If you’ve ever gone on a long hike, you know how important packing the right food can be. You need sustenance that is not only nutritious, lightweight and sufficient to last the trip, but also doesn’t taste like cardboard — or worse. For those serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, meeting that culinary criteria is of critical importance — potentially a matter of life and death. To meet the vital food needs of modern service members, the Department of Defense — with help from the food industry and academia — have taken the task of feeding troops down to an exact science.
Thanks to technological advancements, especially those made in recent decades, those serving today have access to an impressively wide range of edible options that are nutritionally dense, extremely portable and actually taste pretty good — at least for something with a shelf life of three years. In fact, you might be surprised to learn that many of the advancements made to feed troops in the field, can be found on our refrigerator shelves and in our kitchen cabinets.
“Two things keep military folks going. There's email — used to be mail in my day, slow mail — and food,” explains Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible, who also served in the British Royal Navy for ten years. Irvine has since spent time countless hours preparing meals, eating and talking with troops around the world.
Irvine points out that the nutritional needs of service members have dramatically increased in recent years. “Our modern warfighter is now an athlete,” he explains. “It's not in the old days where you join the military and all of a sudden you're sitting in a base somewhere doing PT [Physical Training] and getting off weekends. We know when our young men and women sign up, they're going somewhere pretty quick. And it's not always nice, you know. It may be Abu Dhabi, it may be Korea, it may be wherever. But you know they're getting deployed.”
As long as battles have been waged, military food has suffered a bad reputation — typically aimed at meeting basic needs of sustenance, rather than taste. The rations provided to the armies of Ancient Egypt were said to be “meager and unpleasant,” while Spartan soldiers survived on “black broth” — a brew of boiled pig's’ legs, blood and vinegar. In many cases, troops were left much to their own devices, whether it was hunting, collecting, purchasing or plundering. The Roman Empire’s Legionnaires, considered the first permanent professional army, benefited from the empire’s extensive transportation network and received a ration of two pounds of bread each day along with meat, olive oil and wine. While medieval soldiers were said to have subsisted on salt fish, bread, pottage (a thick stew), and beer or wine.
In the United States, the rations used to feed troops have come a long way since the salted beef and hardtack forced down by soldiers during the Revolutionary War. In 1775, the Second Continental Congress passed legislation that would provide the Army with the first individual ration. Each week, soldiers were provided with one pound of salted beef, fish or 3/4-pound of pork; three pounds of beans or peas; a half pint of rice or cornmeal; hard bread (aka hardtack) or a pound of flour per day; a pint of milk per day; and in some cases, four ounces of rum per day. To help combat scurvy, Congress later added a daily allotment of cider or spruce beer (made from spruce tree needles), as well as fresh vegetables and sauerkraut.
Rations in the U.S. remained largely the same through the War of 1812, at which point gardens were planted at many military outposts in an effort to provide more fresh produce to troops. During the Civil War, troops subsisted on a similar diet, though dehydrated vegetables and fruits made more of an appearance, and coffee replaced the daily allotment of rum. Canned food was first used in rations during the Spanish-American War in 1898, but improper preservation techniques and poorly sealed cans often meant the risk of spoilage and food poisoning, so the option wasn’t particularly favored.
By the time the United States entered World War I in 1917, canned foods had become much more reliable and safer, which meant enormous amounts were shipped to troops overseas. Known as Reserve Ration, the meals consisted of canned meat and vegetables, along with hardtack crackers, referred to as “dog biscuits” by the troops. Hot meals were also prepared in the field and brought to the trenches in large milk cans carried on a pole by two soldiers, marking the first time that hot food was served on the front lines. Troops also received tobacco and a half pound of candy every ten days, which proved a popular addition.
Beginning in 1938, the U.S. began developing a prototype for what would become known as “Ration, Combat, Individual” or “C-Ration” — an effort to combine a variety of canned foods in a single package that could be easily transported. In comparison, “A-Ration” referred to meals prepared with fresh, refrigerated or frozen food, while “B-Ration” were packaged foods prepared in mess halls and field kitchens. Weighing roughly seven pounds, the C-Ration included two units, the “M” unit, which had eleven different meat and vegetable servings that were pre-cooked and could be eaten cold or heated up, and the “B” unit, which included bread, sugar and coffee. Five of the eleven rations contained beans with some type of meat, while others included meat with potatoes, rice or noodles, along with three biscuits, a piece of fudge, sugar cubes, a packet of coffee, and a can opener. During World War II, the K ration was also developed, a hugely influential ration designed to be smaller and lighter for paratroopers to carry in their pockets. K rations were considered the most nutritionally balanced rations at the time and preferred by many troops for being more palatable.
The C-Ration became a staple during World War II and continued to be used to feed troops all the way through the Vietnam War. While C-Rations certainly proved useful, they were never considered gourmet by any standards, though troops did their best to improve on what they had by getting creative with their rations. The enterprising folks over at the McIlhenny Company even began shipping over miniature bottles of Tabasco, along with a small recipe book, to help troops spice up their meals (and promote the brand). Meal, Combat Individual, often referred to as “C-Rat,” had also been developed during the Korean War, and were used throughout the Vietnam War, to supply individual meals instead of a one day supply of food. This new ration came to replace the previous C-Rations and received several improvements over the years, offering a variety of 12 meals, plus shelf stable canned fruit and a cake type dessert. The development of new freeze drying techniques and flexible packaging also led to the creation of Food Packet, Long Range Patrol or “LRP”, beginning in 1964, that included pre-cooked, freeze-dried entrees that could be reconstituted during longer missions from two to ten days when resupply wasn’t an option.
Meal, Ready to Eat
The biggest and most influential developments in feeding troops came about in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the creation of today’s most familiar rations: the Meal, Ready to Eat, or MRE. Thanks to major developments in food processing and packaging over the previous decades, the U.S. military was able to develop rations that were much lighter, more flexible and stable in a variety of environments and actually tasted better. Chief among those developments was the retort pouch, a flat package made of plastic laminate and metal foils that could be filled with food, sealed and boiled to sterilize it to make it shelf stable. Because the packaging is flat and thin it could be sterilized much more quickly than metal cans, which in turn helped maintain better tasting food. You’ve probably seen or bought similar packages at the grocery store filled with prepared meals, soups, tuna and more.
Research and development of the MRE started as early as 1959, with much of it taking place at the U.S. Army Natick Research and Development Laboratories in Massachusetts, where researchers were working on rations for astronauts. Developing the MRE proved to be extremely challenging and it wasn’t put into full-scale production until 1980, and field tested in the following years. While the ration offered distinct advantages over its predecessors — lighter packaging, less processing and a wider range of variety — they weren’t universally embraced by troops, earning MREs nicknames such as Meals Rejected by Everyone, Meals Refused by the Enemy and Materials Resembling Edibles. But the food scientists at the Combat Feeding Directorate (CFD), the research arm tasked with developing and improving MREs, nevertheless persisted.
These days, the standard MRE contains an entrée, various sides and bakery items, a beverage powder, and an accessory pack with gum, tissue, moist towelette and seasoning. Another major development for MREs came in 1993 with the introduction of a Flameless Ration Heater (FRH), which allowed troops to heat their meals without bulky equipment or another heat source. A service member merely adds roughly one ounce of water to the FRH bag, which contains a magnesium-iron compound, and the resulting exothermic chemical reaction heats the MRE entrée or beverage by 100˚F in about 10 to 15 minutes. Since 1993 they’ve also added over 260 new ration items to the options available to troops, each year adding new ones and retiring ones based on feedback and approval in the field.
MREs are not only designed to meet the nutritional needs of service members, they can also remain shelf stable for three years at 80˚F, and six months at 100˚F. The flexible and durable packaging also allows them to be transported anywhere in the world and can be safely air-dropped by parachute or free-dropped from 100 feet. Each MRE contains roughly 1,300 calories, which includes about 170g of carbohydrates, 45g of protein and 50g of fat, as well as micronutrients. Over the years, MREs have also been fortified with additional vitamins and nutrients.
MRES now offer ever-evolving menu options to keep things interesting at meal time. Since the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq began, the MRE options doubled from 12 to 24. There’s not only been an increased focus on improving the taste of the meals with continual testing and feedback from troops but also improving the way they look. One might contain shredded barbecue beef with black beans, jalapeño cheddar cheese spread, trans fat-free (a recent development) tortillas, barbeque sauce, along with dried fruit and a fortified beverage powder. While another might contain fettuccine with a spinach and mushroom cream sauce, a First Strike Bar (the standard issue energy bar), peanut butter, crackers, pretzels, a chocolate beverage base and hot sauce. Pizza, however, as popular as it is, continues to be a challenge for the food scientists.
Getting Creative with MREs
One thing that hasn’t changed when it comes to rations is the creativity they inspire among troops looking to improve upon the flavor or offer some variety from the predictable options. Robert Irvine explains how he’s continually impressed by the ingenuity he sees when visiting troops. “Listen, anybody can cook an MRE with fancy food and all the knives and all the pots and all the hot gas and electric you want and water. But try doing that with a pen, or a penknife, in 120-degree weather, which some of the military folks have done. Or in the pitch black when there's nothing available. And then try and make it into a gourmet meal, using only what's in that MRE and a pen or a knife. And I'll challenge anybody to do that, because we've done it. We've done it theater, we've done it in training bases we've done it. It's very different.”
“Anybody can cook with fresh herbs and fresh spices and everything you can give them,” he continues. “But the reality is on day 340 when you're on a warship or whatever, coming in and you have nothing but cans of food left or pieces of this, what do you do with it? You can't suddenly get a store and bring up fresh herbs and fresh, you know. It doesn't work like that. It takes a skilled person to be able to do that. And let me tell you, it's not a cook. It's not a chef. It's an infantryman that's probably got the best ideas for the product of an MRE. Because they do it every day, they know what to mix, they know how to do it. It's crazy to watch some of these concoctions.”
The MRE menu has also expanded to include vegetarian options, kosher and halal meals, even meals that are kosher for Passover. Depending on the mission or location, there are also numerous other food options now available. MORE is the Modular Operational Ration Enhancement, which offers eat-on-the-go, snack type foods that can be consumed in challenging environments when sitting down to heat up a meal isn’t an option. Available in six different packets, each one offers 1,000 extra calories with a balance of carbohydrates, caffeine, electrolytes and vitamins. For operations where there’s no refrigeration or there’s limited resupply of perishable foods, there is Ultra High-Temperature Milk, fresh milk that’s been heat processed, while still maintaining flavor and nutritional value. For survival situations, including escape and evasion, there’s Food Packet, Survival, General Purpose, which can be used under any environmental condition and when potable water is limited. For reconnaissance pilots in the U.S. Air Force where missions can last as long as 12 hours at a time, there are tube foods that can be consumed through feeding tubes in the helmets of their full pressure suits.
Group Rations have also been developed to feed small and large groups, and depending on the scenario of the operation, may utilize self-heating options or field kitchens. In 2012, the Expeditionary Field Kitchen, or EFK, was designed to prepare hot food to Marines in the field, enabling them to bake, grill, roast, poach and more for as many as 750 service members within three hours, including cleanup.
“Military chefs do an amazing job because they're put under the gun, whether they're Army, Air Force, Marine Corps or Coast Guardsmen,” Irvine says. “You're put under the gun to feed folks not only a nutritious meal that's hot, but if they don't get fed and that meal doesn't get done, the morale of that company, that warship, that submarine, that battalion, whatever it is that you're serving in, goes down the shoot. There are amazing chefs in the military and we don't give them enough credit.”
Irvine points out that the way in which troops are fed has changed in a variety of ways since he served in the Royal Navy. One notable difference is that during his time, they would actually butcher whole animals, but now, “It already comes in, it's sliced up, it's ready to go into a box. We just open the box, put it on the thing and we go. You don't really cook that much. We open boxes, we put it on with food. We used to have to butcher, we used to have to bake, we had to filet fish. We don't do that anymore. It's time-consuming, it's labor intensive. We buy it already done. Especially on those huge volumes. You get an aircraft carrier of 6,000 folks, another 2,000 flying with aircraft. It's very different. We're not going to filet 25,000 fish.”
Looking Towards the Future
The food technologists at the U.S. Army Natick Research and Development Laboratories are constantly looking for ways to better feed troops, whether it’s through enhanced nutrition, more convenient and durable packaging and other improvements. Irvine predicts that in the coming years there will be major changes, particularly as the modern service member is more like an athlete with ever-increasing nutritional demands.
“These men and women are no longer just soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, coast guard. They're athletes. We're asking them to do longer deployments and work longer hours, he explains. The food has to change. Our planes have changed, our technology's changed. The Surgeon Generals of all forces are looking at how do we feed our young men and women at 18–24 years old, that still want to drink beer — when they're old enough, obviously. They still want to eat burgers, chicken wings, all those things, but then we're asking them the next day to go into a war field, a battlefield, sitting in a hole or traveling, staying awake for 16 hours on those foods. So our food science has got to get better.”
Irvine also points out that nutritional education, about what food does for the body, is also changing and improving. To improve service members’ awareness of the nutritional content of rations and what they need to consume for peak-performance, there are now collaborations between the Department of Defense’s Nutrition Community and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.
Currently, researchers are studying ways to add a variety of performance-enhancing nutritional elements, including adding Omega 3 fatty acids into MREs. Important for metabolism, Omega 3 fatty acids are typically found in fish and some seed oils, which presents a unique challenge as they run the risk of adding a fishy taste to foods as they break down over time.
Studies are also being conducted to better understand the role that microorganisms play in the digestive system and in the service members physiological and psychological well being and stress levels. By better understanding the function of this gut bacteria, researchers hope to develop dietary additives that help service members overcome stress, fatigue and other challenges.
Biodegradable packaging for MREs and other rations is also being developed that will reduce the waste generated, while still maintaining shelf life and structural integrity. Another study is looking into a method of using pressurized air instead of FRH packets to cook foods, while another is looking at the use of osmotic dehydration to further preserve the shelf life of meats and baked goods. An experimental study is looking into ways to add vaccines to food to inoculate service members against local diseases.
“I think technology is going to change the MREs, the packaging, what's in them. How do you prepare them and all those sorts of things” says Irvine. “It's got to change because everything else has changed. The uniforms have changed, our weapons have changed, our armaments systems, our planes, our ships, you know. Food has to catch up at some point.”