The Science Behind MREs

Written by Brandon Garrett

In the late 1990s, the military had a wide variety of ready-to-eat meals (MREs) at their disposal. They had created a line of foods that were served up in pouches and ready to eat anywhere in the battlefield. They could be dropped from 100 feet and be ripped open immediately for consumption.

However, there were a few meals that the military men and women still wanted.

- Military Meals Throughout History - 

“All of our meals are warfighter tested and warfighter approved,” said Gerry Darsch, Director of the Department of Defenses’ Combat Feeding Program, in an exclusive interview with The Ready Nation. “In the early ‘90s, we started getting feedback that they wanted a pocket sandwich in the battlefield. Something like you’d find in the freezer section, like Hot Pockets™.”

MRE ScienceUp to this point, the military had created many MREs including spaghetti, lasagna, vegetable dishes and more. However, many food items couldn’t be packaged into a meal that would remain stable in a pouch for 5 years.

“We couldn’t package things like eggs, seafoods or sandwiches,” Darsch said. “They were just too delicate and wouldn’t be able to withstand the packaging process. So, we put our best and brightest into developing a system that allows us to create shelf-stable foods like these that would last for years and still provide the nutrients that we needed.”

There were a few hurdles to overcome in those early days. It wasn’t as easy as preparing a bowl of food and throwing it into a pouch. Since the MREs had to be shelf-stable for 5 years, there was a lot of testing and science that went into the process.

“There are many aspects that have to be controlled while you create an MRE,” Darsch said. “You have to control the oxygen content, making sure that bacteria can’t grow in there. However, sometimes you have to make sure that natural bacteria, found in the atmosphere, are available for the food.

“The pH balance also needs to be closely monitored and control things like the water activity and micro-biological activity. You also want to pack as many calories into as small a space as possible so they have enough energy to keep them running.”

- Make Your Own MRE Style Packages - 

Darsch shared that in those early days, certain funding was slim and the department was forced to visit local hospitals to place pouched foods in MRI machines. They would closely monitor how bacteria or water movement was affecting the food on the inside of the pouch. Now, the department has its own machine and doesn’t have to borrow from local hospitals.

Through MRI scanning, packaging testing, nutritional analysis and more, Darsch’s department was able to crack the code and figure out how to combine all of those required aspects. The department began using methods like pasteurized sterilization, microwave-assisted thermo stabilization, pressure-assisted thermal stabilization and more. All of these methods combined to create a more effective packaging process.

“The new method is incredible,” Darsch said. “The difference between the old retort method and the microwave assisted method is eye-opening. And the best part is that the nutrient retention is better.”

Microwave Steralization MRE

The new process allows for better nutrient retention, a more familiar taste and a wider selection of foods.

“We were first to revolutionize microwave-assisted sterilization and move past simple retort packaging. But once you can break that code, there is a whole family of foods that you can work with and create shelf-stable meals that will last a long time.”

Figuring out the process did take a while though. What started in the early ‘90s wasn’t actually used in the battlefield until 2008 in Afghanistan.

So, what’s next for the Combat Feeding Program?

- Alternative Uses for MRE Heaters - 

“We have some very exciting problems to figure out,” Darsch said. “We’re currently looking into a few projects including machines that would use all the waste from the food (packaging and dropping equipment) to power itself … We’re also looking at nutraceuticals that would allow our military to increase muscle usability, have extended durability and higher physical effects.”

All-in-all, the current position and future of the Combat Feeding Program is exciting and an important aspect of our military efficiency.

Updated March 8, 2013

14 Comments

  1. Bob G. wrote:

    So the question is “how can you tell which MRE is made by the new microwave process??”

    March 11th, 2013 at 3:14 am
  2. Rick wrote:

    Now they need to make allergen free MRE’s or at least gluten free MRE’s.

    March 11th, 2013 at 9:29 am
  3. deerie wrote:

    I loved sending these with my scouts on their camp trips. Maybe it was ‘cheating’ but sometimes the MREs are just nice to have rather than try to cook after setting up camp that first day.

    Nice to know they keep getting better and better. I might have to get some for ME to take camping!

    March 11th, 2013 at 12:43 pm
  4. Don wrote:

    This is “life sustaining food”, not meals for fun. I lived on these for almost 11 months during the Gulf War and then again in Iraq. No need to get picky when it’s eat or eat nothing…

    March 12th, 2013 at 6:02 pm
  5. Bazza wrote:

    There is no way that we would have MRE’s in our pantry because of the amounts of salts, fats and sugars they have in them.

    If for any reason we have to have food to take with us when we go out for a day or so we make a slice that is full of good wholesome ingredients, without preservatives, and that supplemented with nuts and fruit is the way to go.

    MRE’s, if consumed for any period of time will alter the inner workings of your gut and it will take several days of your normal diet to get back into your regular habits.

    March 12th, 2013 at 10:29 pm
  6. Eric wrote:

    All good questions, especially the one about the 2008 question. How about the answers to the questions. The MRE’s that you sell, are they post 2008?

    March 23rd, 2013 at 4:44 am
  7. Preppers Supplies wrote:

    The MRE technology has radically improved over the last few years and is a great option for long term food storage. They are simple and easy to use and the taste is really not that bad. They will not ever be confused with a gourmet meal but in a pinch, MREs are a great emergency food source to have.

    March 26th, 2013 at 12:07 pm
  8. Heather wrote:

    We put the MRE’s in our food storage. I doubt I will be worried about salt and fats if there is no other choice.

    June 6th, 2013 at 12:15 pm
  9. Bazza wrote:

    As someone who has seen the results of continuous consumption by adults over a period of several weeks and the pain and agony of those people at the end of that period trust me, you do not want either yourself or your family to go through that.

    If you want to store food for any period use the time tested method, store what you use and use what you store.

    Grains, legumes, nuts, dried fruits are a good start as they have the added benefit of being high in nutrition and are the basis of any nutritious meal.

    September 16th, 2013 at 4:25 am
  10. peter vapors wrote:

    Bazza is an idiot that does not know a thing about energy in the middle of a disaster

    January 15th, 2014 at 12:58 am
  11. Bazza wrote:

    If you are going to store food why not store the same good quality food that you are normally used to eating instead of foods that can cause digestion problems. In times of stress the last thing you want to contend with are health issues.

    We live in an area that, like many others, could be prone to severe bush fire conditions therefore we have had a good look at what we keep in our pantry in relation to nutrition and energy and from our point of view MRE’s do not get a mention.

    For us the adage ‘store what you use and use what you store’ will be the one we will always abide by.

    April 24th, 2014 at 6:15 am
  12. Pez wrote:

    MREs are fantastic when you need calories to keep you running. All the salts, fats and sugars are neccessary in combat or a survival situation. They don’t belong in pantries, anyway. They last forever, take nothing but a little water to give you a hot meal, and taste as good as anything else you’ll get in the situations they’re meant for.

    Except the omelets. Whoever’s bright idea that was is a freaking idiot.

    June 20th, 2014 at 12:24 am
  13. mike wrote:

    While in the service in the eighties and nineties and as a contractor 2001 to present ,I had the pleasure of consuming mres over extended periods and in various weather conditions. After a challenging day an mre is a practicle and time saving way of rafting. The packs can be stuffed in a pocket, no additional water is needed to reconstitute the food, though you need water for the drinks and heater. Bye the way water sources can be brackish, smell of sulpher etc. , so flavored drink powder is a blessing. I found my body craving salt and duvet after a few weeks. Never had pain or agony , though occasionally ferocious gas.

    August 30th, 2014 at 6:05 pm
  14. mike wrote:

    Sorry for the poor auto wording, rafting should be eating and duvat, sugar. Grains and legumes are great but require you to carry fuel, stove, utensils and a pot and extra water. Plus they stop you up during times of intense , stressful activity. They also require quite a bit of time to prepare. Plus they give you ferocious gas all the time. Heck you get a spoon and toilet paper in each mre.

    August 30th, 2014 at 6:29 pm

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