The Good Military Food Fight

How the contents of a dumpster can illuminate much needed information.

Wendy Johnson pulls on white surgical gloves and rips open a kitchen-size trash bag. Underneath a crumpled Pop-Tarts wrapper and an empty tuna container she finds it—yet another unopened packet of artificially sweetened, powdered lemon iced tea mix. She double-checks the soldier’s food card, on which he’s logged what he consumed during the day. He claims he drank the tea. But like so many other research recruits at Fort Lewis, Washington, he has tossed it instead. The sad verdict, laid bare in the garbage: The Army’s new beverage has bombed. Of the 208 packets Johnson distributed to soldiers, only five have been consumed. The powdered apple cider hasn’t done much better; only 11 of 394 packets she handed out have even been opened.

Johnson is neither a trash collector nor a spy. But she knows that rooting through the garbage might yield invaluable information. She works as a consumer psychologist in a branch of national security that’s more obscure than Delta Force: the Department of Defense’s Combat Feeding Directorate, which has been toiling for more than 50 years to ensure that military food is all that it can be.

This is not as simple as it sounds. The food must be tough enough to survive a 1,250-foot parachute drop from an airplane or a 150-foot chuteless plunge from a helicopter into the rugged mountains of Afghanistan. It must be edible at temperatures ranging from at least minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit to upwards of 120 degrees and have a shelf life of at least three years at 80 degrees and six months in 100-degree weather. And it must still be tasty enough to ensure that soldiers will eat what they need to stay healthy and strong on the front lines.

Enter Dumpster diving. “We needed to see what soldiers were actually throwing out,” explains food scientist Kathy Evangelos, a 31-year veteran of the Combat Feeding Directorate, who helped pioneer the scavenging practice. “Dumpsters don’t lie.” Not long ago, soldiers hid the truth about military chow—they were too polite to spill. But while the standard fare in the field was officially tagged Meals, Ready-to-Eat, or MREs, the nutritionists eventually learned what the grunts called them: “meals rejected by the enemy” or, even less kindly, “meals refused by everyone.”

MREs hit the trenches in 1983. At the time, they were a revelation. Easier to carry than the heavy enamel C ration cans distributed during World War II, they were also cheaper to produce and packed with nutrients and a hefty dose of necessary calories. Only problem: the taste. “They contained such delicacies as ham and chicken loaf, freeze-dried pork and potato patties, and lots of frankfurters,” says Gerald A. Darsch, the director of Combat Feeding. Soldiers dubbed the hot dogs, which came four to a package, the “four fingers of death.”

The grumbling eventually reached the top brass. After the first Gulf War, Gen. Colin Powell summoned Darsch to his office for a heart-to-heart. “Much of what he said is unprintable,” says Darsch. “But his message was clear: ‘Fix it.’ ”

So Darsch’s staff did some field research. They sent investigators to T.G.I. Friday’s and Applebee’s, establishments soldiers frequented when stationed at home. They studied nutritional trends among young Americans. But the most important strategic maneuver was staged by Darsch in a military research complex outside Boston. He issued a bold command to his own army of food technologists, chemists, microbiologists, engineers, and dietitians: Follow your taste buds.

The Combat Feeding Directorate is part of the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center, known as the Natick Labs, and is tucked away on a sprawling, 78-acre campus on the eastern shore of Massachusetts’s Lake Cochituate. I arrive at the nondescript two-story building on a quiet Wednesday morning for a tour of the facility at the forefront of the good food fight. On the first floor, I pass a giant kitchen, where technicians in crisp white lab coats, plastic gloves, and hairnets move among countertops and stainless steel ovens and stoves. I meet chemists and engineers testing the durability of new kinds of food pouches and protective wrap for packaging the MREs.

In the sensory lab, trained food tasters sample about 4,000 new appetizers, entrées, snacks, and beverages every year. Before they even open their mouths, each taster takes a class on rating food, which is judged on a variety of characteristics, including color, odor, flavor, texture, and appearance. The scale runs from 1 (“dislike extremely”) to 9 (“like extremely”). No item rated below an overall 6 makes the cut. Even those that pass are usually modified based on tasters’ input. Recently, for instance, the lab decided to crank up the raspberry flavoring in its raspberry-swirl sweet rolls, a breakfast favorite among soldiers and tasters alike, in response to complaints that they were a little bland. Since 1993, more than 217 new items have been added to the MRE pouches, while some 65 of the least popular items have been withdrawn.

I don’t get a swirly sweet roll, but I am offered a slice of pleasingly yellow, syrup-drenched pound cake by lab supervisor Jill St. Jean. With some trepidation, I poke my plastic fork into the center. It’s amazingly soft for cake that has been stored in a plastic pouch for several months. I take a bite. The maple syrup flavoring explodes in my mouth. I give it an 8. St. Jean smiles. Most of the tasters love that cake, too, she confides. In fact, items containing maple syrup are so popular that this year, the lab is introducing a blueberry pound cake with maple syrup.

I’m offered a palate cleanser of either arctic-ice mint or cinnamon gumballs. Each contains the same amount of caffeine as one cup of coffee. While initially terrific, the pleasant flavor is quickly dominated by a bitter taste. Still, the gum serves its purpose: delivering a pick-me-up to drowsy war fighters. “We had to find a way to put what they need into gum or food, since we don’t use pills,” says Betty Davis, one of the team leaders.

After a break, it’s lunchtime. I prepare to sample the newly approved beef brisket. The military, my hosts assure me, never adds MSG or any preservative. They don’t need to—instead, they regulate the pH level and the amount of chemically bound water in each meal, to make it inhospitable to microorganisms. The food is packaged in a three- or four-layer shell that keeps out water and oxygen. Finally, the meal is pressure-cooked at 250 degrees Fahr¬enheit for up to 90 minutes, to kill bacteria.

I dunk the meat in the gravy. Not bad. A little lackluster, but nothing that a mini bottle of Tabasco can’t cure—and in fact, hot sauce is included in many MRE packs. My next dish is Mediterranean chicken, a meal that will be introduced to soldiers next year. While the mashed potatoes that accompany it leave something to be desired—they, too, could use some chili pepper—the meat is tender and tastes … just like chicken. (Earlier, I’d tasted powdered scrambled eggs that tasted eggy and, bonus points, were neither overcooked nor runny.) The snack pack of jalapeño-spiced cashews is delicious.

On today’s battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, the “four fingers of death” are a distant memory. Boneless pork ribs and chicken fajitas have taken their place. Other treats, such as maple-flavored breakfast sausages and a potato-Cheddar soup with home-style corn bread, are already set for this year. Vegetarians—their ranks within the military are increasing—are catered to with penne and meatless sausage in spicy tomato sauce and vegetable lasagna. And strips of chicken breast smothered in salsa, along with Mexican rice, enchiladas, and tortillas, have been introduced as a nod to the military’s growing Hispanic population.

With new techniques in microwave sterilization and high-pressure processing on the horizon, says Evangelos, “our pasta will finally become al dente.” Other technical innovations will also extend shelf life. At the end of my tour, Darsch’s pride and excitement are hard to contain. “We’ve gone from ‘meals rejected by everyone,’ ” he says, “to ‘meals respected by Europeans’ “—a tasty development indeed.

And not just for members of the military. The Army’s culinary revolution has affected civilian food too. When the lab “restructured” (the insider term) meat and poultry in the 1970s, it helped lay the basis for chicken nuggets. Its research on freeze-dried coffee, pressure-cooking, processed cheese, and dehydrated egg and dairy products has been exported to commercial food production. And new Army refinements in high-pressure processing are being used to pasteurize supermarket cold cuts, chicken products, and guacamole.

The rating system devised for military food tasters, known as the hedonic scale, has become standard practice in the larger food industry:  the ultimate tribute, perhaps, to the Combat Feeding Directorate’s discerning palate.

Thanksgiving in a Box
The military understands how much a turkey dinner can mean for those who spend Thanksgiving in the trenches. The holiday Unitized Group Ration-Express (UGR-E) contains a tray each of turkey slices with gravy, glazed carrots, mashed potatoes, and corn bread–and–sausage stuffing. While the MRE is designed to feed just one soldier, the UGR-E produces food for 18. Just pull a tab and presto—a hot turkey dinner. Salt water inside the box reacts with magnesium and iron to generate enough steam and convection to heat the meal in 45 minutes. On the side: raisin-nut mix with chocolate candies, beverage powder, and cranberry jelly. Utensils and trays come with each box. Bring your own tablecloth.

UGR-E Holiday Meal
Weight (g): 742.05
Cals: 1,265.06
Prot (g): 53.42
Carbs (g): 149.01
Fat (g): 53.385

See a slideshow of the new food and drinks soldiers in the trenches are eating.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest