New research has tripled the shelf-life of a ready-to-eat version.

By Mike Pomranz
September 27, 2019

When putting away the groceries, obviously you want to keep an eye out for perishable foods—which end up in the refrigerator or freezer—versus non-perishable foods—which get thrown into a cupboard until you’re like, “Whoa, this cumin expired in 2007!” But as that jar of cumin reminds us, even non-perishable foods have a shelf-life. And though most of us can find time for a boxed mac ‘n’ cheese dinner before it expires, that might not be the case if you’re traveling to Mars. That’s where Washington State University is here to help.

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Scientists at Washington State recently announced that they have developed a way to triple the shelf-life of plastic-packaged, ready-to-eat mac ‘n’ cheese from one year to three years. And though your first thought might be, That could really cut down on how often I need to restock my apocalypse bunker, these researchers believe this innovation could benefit astronauts, too. “We've always been thinking of developing a product that can go to Mars, but with technology that can also benefit consumers here on Earth,” explained Shyam Sablani, a professor in WSU's Department of Biological Systems Engineering, who mentioned that NASA was familiar with their findings. “We hope to work out a way to test these products on the International Space Station in the future to show that the food is safe after long-term storage.”

As with many scientific breakthroughs, the details can be tough to wrap your head around. Simply put, this research developed a better coating for plastic packaging. “We are excited that an over-layer of organic coating on metal oxide helped protect against microscopic cracks [during the sterilization process]," Sablani was quoted as saying. Who isn’t excited?!

But despite this significant step forward, Washington State’s mac ‘n’ cheese still isn’t 100-percent Mars-ready just yet. For a mission to the Red Planet, NASA will apparently require food that can last in storage for at least five years. (I’m no professor of biological systems engineering, but maybe try another one of those over-layers of organic coating!) In the interim, Sablani said they plan to continue testing out their cheesy pasta with the U.S. Army during deployment: “If they like the taste of the packaged food there, then that's the ultimate test of new films.”

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