10 food favorites invented by the U.S. military
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s new book Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat explores how many of the processed foods we buy at the supermarket are prepared using technology and techniques invented by the military to preserve and transport food for troops in battle. To celebrate its release, the author gives us a glimpse into the book’s subject with a list that highlights just a few ways military research affects our daily diet.
Marx de Salcedo’s book dives deep into the subject: she gains access to the DoD’s Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. She explores the research and reflects on the role of processed food in the civilian diet and wonders about its long-term effects on health. It’s an ambitious book: she weaves military history into a discussion of the food industry and modern health policy, all filtered through her own family’s experiences.
Nooo! Your favorite cyclical McDonald’s treat, the brainchild of the U.S. Army? That’s right. Restructured meat, of which the McRib is an early example, was an outgrowth of a Natick Center program to lower the meat bill by gluing together cheap cuts to look like more expensive ones. The army’s veal, pork, lamb, and beef entrées hit the field in 1976 and were soon served to troops in the new MREs. McDonald’s first used the technology in 1981, but turned it into a tempting baby back shape and amped up the flavor with spices and sauce.
2. Supermarket Bread
Natural bread goes stale. Supermarket bread doesn’t. What’s the difference? Starch-snacking bacterial enzymes, discovered under a Quartermaster Corps contract with Kansas State College, now University, in the 1950s. The enzymes, like their bacterial host, tolerate the heat of baking, and keep on working for weeks, keeping bread soft and fresh.
Who put the cheese in cheesy snack foods? Until the U.S. military invented full-fat dehydrated cheese during World War II, as part of an effort to reduce weight and volume of food shipments abroad, the nation forlornly munched naked corn chips. After D Day, the cheese dehydrators needed new customers, pronto. They found them in the emerging snack and convenience food manufacturers. Today the tangy orange powder is everywhere—especially your fingers!
4. Energy Bars
Energy bars are the result of an almost a century-long quest for an emergency ration that was light, compact, and nutritious. They began as a nasty meltless chocolate bar, which became the D ration, produced by Hershey in the 1940s. They then took a detour through freeze-drying, being served in cubes during the 1960s space flights; astronauts claimed they cause nausea and weight loss. Finally, in the mid-1960s, the Natick Soldier Systems Center got inspired—by the Gaines-Burger dog food patty, the first intermediate-moisture food, which meant it stayed soft even when stored at room temperature for months. The first modern energy bar was one of these—although apricot, not hamburger, flavored—and was munched by David Scott on the Apollo 15 flight.
5. TV Dinners
The first TV dinners weren’t for dining by the flickering blue light of the boob tube but for bomber crews on long overseas flights during World War II. They were invented by an armed forces contractor, which froze meat, vegetables, and potatoes in a tray. (The microwave, also a military invention, came later to heat these up quickly.)
6. Cling/Saran Wrap
Cellophane, the only food film available during World War II, allowed moisture in, so edibles got soggy. So the Quartermaster Corps added food packaging to its wish list of everyday items to be replaced with plastics ones from a classified research program at the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. Saran film was developed in collaboration with Dow Chemical,which brought it to consumers as soon as it possibly could, filing a patent for the invention just days after Hitler’s death. The first cling wrap appeared in stores in the 1950s and quickly became a kitchen staple.
7. Refrigerated Guacamole
It might not look it, but that creamy, green dip from the supermarket refrigerator case has been crushed by the equivalent of a stack of twenty minivans. High-pressure processing was developed by the Natick Center with a consortium of university and industry contractors in the 1990s. It’s now not only used for rations and your guac, but for fresh-squeezed juices, sauces, preservative-free deli meats and heat-and-serve entrees.
8. Room-temperature Sof Tortillas
Seem odd that that package of soft tortillas can be left indefinitely in the cupboard? Thanks to hurdle technology, a discovery by a scientist working for the German army, room temperature foods can be preserved with a number of mild barriers to microbial growth instead of a single large dose of chemicals. The Natick Center quickly adapted the technique, first using in its famous poundcake and then moving onto more complex items, such as the three-year, shelf-stable sandwich. Coming up next: pizza!
Consumers never cottoned up to the army’s largest, longest-running, and most expensive food research program, radiation sterilization. After hundreds of employees, four decades, and $80 million, the only items in our supermarkets routinely zapped with ionizing radiation are herbs and spices, which can harbor deadly pathogens, especially when imported from abroad.
10. Plastic Coolers
Your beach brews are kept icy cold by a 1950’s Natick Center project to develop cellular polymers, foamed plastics, as building materials. The rigid, strong, and lightweight stuff was quickly incorporated into other uses, including refrigerated containers and insulated food coolers.
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo is a food writer whose work has appeared in Salon, Slate, the Boston Globe, and Gourmet magazine and on PBS and NPR blogs. She’s worked as a public health consultant, news magazine publisher, and public policy researcher. She lives in Boston, MA. Visit AnastaciaMarxdeSalcedo.com.
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