Military scientists are helping to make backcountry meals a bit less miserable—for all of us
Each night that fires burn across the West, after 16 straight hours of digging trenches, cutting brush, and tamping down hotspots, wildland firefighters put down their axes, pull off their boots, and dig into plastic pouches of chili with beans or shredded beef with barbecue sauce.
These MREs (short for Meal, Ready-to-Eat) aren’t exactly gourmet grub. “They totally suck, but it's one thing that sucks out of a whole list of things,” says Ashley Berkoben, who worked for several years on an elite team of hotshots battling blazes. “I'm pretty sure nobody works on a hotshot crew for the food.” But hotshots eat a lot of these field rations. From the third quarter of fiscal year 2014 to fall 2015, the U.S. Forest Service purchased 442,692 individual MREs. The Department of Interior purchased another 236,160 MREs in the same timeframe. The meals may suck, but they’re vital.
The MRE we know today has been around since the 1980s, when the Department of Defense introduced it as a way to provide a complete, balanced meal for soldiers in the field. Over 240 different iterations of the MRE have been introduced since the 1990s alone. It’s a constant challenge to create a tasty meal that also meets baseline requirements: each meal-in-a-pack has to be shelf-stable for three years, meet the Surgeon General’s nutrition requirements for operational rations, and survive airdrops from cargo planes.
So practical are they that, in the past 25 years, they’ve made their way to outdoors retail outlets like REI as fare for backpackers thinking light and simple. Things like dehydrated soup, canned spaghetti and meatballs, freeze dried entrees, and even the Candwich—a sandwich in a can, remember that?—were all innovations that started with troops in mind before making their way into the backcountry. And we may be entering a golden age of MRE innovation, thanks to a slew of new advances in technology—all of which start at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center, in Natick, Massachusetts.
Although the NSRDEC’s MRE-development program has been around in some capacity for more than 50 years, its researchers have produced several breakthroughs in the past decade—from better vegetarian options to more nutritional fare like energy bars with actual fruit in them or entrees that incorporate whole grains, and even, finally, pizza. “Advanced processing methods, combined with advanced packaging, have the potential to lead to a healthier, better tasting ration,” says David Accetta, chief of public affairs for the NSRDEC. “We’re using groundbreaking technologies that are on the cutting edge of innovation.”
The NSRDEC is the epicenter of MRE development. It’s in this facility that as many as 90 dieticians, packaging engineers, and scientists engage with important tasks like figuring out how to keep Tabasco from eating through a plastic pouch over a three-year span. While hot sauce may sound trivial to someone who hasn’t lived and worked in the field for weeks on end, it’s definitely not. For years, Tabasco was the top request of soldiers who regularly consumed MREs.
Now servicemen and women are asking for pizza, and it’s coming. “Pizza was an item that they were requesting for quite some time, and we were finally able to develop an item that worked,” says Jeanette Kennedy, a supervisory food technologist and leader for Combat Rations Team, a division within the NSRDEC. The main problem—keeping the sauce from infiltrating the crust over a three-year shelf life—was a major engineering puzzle. Finally, something called “Hurdle technology” made pizza possible. It’s a blend of preservation techniques designed to “inhibit the growth of bacteria, yeasts, and molds” between dry and wet components (like crust and sauce), says David Accetta, the chief of public affairs for the NSRDEC. Believe it or not, the finished product is tasty, Accetta says. “It’s better than a pizza you’d buy in the frozen foods section of your grocery store.”
More nutritious MREs—even ones spiked with performance-enhancing ingredients like caffeine—are on the horizon too. Kennedy, a registered dietician, says that she and her team have been trying to figure out how to work more omega-3s, probiotics, and fruit into the meals. “Keeping probiotics viable for three years has been a challenge,” she said. So is finding ways to make perishables like fruit last. The department is also looking into the possibility of being able to 3-D print food in the field, though that’s still just a far-fetched idea at this point.
Any changes to MREs can take years to implement—research and testing are an exhaustive process. Once a change is approved, it can still be several more years before a soldier actually gets, say, an omega-3 enriched meal in his or her pack—and even longer before you can pick up a backcountry pizza at REI. Though part of the NSRDEC’s mission is to share its technological advances with the civilian marketplace, it takes anywhere from two years to a decade for new technologies to trickle down. And sometimes they’re so under-the-radar you’d never know you’re experiencing a NSRDEC-developed perk. For example, the NSRDEC has helped companies predict bacteria growth over time for food safety. That’s something you’ll never see, but it keeps your food safe for many more days in your pack.
Pizzas are scheduled to be added into regular rotation in 2017, though some soldiers might see them as early as next year because of the way meals are distributed. When they do, hopefully it will brighten their day just a bit. MREs may never be delicious, but the satisfaction of a full stomach is still a morale boost. “This directly affects their quality of life,” says Christopher Ghellen, a materials research engineer at the NSRDEC. When it comes down to it, MREs are great because they allow some of America’s bravest do their jobs without having to worry about the logistics of meals.
“I would take a crappy MRE as long as it enabled me to go on an awesome helicopter ride to remote sections of woods any day of the week,” says Berkoben. And an MRE with pizza? Even better.