Households tend to take pantry food for granted, but canned beans, powdered cheese, and bags of moist cookies were not designed for everyday convenience. These standard products were made to meet the needs of the military.
Food and combat have been intertwined ever since the earliest military rations. Ancient Sumerians rode into battle with barley cakes and beer. In the 11th and 12th Centuries, Mongols preserved their meat by storing it under saddles, using salt from the horses and the weight of riders as a mobile preservation technique.
Drying, salting, smoking and pickling were the go-to methods until 1795, when the French government held a contest to find a new preservation technique. A chef Nicolas Appert came forward with canning, which revolutionized food preservation.
During World War II, however, the United States realized there remained a need for preserved food production to ramp up more quickly in times of crisis, and started investing heavily in food technologies.
In the 1950s, the Combat Feeding Directorate was established at the Natick Soldier System Center on a US Army Base in Massachusetts. Today it remains the epicenter of the modern military diet.
The primary purpose of the Natick Center is to overcome the challenges inherent in food: it spoils, grows mold, or it loses flavor. And their food scientists have come up with inventions like the MRE (Meal Ready-to-Eat).
MREs come packaged with chemical heaters to warm food, oxygen scavengers to prevent spoilage and carefully-concocted meals made to be edible for years after their creation date.
MREs may also contain condiments and side dishes, all the various packets tucked into a lightweight pouch and designed to survive in any climate.
One of the Natick Center’s current goals is to finally grant a longtime wish from servicemen: pizza on the battlefield. They hope to have a shelf-stable pizza, which would last for years without refrigeration, available to the military by 2017. And, soon after that, in your grocery store.
As a means of cost reduction, and as a way to readily tap the private sector during wartime, the government has forged a series of public/private partnerships with commercial food producers. The military’s technology and influence can be seen in effectively every grocery aisle.
Many military innovations make their way, in some form or another, into American kitchens. TV dinners, freeze-dried coffee, semi-moist cookies, and condiment packets, were all developed to feed soldiers, sailors, and pilots stationed remotely.
While all these processed and packaged foods have become familiar fare for the American household, most of these products are made to last far longer than the average civilian would need.
There haven’t been many studies about the long-term health impacts of the specific food technologies pioneered by the military, but whether its good for us or not, in the years to come, pizza is moving out of the freezer section and onto room-temperature shelves.
Lead image by Tech. Sgt. Cherie A. Thurlby, U.S. Air Force. All other photos by Tina Antolini unless otherwise noted.
So the military is to blame for overly soft cookies? And probably “chewy” granola, I’d bet!
We had a couple MRE’s that someone gave us. I ate one and it wasn’t too bad. Pretty ingenious how they packaged and preserved the food, and the way to heat up your soup
To unnecessarily address the intro, its a fob pocket for holding your pocket watch and its now frequently call a coin pocket so it is perfect for challenge coins.
I wonder if there’s a 99PI episode about watches/pants anywhere in there…
Oh no, Roman! “powered cheese” in the description. Took me a second to realize it’s supposed to say “powdered cheese”… Anyway, great episode! As always.
fixed it. thanks!
Wonder what the long term side affects of eating military preserved foods ?
I’m sad that I can’t download the episodes as mp3s anymore. Any reason for the change?
We’re working on it – it’s a Soundcloud issue!
Here is one area of the defence budget I have nothing against. Seeing how much of the food produced goes to waste from spoilage, any R&D we can put into food preservation tech is a good idea.
The “Download” button goes to (download unfriendly) SoundCloud. Could somebody fix this? I love to listen to 99PI in the car.
Can’t listen to the episode. Using safari on a Iphone4.
Roman help! Something changed and now people can NOT listen with an iphone!
Thanks for letting us know – we are on the case!
Did I miss it or did Carver and Mazlo not have anything to say on this episode?
Can I point out the tank on the book cover, about American military, is WWII German? It’s a Tiger.
My aunt, Frances Lee, used to be in charge of the Natick Lab’s test kitchen. They prepared meals for consideration by the military for their bases in the U.S. and abroad. Friday was “tasting” day and friends and family could eat (for free!) and fill out a 6-page survey (too salty, too sweet,etc.). Enlisted men once had this task and they even got hazardous duty pay for it. But then the labs switched to civilians. The Natick kitchen also coordinated with Houston to develop food for the astronauts. Frances was one of the inventors of Tang and appeared on the old TV show “What’s My Line” as such. The military still has 5-gallon tins of grapefruit Tang. It’s pretty good…especially with vodka.
The microwave oven wasn’t a “military innovation”. It was invented by Percy Spencer after he discovered the effect microwaves had on a chocolate bar in his pocket (he wasn’t the first to experience this, but the first to look into it). He then tried it with popcorn kernels (worlds first microwaved popcorn!) and then put an egg in a modified kettle and shot a microwave bean at it from the magnetron. The egg exploded.
He then created what might be called the first true microwave oven by attaching a high density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box. The magnetron would then shoot into the metal box (similar to the kettle), so that the electromagnetic waves would have no way to escape, which would allow for more controlled and safe experimentation. He then placed various food items in the box and monitored their temperature to observe the effect.
He happened to be working for Raytheon, a private company that, among other things, produced radar systems which it sold to the US military. Because Spencer came up with the idea of a microwave oven at work, Raytheon was able to patent the invention. The first ovens they made were huge and cost more than a car, but by 1967 they were cheap enough for consumers to buy.
The fact that they were useful to the military is a side benefit, not the cause. The way it was shoehorned as a “military innovation” here throws makes Anastacia’s research seem superficial.
“They hope to have a shelf-stable pizza, which would last for years without refrigeration, available to the military by 2017.”
So did they ever succeed?