Preparedness blog

The Science Behind MREs

By Jeff and Amy Davis
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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.

9 years ago
Bob G.
9 years ago at 3:14 AM
So the question is "how can you tell which MRE is made by the new microwave process??"
9 years ago at 9:29 AM
Now they need to make allergen free MRE's or at least gluten free MRE's.
9 years ago at 12:43 PM
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!
4 years ago at 4:55 PM
Me to imlooking at a 3 pack
9 years ago at 6:02 PM
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...
2 years ago at 1:10 PM
So True!
peter vapors
8 years ago at 11:58 PM
Bazza is an idiot that does not know a thing about energy in the middle of a disaster
7 years ago at 12:24 AM
MREs are fantastic when you need calories to keep you running. All the salts, fats and sugars are necessary 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.
7 years ago at 6:05 PM
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.
7 years ago at 6:29 PM
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.
Tony M
7 years ago at 9:59 PM
In survival and combat situations, MREs are (literally) a lifesaver. They are PURPOSELY higher in sodium, electrolytes, trace minerals, etc since you need to replenish those as well rehydrate. Without sodium, your body won't retain the water as well and dehydration (and other conditions) can set in despite the amount of water consumed. I am a bit older than some of the people here and haven't had the chance to try the new ones, so a quick question: Did they ever come up with a brownie that DIDN'T act as a laxative? lol
7 years ago at 1:58 AM
GeezerVet, I think the acclaim is for getting getting modern uncanned MRE foods to a five-year shelf-life. Canned goods have always had the ability of a long life, there have been examples of tinned foods edible that are 100 plus years old, but of course tins are heavier than modern packaging and are more inconvenient to dispose of than a few wrappers. True, cans are more rugged -soldier proof as my dad said lol- but an MRE pack can be broken down and put in pockets with no awkward bulges when you duck for cover lol Also, I think the five-year shelf-life refers to the food being as good at the the use-by-date as at the beginning; look at tinned food, often it has an the use-by-date of a couple of years, just means that the manufacturer isn't guaranteeing the product will be as good after the use-by-date. It will be interesting to see what 50 to 100 year-old MREs will taste like to future generations. Something that also occurred to me, is labelling. I was visiting an old WW2 submarine and the guide told me that in WW2 the sub would just fill up every space available with food, a lot of it tinned. After a long patrol they'd find many tins had lost their paper labels, and so no one knew what was in them, these they saved until the last meals, where 'cookie' would just throw everything left over into a pot and make a 'stew' lol