Thanks to cutting-edge technology, troops could soon be eating shelf-stable hash browns and bacon and close-to-homemade macaroni and cheese in the field.
Transforming these comfort foods into meals, ready-to-eat that will last at least three years in the packaging requires all-new food science, according to Dr. Tom Yang, a food technologist at at the Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. His latest project involves osmotic meat technology -- a better way to make long-lasting jerky, bacon, pepperoni and more.
Traditional MRE beef jerky has definite drawbacks, Yang said in a telephone interview with Military.com. It requires more than two days to dry and prepare and its preservation involves soaking in a very salty solution, which makes it less healthy. Also, he said, MRE jerky tends to get more brittle the longer it remains in storage.
Enter osmotic meat. The process, first developed by French scientists, involves feeding meat into a hopper that grinds it finely and rolls it out in flat sheets.
"Like a fruit roll-up," Yang said.
The meet sheets are then treated with a food-grade non-sugar syrup that draws most of the moisture out of them in an osmotic process. The resulting product can be eaten as is, or briefly toasted in strips to make jerky or bacon. The whole process takes less than four hours.
Yang can infuse the osmotic meat with a variety of flavors during the preparation process. He envisions creating barbecue or chipotle versions of turkey jerky, which will be more nutritious and stay chewy for the entire shelf life of the MRE.
The science will also enable him to create turkey bacon that is flavored to taste like the real thing -- a handy workaround for when troops deploy to countries in which the consumption of pork is restricted.
An early taste test of the osmotic meat was well received, Yang said. Now, he said, he is preparing for a larger field test of hundreds of soldiers that will likely take place in January. Troops will be able to taste two menu items: a hash browns-and-bacon entree and a jerky snack.
"If they think it's not salty enough or not enough bacon flavor, we can easily modify the formulation," Yang said.
Those MREs may be approved for fielding in the next two to three years.
But troops may see home-style mac and cheese in their MRE pouches even sooner.
Research is moving forward with another technology called microwave assisted thermal sterilization, which allows scientists to safely cook MRE entrees much more quickly than the traditional slow-cooker method.
"Soldiers love mac and cheese, but you can't get it in the field. When you reheat mac and cheese in the field, it becomes a lump," Yang said.
This new cooking method will allow more delicate entrees like macaroni and cheese to retain their texture, taste and appeal. It also paves the way for more entree options, like salmon in alfredo sauce and creamy chicken pasta.
"It will remind [troops] of mom's cooked food," Yang said.
Field tests of the mac and cheese MRE have gone well, Yang said. He expects the meal to be approved for production in a year or two.