By Allison Kirschbaum

Military combat rations are created to last and withstand wars for military personnel. Yet, having a tasty, warm lunch is still a struggle on the battlefield. Urban myths show that Twinkies and Sponge Coke can last for decades. Plus, some say that they can even survive a nuclear war. However, depending on the expiration date, they can only last about a month. Today, scientists at the Combat Feeding Directorate of the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center in Massachusetts are charged with creating the military food designed to survive the rigors of war. Though these food packets may not survive a nuclear war, they can protect soldiers from infectious diseases.

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Introduction to MRE and Army Combat Rations

In the 1980s, the “Meal, Ready-to-Eat”, or MRE, was introduced, and it is the most common army combat ration. Sometimes, it is also given to people who are stuck by calamity. These combat rations are as good as a full-blown meal; they contain the main dish, like lasagna or chili, and various side dishes. It also includes a chemical heater that can warm the food when a small amount of water triggers it. Even these food packets have an expiration date. But they can last up to three years, especially when left out in 80F (26.7C) heat.

According to Lauren Oleksyk, a food scientist at Natick’s Combat Feeding Directorate, they are keen on food-processing methods, even those not commercially available.

This fantasy of preserving food, especially rations, and making it edible started when scientists searched for foods that could last the conditions of space travel. Nevertheless, these creations became a popular novelty rather than edible. An example is the freeze-dried ice cream created for the Apollo space missions.

Utilizing Functional Foods in Army Combat Rations

Combat rations that are light to carry around the battlefield are essential for the military, especially if supply lines are unavailable since they will be vulnerable to attack. That's why developing US combat rations that are light and provide sustenance is crucial.

Nutrition is also essential, so Natick Labs is developing ways to incorporate it into combat rations. This laboratory has been trying to incorporate omega-3; the only problem is that its fatty acids oxidize quickly. With innovation, Danielle Anderson and fellow scientists at Natick found a way to thinly coat the particles of omega-3 oil to be incorporated into food without reacting to other ingredients.

With such innovation, lemon poppy seed cakes with 300 milligrams of omega-3 have been developed. That's twice what you get rather than eating a 3-ounce canned tuna. Anderson added that the cake can stay fresh for up to three years if placed in a sealed container. But the lemon poppy cake is still in the testing phase before it can join the US combat rations pack.

In addition, Natick scientists are also finding ways to enhance army combat rations with foods that can help them in their daily jobs. Whether protecting them from diseases or improving their stamina.

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Continuous Innovation in Food Processing Methods

Some army combat rations, like cheese tortellini, can resist the rigid heat and last for years while staying edible. On the other hand, the cheese-and-vegetable omelet is unpopular, which is why it was discontinued. That's why scientists at Natick Labs continuously go through many cycles to test new processing methods. The good news is that they plan to add new items to the menu this year, mainly vegetarian and gluten-free options.

In addition, they have been looking to preserve bakery items using the osmotic dehydration method. This method is used to preserve meat rations to taste like deli cold cuts. However, this attempt to prolong bakery goods has yet to be successful. Adding more foods to the combat rations is still a long run for the scientists, but with their constant testing, new foods might be added to the menu.

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