Red, white, and food — How war helped shape food

To my southern neighbours, Happy Memorial Day weekend!

A long time ago I got a cache of digital cookbooks which included one from the US Navy. Typed entirely in Courier New, it contained a surprisingly thoughtful (and very highly scaled) recipe for iced tea which included a note to add the hot tea to cold water (not the other way around) to prevent it from going cloudy. I was surprised to see the military was so concerned about iced tea. But I shouldn’t have been. Food and armies have a long history.

I got to study food science in the US and was surprised at just how much research was funded or completed by the military. You might not realize it, but a number of modern food innovations came out of the army. It shouldn’t be too surprising though. While it may be a contradiction in terms, a military’s purpose is, ostensibly, to create and enforce peace. Hunger is a powerful force for conflict.

Feeding an army requires a stable and reliable source of food. Canning was developed to support conquest but it’s done a lot of good for peace too.

An army marches on its stomach. Napoleon famously offered a prize for an innovation to preserve food in cans. It was claimed by Nicolas Appert and gave birth to modern day canned food. The British occupation of India was the impetus for the modern India Pale Ale. Beer was an important part of soldiers’ rations not just because it got them drunk, but also because it provided vital minerals to keep them healthy. IPAs were developed to keep fresh without refrigeration on the long trip south and east.

According to the Keith’s brewery tour, Alexander Keith supplied the British army with IPA’s brewed in Halifax. It probably tasted even worse after six months in the hold of a ship.

The US army operates a large lab in Natick, MA which is the source for a lot of food innovation. The MRE (meal, ready to eat) is a classic US army staple. A complete, shelf stable meal, that provides all the nutrients and calories a solider needs and can sit on the shelf for 3 years or more. The US army helped create protein bars, shelf stable tortillas, and this absolutely bizarre turkey jerky that made the news a few years ago. Natick also developed some critical consumer behavior research (with the help of Howard Moskawitz) that explained why people get tired of eating certain foods and not others. They also helped fund research into high pressure processing and newer food preservation techniques that can deliver fresher foods with more nutrients and longer shelf lives.

The US Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate at Natick Soldier Systems Center serves up MREs like the one above. These foods will keep for up to 3 years without refrigeration and can survive a drop from a helicopter. (Image source: wbur.org)

For better or worse, military demands have led food innovations throughout history. For Memorial Day, here’s a few that the US Army helped create.

· Supermarket bread

Keeping bread from going stale meant more people could access and afford this staple while helping less go to waste. While there’s nutritional problems and philosophical and ethical challenges with this kind of food production and distribution, it’s still a really big deal.

· Dehydrated cheese

Cheese powders are a strange food but can be as simple as just dried out curds. They’re key to a bunch of familiar college staples from Cheetos to mac and cheese.

· The McRib

While definitely not an environmental boon, the science to ‘glue’ pieces of meat together and form new shapes was developed by the US Army. It gave a way to reduce food waste by using trimmings that might have otherwise been discarded. Still, no hard feelings if you feel this is kind of gross.

· Saran wrap

Saran wrap is special because it sticks to itself making it easy to use as a covering. The material starting out as a material for shoe insoles the US army tested for jungle combat.

· Guacamole in a pouch

Guac in a pouch is a fairly new product and it’s only possible because of high pressure processing which uses pressure, instead of heat, to kill bacteria. This technology can help preserve juices, cheese, meat, and even shuck shellfish with less waste than hand-shucking. It’s great for guac because avocados quickly turn brown under heat making it really hard to keep it from spoiling beyond a couple of days.

· Shelf stable tortillas

Natick helped develop ‘hurdle technology’ which is now a pretty critical part of food preservation. The principle is to use a combination of mild, bacteria killing treatments to prevent spoilage instead of one heavy one. This has helped reduce the processing on foods while improving their quality and freshness. Shelf stable tortillas can be on the shelf for a month or more and keep fresh. They might contain some mild preservatives but thanks to expertise and innovations in baking, cooling, and packaging can also stay fresh without preservatives.

· Irradiated spices

Dry spices have a long shelf life but can still play host to harmful bacteria. Many spices are treated with radiation to kill bacteria that might survive the drying process and cause illness. There’s no radiation left in the spices afterwards, just dead bacterial spores.

(A lot of this information is from Combat-Ready Kitchen by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo.)

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