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This article is provided courtesy of Stars and Stripes, which got its start as a newspaper for Union troops during the Civil War, and has been published continuously since 1942 in Europe and 1945 in the Pacific. Stripes reporters have been in the field with American soldiers, sailors and airmen in World War II, Korea, the Cold War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Bosnia and Kosovo, and are now on assignment in the Middle East.

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Closing in on 'Holy Grail' of MRE Options -- Pizza

Pizza prototypes that military researchers are testing for use in MREs are on display at the 2013 Association of the United States Army exposition in Washington, D.C. C.J. Lin/Stars and Stripes

WASHINGTON -- Why aren’t there pizza MREs?

It’s a question troops have asked for as long as they’ve been eating Meals, Ready to Eat.

“Pizza is the holy grail of MREs because for decades, people have been asking for this,” said Paul DellaRocca, program integrator at the Defense Department’s Combat Feeding Directorate, which develops anything troops eat or cook with in the field. "If you give servicemembers a product that isn’t on the mark, he said, “they’re going to bite into it and not say, ‘This is pizza.’ That’s what we need them to say.”

The problem to this point has been that technology hasn’t been advanced enough to make sure the pizza actually tastes like pizza after three years in temperatures up to 80 degrees, according to military researchers. And how do you keep the sauce from soaking into the crust?

But now, researchers at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center think they’ve figured it out by getting down to the molecular level of the sauce and trying different drying methods to preserve the pie.

“We’re looking at new shelf-stable bread formulations to form a crust that’s recognizable to what a soldier would expect a pizza to taste like,” DellaRocca said. “We have to look at formulations that maintain texture, flavor, appearance, odor, so that after three years, when they open it up, it’s going to have the same qualities as it did on Day 1.”

The pizza was unveiled to the public at this year’s annual Association of the United States Army exposition in Washington, although the government shutdown leading up to the event meant that no samples were produced in time for convention-goers to get a taste.

Still, active-duty troops and veterans milling about marveled at the thought of pizza finally being part of MREs, with the packaged slices eliciting responses like “It’s about time,” or “I wish I had that when I was in.” It was those types of responses that backed up Col. Bill Bigelow’s belief that pizza MREs will provide a morale boost in the field.

“When you’re in the deployed environment, it tends to be fear and the monotonous. So the only thing you have to look forward to is the chow,” said Bigelow, director of Army Materiel Command. “And if it’s monotonous chow, that just adds to your misery. But when you get something to look forward to like a slice of pizza after you’ve been out all day on patrol ... it’s a taste of home.”

Researchers say it could be several years before troops can find a slice in their MREs.

As for toppings, so far there’s only pepperoni -- researchers have been experimenting whether crumbles or slices work best -- as well as trying different cooking processes.

They’ve tried osmotic drying, a process which partially removes water from food items and helps the pepperoni maintain texture and moisture with a lower sodium content than expected. They’ve gotten down to the molecular level of the sauce, using edible polymers to keep the sauce from leaving the crust soggy, tested moisture levels in the crust and are experimenting with high-pressure cooking techniques to make sure the pizza has a long enough shelf life, according to DellaRocca.

“We have to look at ways to make sure moisture from the sauce does not migrate into the crust,” DellaRocca said. “We’re binding moisture within the sauce and using that sauce as a layer to potentially act as a barrier between the toppings and the crust.”

But most importantly: How does it taste?

“I was a little skeptical at first,” said DellaRocca. “I come from an Italian family and I’d be lying if I said my mother wouldn’t be disappointed if she heard that a pizza would last for three years. But it tasted like -- what do you know -- pizza!”

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