Feeding deployed troops a demanding mix of science, personal preference
An Army — Air Force, Navy and Marines too — travels on its stomach. That was codified as far back as Napoleon some 200 years ago.
That hasn’t changed. And no aspect of remote deployment comes under heavier fire than the daily rations available to U.S. troops … rations known as “Meals Ready to Eat” or MREs. They are the staple for warfighters with no access to conventional dining facilities and hot meals.
No doubt forward-deployed troops dream of mom’s fried chicken, mac and cheese and apple pie. That’s the unspoken standard and MREs may not always measure up. But, again, mom’s meals don’t have to meet the exacting requirements of the MREs carried in a typical rucksack.
MREs must maintain their quality for three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit or for six months at more extreme temperatures. They must meet the surgeon general’s standards for calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat. They also must be air droppable by parachute.
By the time an MRE meal reaches a soldier, Marine or airman at a lonely outpost, it has met those requirement. It has also met an initial — and on-going — troop taste test.
The Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center near Boston is responsible for developing the array of MREs for the Defense Department and making sure they are acceptable to the critical palates of men and women in the field.
Jeremy Whitsitt, technology integration analyst for the center’s combat feeding directorate, said a team of product developers, food scientists, nutritionists and consumer researchers travels to field training exercises each year to get a get a thumbs up or down from troops having to consume what has been produced.
“We collect a lot of data,” Whitsitt is quoted in a Pentagon press release, “and from that data we boil it down to the top-rated items from the new group and some of the lowest rated items from the control group.”
Whitsitt said those continuing acid tests saw the elimination of “country captain chicken” in 2005, the veggie omelet in 2009 and a number of items in 2011: white albacore tuna, chicken and dumplings, veggie griller, Mexican corn, hamburger patty, buffalo chicken and Mexican rice.
The analyst believes a process based on customer recommendations and feedback is paying off.
“A lot of the comments we get hint to the fact that we are pleasing most of the people most of the time,” he said. “And when it comes to food, that probably is the greatest compliment you can get, considering you are talking about 2.2 million warfighters.”
Research at the Natick center, particularly in food processing and packaging, is evolving. New methods of sterilization hopefully will result, Whitsitt noted, in less protein degradation and improved taste, texture, odor, flavor and overall quality. They may also broaden the scope of foods available such as a current prototype “salmon in alfredo sauce” entrée.
According to the Pentagon release, reducing the weight of MREs is also a major concern.
“We know that the warfighters are sometimes carrying 75 to 100 pounds on their back and the last thing we want to do is add unnecessary weight for them,” Whitsitt stressed.
Some of the favorite MREs? Whitsitt said “Southwest beef and black bean” introduced in 2010 is a crowd pleaser. “Mediterranean chicken” is also a favorite. “Ratatouille” and “Santa Fe rice and beans” are gaining ground.
New entrees for 2012 are “Asian pepper steak” and “Mexican chicken stew.” “Au gratin potatoes” along with a multigrain snack bread, jalapeno-cheese-filled crackers, a banana nut Ranger bar and sour fruit candy are also new for 2012.
Balancing what troops want with other factors such as nutrition and field-worthiness is both science and art. Whitsitt believes the center is being successful.
“Our whole mission is to ensure the joint warfighter is the best fed in the world,” he is quoted in the Pentagon release. “And we take our mission very seriously. We truly feel that we are fueling the Defense Department’s most adaptive and flexible weapons platform — the individual warfighter.”
Short URL: http://militaryfeed.com/?p=11987