Army Chow: Tradition of Fine Dining Goes High Tech

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When we think about military systems commands we normally conjure up images of weapons ranges and test pilots. But the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center is involved in pursuits arguably less glamorous but no less important to the war effort.

Among NSRDEC's missions is the research, development, testing and engineering of "combat feeding systems." The command sums up this particular mission like this: "As long as there are wars, there will be boots on the ground; and where there are boots on the ground, there must be combat rations."

Roger that. So let's start with a quick bit of modern military gastronomic history, this from a recent Natick press release:

"The MRE replaced the Meal, Combat Individual, which some still refer to as the old 'C-Ration,' beginning in 1980.

"From its year of introduction to 1987, the MRE contained such memorable items as: Ham and Chicken Loaf, Smoky Franks (aka 'the Five Fingers of Death'), Chicken a la King (or Chicken 'a la Death') and the ever popular freeze dried pork, beef and potato patties. In 1988, eight of the original 12 entrees were replaced with entrees that were slightly more identifiable, to include spaghetti and meat sauce.

"The MRE had the opportunity to go to war in Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

"Unfortunately, the initial feedback on the acceptance of the MRE wasn't pretty. It wasn't the four letter words we heard, but the combination of 4-letter words! Gerry Darsch, then chief of the Ration Systems Division, was called to the Pentagon. It was 'suggested' by the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Colin Powell, that we explore how to 'fix it!'"

In classic Army fashion the first step in carrying out General Powell's directive was to include hot sauce in every MRE. Other developmental milestones included the Flameless Ration Heater (1993), the end of freeze-dried fruit (1994). (It was too expensive. You think FCS is a defense budget buster? You should see the pricetag for dried apricots.)

Other highlights over the years of the MRE Improvement Program include the "hot beverage bag" (very popular in Iraq during the summer months, I'll bet) and the "ergonomically designed drink pouch for dairy shakes." (One wonders what part of the anatomy the pouch is shaped for.)

So what does the future hold for combat feeding systems? Well, even as I write this Combat Feeding Teams are in theater working with frontline units to enhance what Natick calls the "family of combat rations." Right now the teams are fine tuning two new "ration concepts": the First Strike Ration and the Unitized Group Ration-Express (UGR-E). Natick's release goes on to state that after these concepts are fielded they will enter the improvement programs "to insure {sic} . . . the inclusion of science and technology drop-ins to further enhance both rations."

True dat! S&T drop-ins . . . and sprinkles! And while I'm all about warfighters sounding like warfighters, may I suggest that the labels "First Strike" and "UGR-E" ("ughereee!") might need re-think by the PAO shop before they're introduced to the troops.

But there's a method to this dietary madness. According to Natick, "In the not too distant future, rations will contain naturally occurring constituents such as probiotics, which are beneficial bacteria such as those found in yogurt, and, nutraceuticals, which are small nutritional organic molecules. It is anticipated {love that passive voice} that these constituents will provide improved nutrition, cognitive and physical performance enhancement using novel nutrient delivery systems, e.g. buccal (between the cheek and gum) delivery of nutrients based on scientifically proven studies.

"Rations will be packaged using polymeric films relying on nanotechnology and contain enticing aroma emitting films. These will enhance consumption as well as protect and maintain extended shelf life to insure wholesomeness and safety. New food processing methods such as high pressure processing, pulsed electric field, and microwave sterilization will bring more variety and components with higher quality than those processed today via thermostabilization."

Probiotics? Aroma emitting films? Novel nutrient delivery systems? Mouth-watering, indeed. The future dinner bell will be a-ringing loud and clear. Get ready to come and get it, Soldier.

(The gouge: AD)

-- Ward

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