’re not on a trip to Mars.