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Food for Fighters: The Science Behind Feeding America’s Troops

What it takes to transform pizza, cobbler, and biscuits into battle-ready MREs

In unfamiliar and dire surroundings, seeking refuge in familiarity and the comforts of home can be a matter of life and death for a soldier. Such reminders are proof that no matter how grim current circumstances may be, life can still offer you a glimmer of hope — and one place where the Department of Defense hopes soldiers can find that refuge is in their daily rations of MRE, or Meal, Ready to Eat.

Each individually portioned MRE ration served by the U.S. Armed Forces consists of an entree, sides, beverage, an "accessory packet" of condiments, and a flameless ration heater (FRH) that allows for reheating the meal while in the field, says Lauren Oleksyk, leader of the Food Engineering and Analysis Team in the Department of Defense's Combat Feeding Directorate (CFD). Recent menu items have included "dishes" like chicken breast with cornbread stuffing and jalapeño cheese spread, and beef enchilada with refried beans.

In the past, soldiers requested pot roast and beef stew; today, they yearn for spicy burritos and ramen.

And while it may not be a "gourmand’s" notion of gastronomic delight, anticipating the taste of a hot meal is tremendously appreciated by soldiers, especially "after another day of extreme physical exertion, climbing thousands of feet up into the mountains of Afghanistan, carrying 100 pounds of gear when you’re cold, wet, tired, and hungry with no other options," says David Accetta, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, & Engineering Center (NSRDEC), located in Natick, Massachusetts.

Interestingly, MREs themselves offer a cultural anthropology of the American psyche; they’re in fact evolved incarnations of their predecessors that include K-Rations (dating to WWII) and MCIs (an acronym for "Meal, Combat Individual"). Over decades, these meals have been transformed as nutritionists, scientists, and psychologists gain more understanding into how food can affect a person’s physical and mental well-being.

According to Dr. Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab and author of Mindless Eating and Slim by Design, food can act as a powerful source of familiarity and comfort. In the field, troops are under constant strain and duress. "Their stomachs are in knots and their body is telling them not to eat," Wansink says. "But we need them to consume enough calories in order to have the energy to sustain themselves throughout the day." The MREs play a vital role in offering the enticing smells and tastes of home.

Oleksyk explains that K-Rations of the past (which often contained biscuits, meat bars, a chocolate bar, bouillon powder, cigarettes, and chewing gum) were simplistic in nature until a shocking revelation was made in 1941: many military members had poor nutritional statuses. In response, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Nutrition Conference for Defense, an initiative that urged the military to create meals that would be "palatable" and "not derange the chemistry of the body," wrote Ancel Keys, director of the University of Minnesota’s Laboratory of Physiological Hygiene and a pioneer in the field.

This revelation lead to the creation of the MCI, established with the knowledge that consuming healthy foods was inextricably linked to physical and cognitive performance. MCIs debuted in 1958 and were heavily issued during the Vietnam War, offering an improvement upon previous K-Rations thanks to their meal diversity: A typical MCI consisted of a canned meat, canned fruit, bread or dessert, as well as an accessory packet that contained cigarettes, matches, chewing gum, toilet paper, coffee, cream sugar, salt, and spoon. The MCI was the first ration to be nutritionally balanced, following the RDA guidelines and providing an average of 1,200 calories per meal.

But the MCI — and its rather clunky, heavy iterations that comprised of canned goods and semi-processed items — would soon become a relic of the past. During the Vietnam War, special operations troops were introduced to the Food Packet, Long Range Patrol (LRP), the ration that transformed canned goods into flexible packages and eventually became the retort pouch (MREs) soldiers eat from today.

"It was by far the greatest technological scientific and engineering breakthrough in food packaging and processing during the 1970s," Oleksyk says of the retort pouch, made of multi-laminate materials and aluminum foil. Accetta recalls how much easier it was to carry the contents in your pack: No longer did soldiers have to contend with a box full of metal cans.

The retort pouch allowed for the creation of flavorful entrées, like hearty beef stews and spaghetti and meatballs.

The first- and second-generation MREs were far from flawless. They utilized a lot of dehydrated products, like pork and beef patties, and soldiers complained the meat texture was similar to eating a sponge, regardless of whether or not it had been rehydrated.

But the retort pouch shaped the MRE's destiny because it could tolerate high heat and climate fluctuations: MREs today are required to last for three years at 80°F and six months at 100°F. Oleksyk explains the flexible-form pouch is strong enough to withstand puncturing, piercing, and cracking; the pouch within that contains the meal, and is comprised of food-grade materials. Entrées could be reheated in a much shorter time (using the flameless ration heater). But most importantly, the retort pouch allowed for the creation of higher quality, flavorful entrées, like hearty beef stews and spaghetti and meatballs — affording soldiers meal diversity.

Meal improvement and innovation is always top of mind for the Food Engineering and Analysis team, and soldiers constantly flood the department with requests for nostalgic foods. Oleksyk notes the ebb and flow of requests changes from generation to generation. In the past, it was cravings for pot roast and beef stew; today, soldiers who grow up with convenience and fast foods yearn for spicy burritos and ramen.

Photo: Tom A. Peter/Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images

After Operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in the early ‘90s, many complaints had been mounted about the limited number of menu items (12) and their drab flavor profiles. One such infamous menu item was an omelette with ham. Real eggs are notoriously difficult to preserve in MREs, so instead, powdered eggs would be used in lieu of the real thing — but soldiers expressed disdain for it, citing that it tasted "disgusting’’ and/or "chalky." The air of discontent was so prominent that then-Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell personally called for improvements.

It requires a lot of science to make pizza last three years without sacrificing taste, texture, and nutritional value.

As a result, since 1993, over 240 items have been introduced to the MREs, and menu choices jumped from 12 to 24. Of the original 12, some entrées have not been rendered completely obscure: The aforementioned beef stew and spaghetti dish are two still highly praised dishes. The only changes made were to the entrée accompaniments, such as the inclusion of freeze-dried brand name coffee, Tabasco sauce, and sugar-free beverage bases.

Recently, Natick and its team revealed a new dish would join the MRE ranks: pizza. But the palpable excitement comes prematurely; soldiers won’t get to consume any slices until 2021. Britni Roy, food technologist at the NSRDEC DoD Combat Feeding Directorate, says the pizza MRE must first undergo a three-year-long evaluation to vague the product’s storage capabilities. "We use trained sensory experts to evaluate the items for stability of ingredients, appearance, odor, flavor, and texture," she says. "After three years, a certain amount of degradation is expected," Roy says, but "before any military consumption occurs, the MREs must meet CFD’s rigorous nutrition standards."

To make the pizza, Oleksyk’s team underwent numerous formulas and iterations to get all components to precise specifications. It requires a lot of science to make a pizza last three years without sacrificing taste, texture, quality, and nutritional value. Final product formulas also had to be easily producible, because manufacturing is not done in-house.

Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT via Getty Images

According to Oleksyk, hurdle technology — a means of eliminating pathogens which may contribute to food spoilage — was vital to the pizza entrée’s successful creation. Several elements comprise this technology, including controlling water activity and temperature: because contrary to popular belief, no preservatives, additives, or chemicals are ever used to produce MREs.

Instead, Oleksyk says the pizza MRE contains the same ingredients you would use at home to make pizza: flour, sugar, yeast, salt, water, cheese and pepperoni. The only difference is the ratios, for which her team combines ingredients to control the water content and moisture in the food. Once an ideal PH level is reached, the pizza is baked at a specific temperature to inhibit microbial growth. It is then placed in a package at a temperature of no less than 80°F, to which an oxygen scavenger is added before sealing the contents up.

A total of three million MRE #38 entrées will be produced, and about 1.5 million will be the pizza (menu item #23). For a complete, nutritionally balanced meal, Roy says the pizza will most likely be served with a cookie, cherry blueberry cobbler, jalapeño cheese bread, Italian breadsticks, and a chocolate protein beverage. The military is currently eating its way through MRE #33, which was produced in 2013. MREs #34, #35, and #36 still need to be consumed before they get to taste any pizza, filed under MRE #38.

But for the military, sustenance comes by way of a heated MRE pouch, and although it may be void of visual flair, the smells, tastes, and texture of every menu item can conjure feelings of happiness, comfort, and alleviate stress, according to Wansink’s research. Oleksyk and her team continue to make strides by listening to soldier feedback, reviewing and revising their research in order to create "fresh-like quality and nutritionally-dense meals," she says.

As Oleksyk and her team gaze into future of military foods, she’s looking to implement the latest technologies — including hydroponics and 3-D printing technologies — to explore new ways of preparing meals. It’s all part of a series of monumental strides to nourish our troops so that when they’re deployed, they remain alert and energized in order to complete their duties and ultimately return home.

Tiffany Leigh is a freelance food, drink and travel writer whose work has been featured in The Huffington Post, NOW Toronto, and Paste Magazine. Johnny Acurso is a freelance illustrator based in Portland, Oregon.
Editor: Erin DeJesus


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