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Snacks Are Out of This World

Chapman University students win NASA's food competition with 'Pizza Poppers.'

May 01, 2003|Denise M. Bonilla | Times Staff Writer

It's one small step for pizza lovers, and one giant leap for hungry astronauts.

Five Chapman University food science students won NASA's 2003 food competition for their "Pizza Poppers," a snack food for future space travelers.

The aspiring cooks for the cosmos are Heather Pe, 21, of Placentia; Akua Kwakwa, 25, of Orange; Wan-Lin Chou, 26, of Fullerton; Pei-Chen Chen, 26, of Orange; and Gerrie Adams, 48, of Laguna Niguel. They created the snack as a final project for a product development course.

The prize doesn't include cash, or even a patent on their award winner, but they will get a trip to Chicago in July for the Institute of Food Technologists' annual meeting, and another to Houston in November, to present their treats to scientists at the Johnson Space Center.

"This is over the top," said Chou, a graduate student from Taiwan. "We're still a little in shock over all of it."

The crunchy snack, shaped like a bite-sized pizza slice, comes in three flavors: regular pizza, garlic, and hot and spicy. They are similar in consistency to flavored potato chips, but are baked, making them low in fat.

The students started first on an earthly version, taking their snack from concept to supermarket shelf, with an eye toward developing it for commercial giant ConAgra.

Then they modified the poppers for NASA's third annual competition, whose rules require that entries can be produced on the moon or Mars.

"It's quite a challenge to design a product that could have a market here on Earth and could also meet the criteria for a planetary outpost," said Anuradha Prakash, head of the food science and nutrition department at the university in Orange.

From powders and pastes to potatoes au gratin, space-age cuisine has come a long way. But each new product has to meet several challenges: It cannot contain chemical additives and must use a minimum of water, create little waste and be made with crops that can be grown in space environments. It also has to be crumb-free, leaving no particles to clog sensitive equipment or choke an astronaut.

Working evenings and weekends, the students tweaked their original formula to meet NASA's requirements.

They settled on Okara, a slightly sweet high-protein byproduct of soybean milk, to fold into wheat dough, leaving off seasonings so astronauts could add their own toppings, such as tomatoes and soy cheese.

NASA hopes one day the poppers can be made on the moon and Mars, where they envision astronauts farming and cooking. They are building a biosphere model at the Houston space center, where astronauts would live for more than a year, growing plants and making foods such as the Chapman pizza snacks.

"The idea is to draw from those crops and make something tasty for the astronauts to eat, easy to prepare and also use some waste products," said Tony Pometto, director of NASA's Food Technology Commercial Space Center at Iowa State University.

The competition aims to foster a marriage of commerce and academia that would give birth to foods that benefit both NASA and the public. The previous winning entries have been "Chomp!," a cereal bar developed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and "EZ Crust," a pizza dough from Iowa State.

Pometto said about five schools compete each year. Entries are judged anonymously by commercial foods experts from companies such as Kraft and NASA representatives who put together menus for space flights.

Food that can be eaten in space is limited, particularly in the snack and pizza department, Pometto said. While they do get treats such as candy and crackers, there is nothing similar to potato chips.

"That's what makes [a pizza popper] so unique for a planetary outpost," he said. "And it's very tasty, so it's a great product to add."

ConAgra is interested in taking the idea and fast-tracking a product for earthlings. And with good reason: The students estimated they could sell 3 ounces of poppers for 99 cents, at a 370% profit.

The Chapman program has nine faculty and 45 students. It is one of three in the state and the only one in Southern California to study food processing and its effect on health and nutrition. With more than 1,500 food companies in the region, Prakash has a job placement rate of nearly 100%.

Contest winners, themselves, soon will be looking for employment. In the meantime, they are trying to keep up with home-grown demand for their product, which was a hit with student taste testers.

"We had trouble keeping them around for research because everyone kept eating them," said Kwakwa, a graduate student from Ghana.



Eating out -- way out

Today's astronauts have far greater variety and convenience at mealtime than their early counterparts. How and what space crews have eaten, by mission:

Mercury (1961-63)

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