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Testers wanted: Alaska professor making freeze-dried astronaut salmon

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
flickr / echoforsberg

Among Alaskans, few foods receive as much reverence as the beloved salmon. Now a Kodiak scientist is hoping to take that resource to a place it's never been before -- outer space.

Alex Oliveira, an associate professor in seafood chemistry at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences in Kodiak, will bring some of her freeze-dried salmon to Fairbanks this week, and she's looking for tasters.

Oliveira needs about 150 of them over a three-day period to get a better idea of whether people like her freeze-dried salmon. There will be multiple preparations of the sockeye salmon, donated by Kodiak's Kitoi Bay Hatchery. A variety of natural spices, from brown sugar to garlic and onion, have been used to flavor the fish. Because of the lack of gravity in space, taste buds can often be suppressed, so some of the flavors -- and the level of spicy hotness -- have been punched up a bit.

“It's definitely got a kick,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said the seafood would be perfect for hardworking astronauts in need of a delicious space snack. Not only is the fish tasty, it's nutritious. Sockeye salmon is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, a critical component to good health.

Tasters will get a chance to try fish in both dried and rehydrated forms. The hope is to perfect the recipe so, perhaps in the near future, the fish can be considered for astronauts in space.

Freeze-drying salmon is common for dog food, but as far as Oliveira knows, there are few human applications so far.

To boot, seafood is often missing from most space meals. NASA has very strict standards for what kind of food it sends in to space, and any prospect must undergo rigorous testing to ensure it can handle the challenges of maintaining a long shelf life and avoiding microbial growth.

Oliveira said freeze drying is the best way to maintain a food’s nutritional properties and ensure the food is stable at room temperature without refrigeration.

A bonus: When rehydrated, freeze-dried salmon has properties similar to cooked fish. That's unlike any other kind of fish preservation. The closest is drying, but that ultimately results in a “fish jerky,” Oliveira said.

The food could have more practical applications beyond space food. Oliveira suggested using the fish in products like “Cup O Noodles” or other food products with long shelf lives, like camp meals.

Another suggestion? “As salad topping,” she said. “A healthy alternative for something like bacon bits.”

Oliveira did note that processing the salmon can be expensive. She hasn't done any research yet to determine what the cost of a commercial endeavor might be.

So what does freeze dried salmon taste like? Perhaps just as you think it would.

“Crunchy,” she said. “But it does taste like salmon.”

Interested taste testers can head to the University of Alaska Fairbanks Oct. 15-17 from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the Wood Center conference rooms C and D.

Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com

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