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NASA has sent a crew of 100 people on Mars to start a colony. The crew was in cryogenic sleep during their trip to save food and water. And after the 6-month journey, they have reached Mars. My question is what crops would be best for growing to feed the crew?

Anything they grow will be grown in a hydroponic garden inside the habitat. What foods could give people the most nutrients and vitamins for the colony?

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Lentils

In hope of dodging a negative vote score, I believe lentils would be a great option. Disclaimer: Most of the following information will be from Wikipedia:

Cultivation

  • Versatile with soil types
  • Versatile with climate (lentils are planted during the winter in some regions)
  • Improves the properties of the soil it grows in, increasing yield of successive planting of "cereal" grans such as barley, wheat, oat, etc. in case your colony gets sick of lentils.
  • Does not need a lot of water (lentils do not tolerate flooding)
  • Annual crop (plant once)

Storage

  • Lentils are a part of the legume family, and when stored in its raw form in a dry environment have a very long, if not infinite shelf life (any excess harvest will not go to waste)

Nutritional Value

They also don't taste bad. A little bland by themselves, but not horrible (personal opinion). Using lentils, however, does have its

Disadvantages

  • Lentils take 80-110 days to grow, according to this website
  • Need to use water to cook them
  • Low in salt
  • Problems with overcoming weeds
  • Need a moderate amount of sunlight
  • Low in two essential amino acids, tryptophan and more importantly methionine*

On the case of protein: a single cup of cooked lentils provides 36% of your protein needs, based on a 2,000 calorie diet.

Relatively easy to cultivate compared to most other plants, I think lentils would be a great choice if your crew is able to sustain themselves for the first 80-110 days before harvest.

*Listed below are the nine essential amino acids, with their approximate amounts found in 1 cup of cooked lentils:

  • histidine 1.331g
  • isoleucine 2.045g
  • leucine 3.429g
  • lysine 3.302g
  • methionine 0.403g
  • phenylalanine 2.333g
  • tryptophan 0.424g
  • threonine 1.693g
  • valine 2.348g

Although no standard on daily recommend values have been established, you can see that methionine and tryptophan are on the lower side, and a complementary plant would need to be consumed alongside lentils to make up for it. Brown rice comes to mind, for two reasons. One reason is that its wheat germ is high in methionine, and the second reason is that it is also a cereal grain, which lentils improve the yield of explained above.

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  • $\begingroup$ Unfortunately lentils are lacking in some of the essential amino acids. This is a problem with most plant proteins. Vegetarians get around this by eating complementary plant sources, instead of one plant. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 19 '17 at 20:28
  • $\begingroup$ Good observation. I would need to find a plant that has the essential amino acids that lentils lack. When I find some time I will do some research and edit the answer, unless you have any suggestions. $\endgroup$ – A.B. Dec 19 '17 at 20:50
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Plant based diets have limitations

mostly looked at sweet potatoes and quinoa

  • nothing produces b12
  • omega 3 is rare though is produced by quinoa and sweet potatoes
  • zinc is another vegetarian defecit though quinoa and sweet potatoes have em
  • vitamin D is found in few plants however the body produces it naturally when exposed to healthy amounts of sun, thus this can be procedurally omitted.
  • iron both sources have it

Summary, sweet potatoes and Quinoa are super foods however in terms of nutrition Quinoa is superior. It provides most the rare nutrition lacked by most other vegetarian sources. It also provides all essential amino acids and proteins which sweet potatoes do not, this is contained in the above links. Quinoa is also a water efficient plant hailing from arid Andes biome which makes it suitable for space travel and colonization of water poor environments like Mars. The DOWN side: Quinoa requires a lot of water to process and prepare. Quinoa normally contains a toxic coating that must be washed away (the toxin does serve well as a antiseptic for cuts). Quinoa strains have been GE to not produce this toxin thus reducing processing cost. Quinoa must still be boiled in water like rice in order to be edible.

Aside from that it appears you are going to have to get B12 from somewhere else.

Since its a grain plant it produce LOTS of seeds requiring fewer seeds (weight) and generations to scale up production (IE the first generation, 1 plant can produce enough seeds to start a small field). Which is not something potatoes or tomatoes can accomplish as easily.

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    $\begingroup$ Quinoa has a similar nutritional profile as whole wheat, oats, and rye. None of those require a lot of water to process and prepare, and none of those have toxic coatings. All of them also have much more agricultural research done on them. Why use something exotic when the familiar will suffice. $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 19 '17 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ Bacteria cultures can be used to produce vitamin B12. This method is likely more efficient than raising animals to produce B12. $\endgroup$ – Vaelus Dec 19 '17 at 16:50
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My question is what crops would be best for growing to feed the crew?

Anything they grow will be grown in a hydroponic garden inside the habitat.

What foods could give people the most nutrients and vitamins for the colony?

These three statements are not compatible. The best food crops are not necessarily the same as those that provide the most nutrients and vitamins, and they would not necessarily be grown in a hydroponic garden.

You neglect protein. The best source of protein is animal matter. Animals are not grown in hydroponics gardens. See a comparison here Animal vs Plant Protein - What's the Difference?

But here is further food for thought.

First there was astronaut ice cream. Now insects may become the next food frontier for space cuisine. The Space Agriculture Task Force, affiliated with the Japanese space agency, is looking for ways to feed astronauts on extended missions, like on a stint to Mars. A long stay on the Red Planet would require travelers to grow their own food, but a vegetable- and grain-based diet doesn’t efficiently supply fats and amino acids.

According to research (pdf) by Robert Kok, a Canadian involved in the project, bugs reproduce rapidly, so small farms could produce a steady stream of food for humans or other animals. They also efficiently convert material that is inedible to humans—mulberry leaves, wood, waste—into body mass. So bugs like silkworms, drugstore beetles, termites, or hornworms could help fill in nutritional gaps. Japanese researchers have already made cookies from silkworms, a commonly domesticated species.

from The Future of Space Food: Bugs

I suspect that the early sources of food on Mars would include cultured meat, insects, algae, and lichen. Mushrooms growing in compost. Worms growing in soil, braking down organic mater. Cockroaches, because they are highly nutritious and will survive anywhere. Moss and mold, because they are easy to culture. Yeast. There WILL be beer on Mars. Synthetic meat grown in strips from stem cells. Undoubtedly, farmed chickens and fish will be very early food sources.

There are places on earth where insects are the main source of protein.

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    $\begingroup$ Large livestock like chickens require food to raise. If you raise chickens you will end up having to grow more plants than if you didn't raise chickens and just ate the plants directly. Protein doesn't come from nowhere, so animal matter is only the best source of protein if you have an abundance of plant matter. $\endgroup$ – Vaelus Dec 19 '17 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ By what logic do you conclude that animal matter is the best source of protein? It's probably a good idea to provide that information in the question. I'm not sure how a list titled Nutritional Values of Amphibian Foods is at all relevant for feeding humans on Mars. $\endgroup$ – sphennings Dec 19 '17 at 16:37
  • $\begingroup$ @sphennings Follow the links I provided. Protein is protein, weather you feed it to amphibians, or to humans. The links may make some people squeamish, but the inhabitants of Martian colonies will NOT be vegetarians. Here is a link Animal vs Plant Protein - What's the Difference? . Do you want me to put it in the body of the answer? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme Dec 19 '17 at 16:43
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    $\begingroup$ Many plants are low in some essential amino acids, but not all. For instance, soy contains all of the essential amino acids in adequate quantities. $\endgroup$ – Vaelus Dec 19 '17 at 16:47
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    $\begingroup$ The chicken farming article claims that chickens are the most efficient conversion from feed into meat. While this may be true, it doesn't imply that any conversion from feed to meat is particularly efficient in the first place. I'm hard pressed to believe growing enough to soy to feed enough chickens to eat is more efficient than growing enough soy to eat and cutting out the middle man. $\endgroup$ – Vaelus Dec 19 '17 at 16:57
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Now then. This may seem far fetched. But I am about to prove that the most viable food to bring up there... are mars bars.

I know, I know Excuse the terrible pun, but I am deadly serious when I say this. The materials and byproducts created in the process of manufacturing a mars bar could sustain a person for a sustained period.

So follow along as I list off the benefits of the bar and all that goes into it

The Mars Bar

The bar itself serves one main purpose, morale. People are known to work harder and strive when there is a clear goal set ahead. And when this eventual goal is something as sweet as a candy bar they have not eaten in years, they will give it all they have. Imagine if you had to live off of MREs and the option of a candy bar was put ahead of you. This collective goal would incentivize people to work together for a final goal

The next sub purpose of this candy bar is simple. Colonisation means children eventually. Kids love candy and it is clear enough why this would be useful in this scenario.

Nutritionally, this sweet bounty (not the chocolate), is not the most healthy in high doses but the empty sugar calories can provide for short bursts in the events that these colonists grow tired from overexertion. This would be a very situational food for raising blood sugar and keeping people working.

Having worked together to achieve this final goal of a candy bar would be a momentous occasion for all involved and would condition people to do better in future. This long project would teach people to work together as a team and make sure they learn that working together like this yields great rewards.

Cocoa Beans

In the colonists quest to create chocolate they would first need the active ingredient, cocoa beans.

There are numerous applications to these beans. First a fibre content useful for easy digestion, this could possibly be formed into a supplement for the colonists during their hard trek to their final goal.

Next on the list is of course the famous original use of the cocoa bean, a hot or cold drink made by the people of ancient Aztec and Mayan cultures. these drinks were used recreationally but also provided the people with useful vitamins and minerals to keep them sustained. An oily substance that floated to the top of the drink was then used to protect the skin from the sun as they lived in a very hot environment. The applications here are clear. The oil can be used on machines due to being non corrosive and also on the colonists to keep their skin protected on hot mars days.

The next use is the white substance that grows around the beans that what used in the fermentation process regularly for making wines and other drinks by these early cultures. While whines and spirits are not needed in this mission, it will definitely be wanted. And as for a practical application. Further fermentation will lead to a flammable fuel to further make the colony self sustaining via a bio fuel powered colony.

The initial startup cost would be high due to the high heat and tropical conditions needed to grow these but modern greenhouse technology today can do this with no problem. There are numerous means to source water as seen in mars survival fiction everywhere so we can leave the issues of watering plants out of this. The hydroponic garden could solve this issue with no hitches, allowing us to move onto our next produce.

Coconuts (Maybe Bounty bars are possible!)

Now this may seem the more far fetched idea out of the bunch. But the coconut is one of the most versatile produce items out there. Not only can the shell be used as a rudimentary tool if a colonist is in a pinch, these handy nuts can be transported as water storage for colonists going on long distance missions. The rind can be eaten on these missions as well, keeping a person sustained as they travel. The hair and other fibres on the coconut can then be used as a raw material for rope making, vital in further construction on the red planet.

But what does this have to do with mars bars? Simple. Coconut oil will be the main oil used in all stages of production in creating the sweet treat. From the chocolate to the nougat.

Coconut sugar can be harvested from the coconut trees to make the sugar for the chocolate and nougat as well as the caramel filling within the Mars bar.

Prior to the creation of the mars bar these oils and sugars can be used in cooking and other means in order to keep the colonists sustained. Dried food, secondary to the initial rations, would be packed to be cooked along side these ingredients to keep the initial weight down on good faith that the colonists could create sugar and oil on their own using the saplings provided to themselves.

Coconuts are a nutritious source of fibre, vitamins, minerals, and amino acids. they are full of calcium, which is important for strong bones, as well as potassium and magnesium, as well as of electrolytes to help with the sugar. The electrolyte content in coconut water has been known known to have the same electrolyte levels as human plasma, and has even been documented to have been used for plasma transfusions on humans. Look no further than here for more health benefits of the coconut

Almonds

Nuts! our final ingredient and an important element to the mars bar. Nuts are needed to create the nougat. Not only this but the milk required for the chocolate can be sourced from almonds as well.

Nuts are a sustainable source of protein for our colonists, which is important for muscle repair and gain. Almond milk can be used as a milk substitute and a drink for when colonists are off work and the nuts themselves can be used to make a lovely trail mix for longer missions once again. all the ingredients for a nut and chocolate trail mix are already there!

Almonds are a good source of vitamin E, copper, magnesium and protein. They also contain high levels of healthy unsaturated fatty acids. Almonds contain high levels of fiber, phytosterols, vitamins, other minerals, and antioxidants, which may help prevent cardiovascular disorders.

Chia Seeds

The final, vital ingredient for our mars bars are Chia seeds. These seeds are an excellent sustainable substitute for eggs and have numerous health benefits. other than working as a replacement for eggs in most cooking dishes, these seeds can be mixed into foods and rations to increase the nutritional value.

By mixing in Chia seeds into foods colonists can increase their dosages of: omega-3 fatty acids, Fibre, Antioxidants, and minerals. In the event that any colonist is born with celiacs, the seeds are gluten free. and to make for easy eating and preparation, the seeds can be digested whole, making these foods easy to snack on and versatile. another ingredient to add to the trail mix right there.

Final recipe

Chocolate coating:

  • Cocoa beans & many of their solids and byproducts
  • Coconut oil
  • Coconut Sugar
  • Almond milk

Nougat Filling:

  • Almonds
  • Chia seeds (egg replacement)
  • Coconut sugar

Caramel filling:

  • Coconut sugar

Conclusion

The mars bar and all of the foods required to create it in this limited environment could easily sustain a colony of people subsisting on the products used to make the mars bar followed by a desert of a mars bar.

Other meals could be made from these products following the mars bar, with other, slower growing, ingredients to be added later when a sustainable supply was created. Take for example a Nut roast using those almonds and chia seeds.

I have been Tadg, and that was how a mars bar is the most sustainable food on mars.

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  • $\begingroup$ Cocoa requires year round high temperatures and year round water. Coconut requires year round high temperatures and seasonal water. Almonds don't survive freezing. Why would you ever plant these crops on Mars? $\endgroup$ – kingledion Dec 19 '17 at 13:59
  • $\begingroup$ The hydroponic lab as described in the question deals with all issues of temperature and watering. Modern greenhouse technology today would allow me to be capable of growing a cocoa tree in the heart of London. While almonds may not be able to survive freezing we have other means of preserving such foods. and if all of these fail, leaving a hydroponic station turned on in the transport to mars could keep these nuts sustained and alive long enough to reach mars. $\endgroup$ – Paradigm Dec 19 '17 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ Trees will take years to mature... They'll need something in the mean time $\endgroup$ – bendl Dec 19 '17 at 14:37
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    $\begingroup$ I regret that I only have one downvote to give $\endgroup$ – Joe Dec 19 '17 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ Even if the colonists survived long enough for the almond trees to mature and bear fruit, what would keep the colonists from using the almonds to make MARZipan? $\endgroup$ – user1008090 Dec 19 '17 at 22:46

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