Morale: MREs That Keep You Alert, Super Healthy And Happy


November 4, 2011: For over three decades, American troops in combat zones have been eating MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat). To avoid monotony, not to mention bad morale, the menu is constantly changed. But now, more than just new food items are being added. The new special ingredients include dietary supplements added to some of the MRE foods to deal with uniquely military health needs. For example, some foods are having caffeine and other chemicals (like Maltodextrin) added that enhance alertness. Other supplements include those which act as anti-inflammatory agents (for bruises, sore muscles and such) or just to beef up the immune system. Some of these supplements have been adapted from those which have proved themselves in the sports world (a major market for such stuff.) Thus supplements food items that have been around for a long time, like "Stay Alert" (using added caffeine) gum, are being complemented by other foods that are, well, special. This is an easier, and more palatable alternative to trying to brew a cup of coffee while on the march, or popping a pill.

Meanwhile, after three decades, MREs are actually getting some respect. Often the only foods available for troops in the field, early MREs were criticized for awful taste and sometimes literally rotten ingredients. Over the last decade, the Department of Defense has used an ongoing survey of the troops to discover which MREs were popular, and which were detested. There are 24 different MREs available, and the least popular ones are regularly dropped while new ones are introduced. Proposed new MREs undergo a lot of field testing with the troops, and those that do not make a good impression, never enter the regular lineup. Each MRE still weighs about 685 grams (24 ounces) and has about 1200 calories.

Troops going into combat on foot often strip away a lot of the stuff in an MRE they don't need, reducing the weight to about 450 grams (a pound). This was anticipated, at least on paper. But the staff officers and scientists who run the MRE program missed a few important items. First, because the troops in Afghanistan are moving around on foot, and carrying all their gear with them, they ruthlessly drop anything they don't need. Thus the 450 gram MREs tended to lose a few hundred calories as well. The troops often get power bars, and other goodies, to augment these stripped MREs. The army developed its own power bar (called the HooAH) in 2000. But not enough of these got to the troops. The HooAH weighs 62 grams (2.2) ounces and contains 280 calories.

The military responded with special lightweight rations, but this is a tricky business. The Department of Defense has, for over half a century, tried to develop a lightweight, high calorie "combat rations." Success has been elusive. In Iraq, the troops get most of their chow from mess halls, and there's plenty of food to be had there. Same deal in Afghanistan, for some of the combat troops. But for those out in the hills for long periods of time, and unable to get power bars shipped from home, the pounds just slip away.

The army now has an official "combat ration", called the First Strike Ration. These weigh 857 grams (30 ounces) and contain 2,500 calories. But the doctors insist these should not be used more than three days in a row. Another problem is that combat troops will eat the wrong foods when back at base. The stress of combat induces many to pig out on comfort foods (sweet and salty stuff) which does not contain the nutrients needed to stay in top physical shape.

While many troops are disciplined to eat what's good for them, the army has a problem with the minority that doesn't. So new combat rations are being developed that address the need for comfort foods, yet still contain the needed nutrients. All this is not a new problem. It was first encountered during World War II, and has been a major irritant, for combat troops and the people who develop combat rations, ever since.





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