This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode Marching on Our Stomachs: The Science and History of Feeding the Troops, first released on March 27, 2018. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Okay, yeah, we want to try the egg.
NICOLA TWILLEY: I’m a little afraid. These are like golden yellow nuggets.
GRABER: They’re totally—these are egg corn puffs.
TWILLEY: Well, not corn…
GRABER: Or more like those little Styrofoam things.
TWILLEY: Styrofoam packing peanuts. But they smell like egg!
GRABER: Yes! Mmm.
TWILLEY: Taste like egg!
GRABER: Taste great. I mean, I love eggs.
GRABER: Mmmm, styrofoam packing peanuts that taste like eggs! But really, people, they tasted good. And we were surprised.
TWILLEY: Because they are the military food of the future. And frankly, rations don’t have a great reputation for deliciousness.
GRABER: You are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber.
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley, and this episode we are enlisting our taste buds and heading into the lab to explore how the military gets fed.
GRABER: We get to the bottom of some important questions: Why have eggs made for soldiers’ rations always tasted so bad? Why is it so hard to make those perfect packets of protein portable?
TWILLEY: And does what the military eats actually matter? Can food win wars? Plus, from hot pockets to trendy cold-pressed juices, how does their food affect what ends up on our dinner tables too?
TWILLEY: Scrambled eggs was the first thing I ever learned to cook for myself. Eggs are still my go-to for the simplest possible last resort dinner when I’m tired and there’s nothing else in the house. Ready in minutes, delicious, good for you, and pretty much impossible to screw up, am I right?
GRABER: Exactly. But when it comes to eggs on the battlefield? Not so simple. Military food scientists have been trying to perfect eggs for decades, and they’ve been failing.
DAVID ACCETTA: This is a dehydrated eggs mix, butter flavored, and this was something that would have been made in a field kitchen. So instead of having to try to bring dozens and dozens of eggs up to the battlefields of the field kitchen, they would use these dehydrated egg mixes.
TWILLEY: That’s David Accetta.
ACCETTA: I was in Desert Storm, I was in the second Iraq war, I was in Afghanistan, a bunch of other different places. I ate a lot of MREs.
GRABER: Today David is head of public affairs at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center. That’s a mouthful in itself. But one of the things they do at the Natick Center, as we’re going to call it for short, is develop the army’s food.
TWILLEY: So those dehydrated flaked eggs are grim. But they would be what you would get in field kitchens. They’re not the kind of food a soldier would carry with them to eat on the front lines.
GRABER: And, actually, David likes the dehydrated eggs.
ACCETTA: When I first came in the army and we were still eating the ones in the cans, the omelette in the can was also my favorite. And it was pretty easy because since nobody liked it, I could always trade whatever I had for it.
TWILLEY: Eggs in a can were an innovation in their time, as we’ll discover. But the army does not rest on its quest to make the perfect portable egg.
GRABER: The omelettes in cans were not a hit. So the scientists at the Natick center introduced a pouch version of an omelette—eggs in a bag. Because everyone wants eggs.
TWILLEY: The folks at Natick were very excited about their new veggie omelette in a bag. They took it up to Alaska to field test it on the troops there, and it performed well.
GRABER: But then they added it to the meal rotation. And everyone—well, let’s just say that the nickname for this veggie omelette was vomlette.
TWILLEY: If you look online, on soldier and veteran forums, there are a lot of feelings about the vomelette. One of the few description I can read aloud without wanting to vomlette myself is this one: “Opening the entrée packet is like walking into a stale egg fart in a thrift store dressing room.”
GRABER: So, not a huge success. Although David didn’t seem to mind.
ACCETTA: You know, it didn’t taste like a fresh omelet but it wasn’t, you know—it wasn’t bad in my opinion.
TWILLEY: It’s possible David may just be too fond of eggs to be a good judge. But so why has the humble egg defeated the mighty force of the U.S. military research and development team for so long?
GRABER: We asked Michelle Richardson, she’s a senior food technologist at Natick.
MICHELLE RICHARDSON: Well, number one, eggs have a very high pH. pH measures the acidity of the product.
GRABER: The lower the pH, the more acidic the food. And the more acidic the food, the more shelf stable it is.
RICHARDSON: Because bacteria can’t grow in it. I think eggs have a pH of 7. Think of tomato paste, which is very stable—it may have a pH below 4. So that’s the big difference.
TWILLEY: So pH is a problem. But why? We have to back up here, because part of the egg challenge is just that there are a lot of hoops any food has to go through to make it in the military.
JEREMY WHITSITT: Yeah, I think it’s all a big puzzle.
GRABER: Jeremy Whitsitt is deputy director for the combat feeding program. He laid the whole puzzle out for us.
WHITSITT: Because certainly nutrition and providing the right amount of calories is key. But doing it in a product that’s lightweight and low volume, that can sit on the shelf for at least three years, that can withstand being dragged through the mud and dropped out of aircraft and high temperatures, low temperatures. And then, at the end of the day, it’s got to taste good, because if it doesn’t taste good they’re not going to eat it so all that science doesn’t do any good anyways. And you’ve got all of those different factors kind of converging into this big puzzle and that’s really encapsulates our mission here is to make that puzzle come together.
TWILLEY: So like Jeremy said, these army-grade, pre-scrambled eggs have to be able to last three years without refrigeration. Whereas a normal omelette—if you left that out on your countertop, you wouldn’t want to eat it the next morning, unless you were really trying to give yourself food poisoning. As Michelle told us, eggs aren’t acidic enough to scare off dangerous microbes.
GRABER: And then there’s another problem when you try to process eggs for long-term storage. One way to kill off any potential critters is to heat foods to really high temperatures. And what happens to eggs?
RICHARDSON: A lot of times when you process eggs they turn green. Especially if you’re doing, like, high heat. They did have a retort egg in the MRE years ago, but it was one of the least liked items, so they had to remove it.
TWILLEY: Retort egg is not something you find on the menu at your typical diner. So we asked Michelle to explain what happens to an egg when it’s retorted.
RICHARDSON: So it’s put into this big unit and you have high temperature and high pressure to kill any bacteria in there. So that’s the sterilization process.
GRABER: Retorting eggs will turn them green. And retorting eggs, basically cooking them at high heat, it takes a long time to make them sterile. Many of you will know what happens when you cook eggs for too long…
TWILLEY: I have made this mistake. They turn into rubber.
RICHARDSON: You have textural issues that you need to deal with. And so when we process the retorted eggs, you have to add a lot of things to stabilize the texture, which may contribute to off flavors. So it was just very difficult to get something shelf stable that still tastes good.
GRABER: The egg challenge has bedevilled Ph.D. scientists literally for decades.
TWILLEY: Soldiers want eggs but for the most part they do not want rubbery green eggs that smell like a fart in a thrift store changing room.
GRABER: No, they most certainly do not. Which is why our tasting of those delicious dehydrated egg puffs was so incredibly revolutionary! They’re made using a new technology that you might have encountered at your local Starbucks.
OLEKSYK: Vacuum microwave drying is used currently to produce that moon cheese, for an example. But we’re taking it one step further and compressing it so that we get the dried product in a small compact space for rations.
TWILLEY: Lauren Oleksyk leads the food engineering and analysis team at Natick. And that moon cheese she’s talking about—that is that weird cheese puff snack thing they sell at Starbucks that’s kind of like a disappointing Cheeto.
OLEKSYK: It’s a vacuum microwave cheese. It’s a real cheese product just with moisture removed.
GRABER: This vacuum microwave drying works through a combination of vacuum pressure as well as microwave radiation. Together, the two approaches dry out food at a much lower temperature than oven drying, much faster. So more nutrients and flavors and colors are left in the final product.
TWILLEY: Basically, it’s a gentler process and so the food still ends up sterile, but also way more appealing and better for you.
GRABER: The samples we tried had just shown up in the lab that very morning, from a Canadian partner lab that specializes in this vacuum microwave drying technology.
TWILLEY: We were excited to try them. Michelle was too.
RICHARDSON: It does, it tastes nice. Has very nice egg flavor. I like the color retention, it’s hard to retain a yellow egg color after you process it. So that’s really nice.
GRABER: So maybe eggs have actually been solved?!
TWILLEY: And it’s only taken fifty years.
GRABER: Eggs are just one example of the ways scientists have been trying to figure out how to best feed the military for many, many decades now. But the question of how to feed soldiers goes back a lot farther in time.
TWILLEY: Back as far as Ancient Egypt. The first organized armies—this is four thousand years ago in Ancient Sumer—they fought their wars super nearby, so they could go home for dinner.
GRABER: But that didn’t work for the ancient Egyptians. They ended up with a territory covering 400,000 square miles.
ANASTACIA MARX DE SALCEDO: And they did in fact carry rations with them.
TWILLEY: Anastacia Marx de Salcedo wrote a book called Combat Ready Kitchen. She told us that Egyptian troops carried little cakes made out barley, some greens, and dried fish.
MARX DE SALCEDO: And this was so important, because it provided a portable protein, that it was actually part of their wages.
TWILLEY: This grain-onion combo continued to be the mainstay of military rations. In ancient Greece, the notoriously austere Spartans added some goat cheese and sour wine to the mix, but each soldier was expected to carry his own two-week grain supply at all times, which weighed at least 30 lbs
GRABER: The ancient Roman empire stretched across continents, and the armies had to be well fed to have conquered all that territory. They ate all sorts of cured pork products—prosciutto and bacon and sausage.
TWILLEY: Like the Egyptians, Roman soldiers were actually paid in food—salt pork specifically. Which took care of their salary, sodium needs, and dinner all in one go.
GRABER: The Roman army also ate Parmesan and other hard cheeses. They had a twice-baked cracker called hardtack.
TWILLEY: For thousands of years, military food stayed pretty much the same. Grain, some salty preserved protein, and maybe a little onion to spice things up.
GRABER: In case this isn’t totally obvious, solving the question of how to keep soldiers well fed is really crucial to any conquering army. The soldiers are working hard and sweating and they are probably not near a kitchen or campfire and they have to eat enough, and eat well enough, to not get sick and keep up their strength on the battlefield. Otherwise? You lose the battle.
TWILLEY: Or those hungry soldiers desert en masse because their priority becomes finding food, not fighting. And that way, you also lose the battle.
GRABER: Figuring out how to feed the military has always been pretty hard. Mainly because over the course of nearly all of human history, we haven’t had many good solutions for preserving food in ways that are also light and portable.
MARX DE SALCEDO: The reason that rations had not changed in millennia was because there were no new food preservation techniques. And so rations relied on drying, salting, curing, and smoking. And so even in as late as the French and American Revolutionary Wars, what soldiers were carrying in their rucksacks was pretty much the same thing as the Roman legionnaires almost 2,000 years earlier.
TWILLEY: And then everything changes. Thanks to Napoleon, some hot water, and a candy maker. Dinner—within the army and without—has never been the same.
MARX DE SALCEDO: During the French Revolutionary War there was a lot of hunger and starvation experienced both by citizens and soldiers, and this may have been the impetus. We do not know for sure.
GRABER: At the time, Napoleon was a young man rising through the military ranks. It might be because of the hunger he saw during the revolution, but, in any case, one of Napoleon’s top priorities when he became emperor was to figure out a better way to feed those hungry French troops. After all, he needed that army to help him take over all of Europe. So Napoleon offered a 12,000 franc award for anyone who could come up with a new, improved preservation method.
TWILLEY: Enter Nicolas Appert.
MARX DE SALCEDO: I like to describe Nicolas Appert as a bad boy celebrity chef turned candy maker. He decided to meet this challenge, and it turned out that candy making store was actually the perfect place to do so. And the reason was is that it has a lot of very specialized equipment.
TWILLEY: Because Nicolas was a candy maker, he already knew how to preserve fruit, by preparing it in syrups, jams, and jellies, inside sealed glass containers. So he decided to see if he could do the same sort of thing with other foods. He took vegetables, meat stews, peas, and beans and put them in sealed glass jars too.
MARX DE SALCEDO: And then he would put that glass vessel into a larger metal vessel with boiling water. This is actually a technique called the water bath.
GRABER: Another name for this water bath is a bain marie, literally Mary’s bath. The invention is attributed to a woman, to a Jewish alchemist. She is the first known woman alchemist, she lived in Egypt in the first century CE.
TWILLEY: So when you use a double boiler to melt chocolate or make a hollandaise sauce, you’re using a device invented in an attempt to transform base metal into gold! Which it does not do, but it is an amazing tool to hold the temperature steady at 212 degrees Fahrenheit—the boiling point of water—for as long as you want. Your food doesn’t overheat and burn and more importantly, it stays at that temperature long enough to kill all the microbes.
GRABER: Nicolas didn’t know about microbes, but he experimented. He put his jars of soups and stews into the bain marie…
MARX DE SALCEDO: And then he would cook the food for a period of time and then stopper up the bottle.
TWILLEY: And it worked!
MARX DE SALCEDO: Then he actually began to sell his products to the middle class in glass bottles and he called it “spring, summer, and fall in a bottle,” which is lovely poetic name.
TWILLEY: Once Nicolas had this process perfected, he brought his most delicious examples to the Navy, to see whether they would win him Napoleon’s big cash prize. And although it took the government a while, eventually he went home with 12,000 francs, in return for giving up the rights to his invention.
GRABER: But his invention relied on glass jars. It took an another guy to come up with an alternative—the tin can. Though even these weren’t ideal, because workers could only make six to ten tin cans a day.
MARX DE SALCEDO: So I don’t think it was something that was used except in the addition to the normal rations, and possibly for the officers’ mess, which is actually what happened in during the Civil War. Cans were only supplied to officers, and I believe it was canned condensed milk. And the regular enlisted men did not have access to this kind of food.
TWILLEY: So what about our candyman inventor? Nicolas Appert got the cash prize, like we said, and he used it to set up a bottling factory. For a while, life was good. He’s even credited with inventing peppermint schnapps, as an ice cream topping. But he had given away the rights to his best idea—the canning, not the peppermint schnapps—and his factory was trashed when Napoleon’s enemies invaded France.
MARX DE SALCEDO: Appert ended up dying anonymous and a pauper.
GRABER: What’s just as bad, or maybe even worse, is that you’ve probably never heard of Nicolas Appert, because he isn’t given credit for basically inventing pasteurization. That’s because he had no idea why his invention worked. Louis Pasteur discovered how microbes cause food to spoil and why the bain marie kills pathogens. That’s why this canning process keeps food safe longer. But Nicolas Appert discovered the process itself first.
TWILLEY: But today it’s pasteurizing, not Appertizing.
GRABER: It takes more than a century to get to the next big incentive to improve military food. And that’s World War II.
TWILLEY: Between 1939 and 1945, the military went from feeding just under four hundred thousand soldiers to having to provide three meals a day for more than 12 million recruits, stationed all over the world.
GRABER: By then the military had some new foods for the troops. They had this new ready-to-eat meal called the C ration, which was unappetizing grey stew in a can, in a single serving portion.
MARX DE SALCEDO: And it also had some dried rations, it had a chocolate bar which was called the D ration. And this was something that had been made to be deliberately unpalatable so that soldiers would use it in an emergency. These rations didn’t fare so well when they were shipped around the world. First of all, their packaging didn’t stand up to different climates and conditions. So the cans rusted, the cellophane on the D rations allowed water in and they became soggy.
TWILLEY: On top of that, soldiers complained that the fat in the C ration stew separated and went rancid, the meat tasted as if it had been cooked for months, the eggs and dairy smelled revolting, and the cans themselves were weighty and unwieldy
MARX DE SALCEDO: This was one of the reasons that the U.S. turned around and decided to invest a lot more in food science research during the war. So over the course of the four years of World War II, a small laboratory that really started as an ad hoc thing, with three employees, two of whom were former cooking instructors, one of whom was a secretary, a very small supply of battered equipment.
GRABER: That tiny ad-hoc lab was transformed. It became a huge research center, with around 300 employees specializing in chemistry and vitamins and packaging. They partnered with 500 university and industrial food science labs.
MARX DE SALCEDO: That whole system stayed in place after the war. And it became part of the policy of preparedness, so that we would always be ready at an instant’s notice to be able to enter a large multinational scrum such as World War II. So the Natick Center is a direct descendant of that system.
TWILLEY: And the Natick Center is where Cynthia and I were lucky enough to sample the military’s next-gen eggs. Eggs, like, 5.0?
GRABER: The research center was constructed in the 1960s, and it houses departments that are in charge of studying all kinds of things, like soldier’s clothing and shelter. But, of course, they also are in charge of what soldiers eat.
WHITSITT: So we do the research, development, test, and evaluation for food that our war fighters are eating either on the battlefield and in some cases in a garrison environment. So a dining facility and things like that.
TWILLEY: We’ve met Jeremy already this episode. He’s deputy director of the combat feeding program. And our first stop at Natick was actually him taking us on a trip backwards in time, through a little museum they have set up to showcase the unappetizing history of U.S. military food.
WHITSITT: Yeah, so this is kind of a walk through history, and it’s certainly not a comprehensive history of military rations, but I think you’ll get a good taste for it.
GRABER: Jeremy started us with the Revolutionary War — the soldiers ate hardtack, that super dry cracker, and preserved pork.
TWILLEY: Then there’s an entire section dedicated to that giant leap forward, the tin can.
WHITSITT: The can was was good against preventing moisture and bugs and things from getting into the food and making it go bad. But if you can imagine having all these cans kind of on your person and either in your rucksack or in your cargo pockets, and not only the weight but trying to assume like a quick position on the ground, those cans are like digging into your legs.
GRABER: Not the most comfortable.
TWILLEY: But that was the deal throughout World War II and even Vietnam: soldiers were expected to stuff up to 9 tins of food into their field jacket along with their grenades and ammunition. According to reports from the time, 2 out of every 3 cans were thrown away.
GRABER: Until 1980, when the can finally met its replacement. The folks at the Natick Center had been working on a can alternative forever, since 1959. It was their main priority. The researchers finally, after decades, managed to create a flexible foil-lined pouch that could be sterilized and hermetically sealed and ripped open at mealtime. This is it, people!
TWILLEY: This is the MRE. The meal-ready-to-eat, as it’s called in the army’s special C3PO way of talking. Woohoo! Mission accomplished. The team at Natick gave themselves a giant round of applause, job well done.
GRABER: And this flexible MRE was indeed great. But then, David says, the U.S. entered into the next major battlefield, this time in the Middle East: Desert Storm.
ACCETTA: So if you look at the initial invasion of Iraq in 1991, in Operation Desert Storm, and then again in 2003, there wasn’t time to stop and set up field kitchens and serve soldiers and Marines hot food. So they ate MREs and that was the only thing that they had, and if they had to eat them three times a day then they ate them three times a day.
TWILLEY: But the problem was, they weren’t eating them. These new MREs might have been lighter and easier to carry thanks to the revolutionary flexible pouch, but there were only twelve different menus. Which led to problems that the Natick team diplomatically referred to as “menu fatigue.”
ACCETTA: Even if you liked all twelve, you were going to eat the same thing over again within a period of three or four days.
GRABER: But the troops weren’t eating them all. Once again, they were throwing a lot away. That meant they just weren’t eating enough food. Or if they did manage to scrounge through the package or trade to get snacks that they liked, they weren’t getting the nutrition that they needed. The army says the troops were suffering physically and cognitively.
TWILLEY: Boredom wasn’t the only reason soldiers weren’t eating their MREs. It was also because they frequently had to consume these meal pouches cold.
GRABER: It’s because they had to use fuel tabs to heat up water. Lauren Oleksyk told us that the fuel tabs couldn’t be packaged with the food, and so they didn’t always show up in the same place at the same time as the MREs.
OLEKSYK: Really, there was no way of heating that food in the field. They can eat it cold. But from a morale standpoint, from an acceptability standpoint, they like it much better when it’s heated.
TWILLEY: So yeah, cold meatballs in marinara sauce from a pouch three meals a day—I think I’d end up deciding it was better to be a little hungry sometimes, too.
GRABER: So now the team at Natick has a new huge challenge ahead. They have a lightweight foil pouch. But how can the team create a new way to heat the food that can be packaged with the food, so that the people in the field won’t be stuck in a situation where they have fuel bars but don’t have their MREs, or they have their MREs but the fuel bars didn’t make it?
TWILLEY: And beyond this thermal challenge—how did the fact that all these soldiers were throwing their pouches away, uneaten, lead to a whole new era of shelf-stable hot pockets and even military pizza!
TWILLEY: So here’s our situation: The food is cold. This does not help with quote “palatability.” The army needs another breakthrough. They get to work after the first Gulf war, and in 1993, which is kind of record-breaking speed for the military, they came up with a winner.
ACCETTA: So the flameless ration heater allows them to have hot food anywhere that they are, because all you need to do is add water and it’s an exothermic reaction. And we just happen to have with us here Laurie Oleksyk, who was instrumental in the development of the flameless ration heater.
OLEKSYK: So this is a very small lightweight chemical heater that is magnesium and iron-based. And when the soldier is ready to heat up his main entree, he slides the flexible pouch down inside of this bag and adds water up until the fill lines. And within about maybe four or five minutes, the heater starts to activate and it just produces heat and steam and will heat the entree up till about 140 degrees Fahrenheit—a good serving temperature—in about eight minutes
GRABER: A company called ZestoTherm in Ohio had developed this technology as a heating pad. Lauren adapted it for the military. Basically, as Lauren said, it works by combining magnesium and iron, and then you add water in the field.
OLEKSYK: The natural reaction of those elements is to produce heat. But it doesn’t produce heat very quickly, so we added salt as a catalyst for that reaction and it takes off fast.
TWILLEY: All this talk of magnesium and iron was making me hungry. Plus we wanted to experience some of that steam heat for ourselves.
GRABER: So we decided to have lunch—army style.
TWILLEY: David used his pocket knife to open a big cardboard box full of MREs
ACCETTA: Okay, here is your vegetarian meal. Menu number three: vegetable crumbles with pasta in taco-style sauce.
GRABER: Sounds fun, yeah.
ACCETTA: Does that sound like a winner?
GRABER: Okay, yeah maybe.
TWILLEY: What am I going to get?
ACCETTA: You get lucky, you get spaghetti and meatballs in marinara.
GRABER: Oh, you get the one they all want. Nicky, you apparently scored big time.
TWILLEY: Yep, David told us that meatballs is the most popular entree out of all 24 MREs.
ACCETTA: Okay, so…
TWILLEY: Inside the foil pouch was not just our veggie crumbles and marinara meatballs, but a whole bunch of other little foil packets filled with random things to eat. It was kind of like a stocking on Christmas morning. Italian breadsticks…
GRABER: Jalapeno cashews.
TWILLEY: Teriyaki beef stick.
GRABER: This is my—I don’t know, this doesn’t say anything.
GRABER: That mystery was actually a pouch of cooked pears. There was an oatmeal cookie, a powdered drink, jalapeno cheese spread, something called a first strike energy bar… Ooh and I got chunky peanut butter! Yum.
TWILLEY: I’m jealous of that
ACCETTA: It’s for your crackers.
ACCETTA: Now one thing that you have to keep in mind is that these are designed for troops in a very active environment. So you’re looking at 12 to 1500 calories if you eat this whole thing which is more than a sedentary adult might need in one day.
GRABER: You’re saying that we’re not as active as the military? I don’t know here.
ACCETTA: I’m saying that I shouldn’t eat this whole thing at one meal.
TWILLEY: At this point, our stomachs were rumbling. It was time to bust out Lauren’s secret weapon, the flameless ration heater.
ACCETTA: Alright, and then you want to make sure that the water is circulating around and gets to the pad that has the iron and magnesium powder in it.
GRABER: Does it feel warm to you yet.
ACCETTA: Not yet, it’s going to get there. And once it activates you’ll start to see.
GRABER: Oh, the steam. Oh my gosh. It’s steaming, Nicky, take a picture.
ACCETTA: I don’t know if you can—if the microphone will pick up on it—you can hear it.
TWILLEY: Yes, you certainly can hear it! That’s the sound of flameless ration heater steam!
GRABER: I know the whole point of this flameless heater is that it heats up the food, but it was kind of shocking how quickly it got too hot to touch.
TWILLEY: While we waited the eight minutes Lauren had recommended, we snacked. So I’m opening my—wait, what did you call it? Dehydrated bread concept.
ACCETTA: It’s shelf stable.
TWILLEY: Shelf stable bread. Like the well brought up individual I am, I shared my Italian breadsticks with the table.
TWILLEY: So this is not bread but it’s also not not bread.
GRABER: It’s kind of like a soft thick cracker.
TWILLEY: Yeah. Soft and thick and still quite… moist.
GRABER: So the creation of this shelf-stable soft-ish bread was a major innovation over the hardtack of centuries past. But I have to admit, we didn’t love it. Okay, so I’m going to try my um…
TWILLEY: Oh yeah.
GRABER: It smells totally like the kind of taco pasta veggie fake meat thing.
TWILLEY: And now you have some on your microphone.
GRABER: Oh I do. It tastes like, you know, those cans of like veggie pasta and kind of fake meat stuff that I would have eaten early on in my vegetarian days. It’s totally tasty.
GRABER: Now that I’m not sitting next to the people who work on this, I can admit that it wouldn’t be my first choice or even my second choice for lunch. That said, it did really taste like something I would have eaten decades ago from a can.
TWILLEY: My problem was that my expectations had been raised. Meatballs are the troop favorite. I was expecting something a little… frankly, tastier.
TWILLEY: Little meatballs, orange sauce. Mmm. Probably should have heated it up a little bit more but totally edible. There’s an interesting after-taste—let me put my finger on it…
GRABER: I didn’t try your meal, but, Nicky, it was clear that you didn’t love it.
ACCETTA: if you are sitting in a building at a table and you’ve got heat and you’ve got electricity and you’re eating your MRE, you may not appreciate it in the same way that you would appreciate it if you were cold, wet, tired, and hungry and sitting in the dark in the rain on a mountainside in Afghanistan.
TWILLEY: David is trying to say in the nicest possible way that Cynthia and I are spoiled brats. Point taken.
GRABER: But the other point is that these are huge improvements over the MREs that people ate during Desert Storm. And innovating in new food products, and making MREs tastier and more healthful—that’s all still going on today.
TWILLEY: Including years of R&D to develop the holy grail of rations: shelf stable pizza
OLEKSYK: For Michelle, the pizza was the most desired and asked for product in the MRE. And she tackled that, every challenge that came along with developing that pizza and stuck with it until we overcame every single hurdle.
GRABER: Michelle Richardson spearheaded the pizza development research.
TWILLEY: As a civilian, pizza for dinner seems like the lazy option, but pizza was full-on egg-level military food science nightmare.
RICHARDSON: And when you come up with this idea to give them the pizza, but then you put all these different things—we have the cheese, we have the pepperoni, we have the sauce, and we have the bread. And they all have different characteristics when it comes to water activity and pH.
GRABER: Let’s start with water activity. Imagine leaving pizza out on the countertop. It gets soggy.
TWILLEY: Michelle says the first thing the team had to do is to control the water activity in the pizza. The problem is that water wants to migrate from the wetter ingredients like sauce and cheese, to the ones that you would like to keep dry, like the crust.
RICHARDSON: So if you have a bread with a water activity that’s very similar to the water activity of the pepperoni or the cheese, you can kind of control that migration because the migration is based on the water activity difference. And so we try not to have a big gradient, so you don’t get that migration.
GRABER: How does Michelle make sauce that has the same water activity as a much drier bread? With something called humectants. These are incorporated into the sauce, and they bind to water to keep the water in the sauce and away from the bread.
RICHARDSON: And we use different things, like, rice syrup is one of the components. Salt is an excellent, probably one of the best humectants. However it would also contribute to the flavor. So it’s like a balancing act. And so we use things like glycerol, which is the backbone of a fatty acid and a major component of a lot of foods and candies nowadays. And so by looking at different concentrations of those ingredients, we’re able to lower the water activity in the sauce
TWILLEY: Success! But it’s not enough that the pizza doesn’t go soggy. It also has to stay good for 3 years without refrigeration. All that lovely moist cheese and pepperoni—it has to not grow mold or bacteria.
GRABER: To stop the pizza from becoming a food poisoning nightmare, the team uses something called hurdle technologies.
RICHARDSON: And you can think of hurdle technologies as a series of barriers that you can put into food to prevent the growth of bacteria. And so what we looked at is different technologies, all different hurdles that we can incorporate into the food.
TWILLEY: Michelle told us that she played around with a lot of different ways to reduce microbe growth without messing up the taste and texture.
RICHARDSON: We’ll use preservatives. And you know, we try to use natural preservatives. In the shelf stable sandwiches, we use things like mold inhibitors, yeast inhibitors, and things like that. We also use pasteurization, we consider the baking step a pasteurization step. Then we also use packaging as another hurdle. So. The idea is that one of these alone will not make the food stable, but in combination it will.
GRABER: The MREs are supposed to last three years in the field. But luckily Michelle doesn’t have to leave her packaged pizza out for three years to make sure it’s still tasty and safe to eat. They’ve developed ways to mimic that three-year time frame. They make sure that no undesirable microbes are growing, and that the pizza hasn’t collapsed into a soggy mess.
TWILLEY: This shelf life testing is one of the last steps for Michelle, but, at that point, pizza was still not ready for prime time. Next it had to be taste tested in the field.
GRABER: Pizza is one dish that people have been practically begging for. And after Michelle worked on the pizza conundrum for five years with lots and lots of iterations, this version has aced both the lab safety and the field taste tests.
RICHARDSON: And I think besides pizza, beer is one of the other things they want, and so we were actually happy when we actually able to solve this problem and give it to them. This will probably go into the next MRE.
TWILLEY: Pizza may finally be solved, but the work is never done. In the same lab as Michelle—the food engineering and analysis lab—there are all sorts of scientists working on all sorts of weird future ration concepts.
OLEKSYK: They call this the Willy Wonka lab.
GRABER: Hopefully nobody will blow up into a big purple.
GRABER: We walked around the lab with Tom, Michelle, and Lauren—no, nobody was blowing up into a giant purple bubble—and they showed us 3D-printed food on demand. They’re checking out a new microwave sterilizing technology that’s faster than boiling pouches in water, so the food keeps more of its flavor and nutrition. We tried those egg puff bites. The eggs won’t be in the MRE in the near future, but hopefully soon. Senior food technologist Tom Yang worked on those. And he has a few more projects in the pipeline.
TOM YANG: This is a French technology. I happened to encounter this technology also was about fifteen years ago.
TWILLEY: The particular problem that was bothering Tom fifteen years ago is the jerky problem. The way to make jerky is by soaking meat in brine. Which is a problem already because the Natick team wants to keep sodium levels down.
YANG: So it’s very salty. And after we store the regular jerky for two three years, become very brittle.
GRABER: The fibers in the meat get more and more tightly bound together over time and the jerky gets too crunchy.
TWILLEY: So this French technology Tom came across—again, fifteen years ago—it’s called Osmo Food. And the way it works is that it uses a sugar solution—maltodextrin specifically—to lure some of the moisture out of the food.
YANG: You grind up the meat, any meat. Beef, pork, chicken, ostrich, goat meat, whatever or even fish. Grind it up and extrude it to a sheet like a fruit roll up, very thin, 2 mm thick sheet and go through these osmotic tank which contained a sugar solution but very concentrated.
TWILLEY: The sheet of meat comes out of the tank in a condition that Tom calls semi-moist.
YANG: And it’s versatile. We try it, after two or three years is still soft and juicy, not like a conventional jerky is very hard like a rock.
GRABER: We didn’t actually get to taste this product, so we were just going by Tom’s description. But I think our favorite project of Tom’s was his salad bar.
TWILLEY: I’m so intrigued by the salad bar.
YANG: You can munch it. This is balsamic vinegar.
GRABER: Wow, that’s good!
TWILLEY: A salad MRE? Whatever next?!!
GRABER: If only. These salad bars weren’t not exactly that. They were freeze dried.
TWILLEY: The military actually invented freeze-drying back in World War 2, but they don’t use it a lot at Natick—it’s too expensive. And actually if you freeze dry just a solo vegetable, it becomes woody and tasteless.
GRABER: So Tom first marinates his vegetables in different flavors of salad dressing before he freeze dries them into a bar. It definitely improves the flavor.
TWILLEY: And then he wraps his marinated freeze-dried salad mix inside these groovy vegetable-based wrappings that Michelle found for him, and ta da, a salad bar.
GRABER: So now Tom knows his salad dressing-wrapper trick works and tastes good. But because freeze drying is expensive, Tom’s looking for a new process to make his salad bar. He thinks maybe vacuum microwave drying is going to be the way to go. That’s what they used on the eggs puffs we tasted. I’m guessing it’s going to be a few years before this salad bar is in the field.
TWILLEY: All this weird vacuum microwaved egg puffs and freeze-dried salad bars and fish roll-ups—they’re not just about making military food taste better and be more nutritious.
WHITSITT: The demand signal that we keep getting from the force is: we want it lighter, we want it lower in volume. We want to be able to stick our guys out in some forward operating area for seven days without resupplying them.
GRABER: Jeremy Whitsitt is deputy director for the combat feeding program, and he wants to make sure that the people in the field get just what they need. Because today’s wars are different from the wars of the past.
TWILLEY: When the generals lay out their vision for the future of war, it doesn’t usually include details such as what the troops will be eating. But dinner is a detail that actually matters. Jeremy told us a story about a bar his team had developed for the 82nd Airborne. That’s a parachute division, and they’d been seeing a bunch of injuries on their jumps.
WHITSITT: But the idea is sometimes these guys haven’t eaten for six to eight hours before they’re getting ready to jump and it’s kind of a mentally rigorous task that they’re asked to do. So they were theorizing that hey, maybe it’s a lack of food or lack of nutrition. They’re kind of making these little mental mistakes that are increasing the static line injuries.
GRABER: So researchers at Natick took their super energy dense first strike bar, which has a lot of calories in it. And they added 200 milligrams of caffeine to it. Because caffeine obviously helps with concentration.
WHITSITT: We made those in-house, about 5000 of them, and delivered them to 82nd Airborne. They jumped into Poland and Germany with them and about an hour before they were due to jump, each soldier would take it out of their cargo pocket or their sleeve pocket, eat it.
And it’s anecdotal evidence at this point, but the amount of injuries they had dramatically decreased and they’re attributing it to the fact that these guys were able to eat an hour before.
TWILLEY: There’s a saying: an army marches on its stomach. But sometimes we forget how much it matters that the troops are properly fed.
GRABER: Nicky and I might have seemed a little picky about our lunch, but, really, the meals today are way better than the ones in the past. And they’re better balanced, too. It’s not just making sure the troops get as many calories as they need, but scientists are also focused on the overall nutritional balance of the meals.
TWILLEY: Admittedly, they’re mostly adding those vitamins and micronutrients by fortifying heavily processed foods rather than through finding a way to serve whole foods—but they’re trying. Look at Tom’s salad bar. The thing is that it just takes forever to engineer food that can meet the military’s unique challenges.
MARX DE SALCEDO: I actually am going to take my hats off to the Natick Center, because I think that the fact that they have been able to create a ration system that is nutritious, portable, rugged, can be shipped halfway around the world, can last up to three years at room temperature and can help soldiers survive in the field and in battle is remarkable. And has been a competitive advantage for the United States during military engagements. So yes, it’s a competitive factor and it’s been very important.
GRABER: That’s Anastacia—again, she’s the author of Combat Ready Kitchen. And she says not only have the breakthroughs at Natick been critical for the military, but these breakthroughs have transformed what we can find on our supermarket shelves. In fact, the subtitle of her book is “How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat.”
TWILLEY: So we asked her to walk us around an imaginary supermarket and show us some of the foods the military has had its hand in. We started off in the produce department.
MARX DE SALCEDO: One of the things is the packaged greens and salads that people like to buy. I know I certainly do, because you don’t have to clean them and we Americans hate cleaning anything. So the technology there is modified and controlled atmospheric packaging, which was developed during the 1960s to better preserve things like lettuce and celery to send to Vietnam.
GRABER: That’s one example. And remember those breakthrough foil packages? You’ve probably used them, too. Think about Capri Sun, or tuna in a pouch—all of that is only possible because of the military.
MARX DE SALCEDO: If we move into the meat section, there actually two—at least two major influences. The first is something no one would think of, which is that the meat is served cut off the bone and packaged in the different cuts. And that is actually goes back to World Wars I and II, when the the military got the idea that it would reduce costs if they didn’t have to ship over carcasses, and instead started to slice meat off at the point of slaughter and pack it up into boxes. And a final meat product would be the high pressure processing, which is also used to create lines of preservative-free deli products.
TWILLEY: This high-pressure processing—on labels, it’s sometimes called cold processing, because it doesn’t involve heat—it is a fancy way of sterilizing food and it’s also the trick used to keep those shelves of expensive fresh juices good for days.
MARX DE SALCEDO: Next aisle I’m in, let’s say I’m looking at some freeze-dried coffee and tea.
GRABER: As we mentioned earlier, freeze-drying was developed by the military, though it never really took off there. And then Anastacia walked us over to the bakery aisle.
MARX DE SALCEDO: That relies on a military breakthrough called intermediate moisture food, which is created by knowing how to control and predict something called water activity, and allows you to create moist and chewy things at room temperature. So all sorts of cookies. And of course our beloved granola bars. Again in that aisle you might have supermarket bread, which is kept soft and fresh for weeks by virtue of an enzyme that is supplied by a heat-resistant bacteria. The idea for this again came from the military during the 1950s, when they were looking for a way to create a canned bread.
TWILLEY: All of the pepperoni hot pockets and those cheese-filled combos snack things and those pre-made PB&J Uncrustable sandwiches: all of those are made possible by the same techniques Michelle used for the military pizza. It’s about stopping the water in the soggier ingredient from getting into the drier crust. That plus the enzymes that keep the bread soft forever.
GRABER: And now we’ve made it to the check-out counter. There you might find some Pringles, they’re made of dehydrated potatoes using a method developed by the military.
TWILLEY: And you’ll probably also see M&Ms, which were developed during World War II as a way to give the soldiers chocolate that wouldn’t melt.
MARX DE SALCEDO: When we get to that checkout counter and look back at the store, if we were removing all items that had a military origin or influence, I estimate that the store would be half empty at least.
GRABER: This is the hidden story about military food. It has a huge impact on what we eat—the cost to do all the research and develop these techniques is spent in military labs, and then processed food manufacturers can just jump on it and use it to create new products for our tables.
TWILLEY: We went to Natick to try rations, but really, you can eat the products of military R&D anytime you want—you probably did today, already, without even thinking. After all, consumers also want food that’s convenient and portable and doesn’t go bad. In the end, feeding soldiers is just a more extreme version of the same set of challenges. So yeah, what the military eats matters—to us too.
TWILLEY: Thanks this episode to the team at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center, particularly David Accetta, who gave up his day to make ours so fascinating.
GRABER: Thanks also to the scientists we met at the food engineering and analysis team: Michelle Richardson, Lauren Oleksyk, Tom Yang, and Mary Shaira.
TWILLEY: Thanks also to Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, the author of Combat Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat. We have a link to her book on our website.
GRABER: We’ll be back in two weeks with a show that involves one of our favorite substances, and efforts to replace it.