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The Military Is Pushing the Bounds... of Food Science

Tremendous breakthroughs are often born out of military pursuits. In the past, military research has directly or indirectly led to technological innovations like the microwave oven, nuclear power, and the Internet.

You can also add M&M's to that list -- yes M&M's. Those delightfully

crunchy and satisfyingly chocolatey candies that melt in your mouth (not

in your hand) were originally intended for American troops in World War II.

Legend has it that Forrest Mars, Sr., while traveling in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, found soldiers eating tiny chocolate pellets coated in hard, sugar shells. Returning to the states in 1940, Mars perfected the candy and negotiated an amicable deal with the Hershey Corporation, which already had an agreement to provide chocolate to the army. When World War II rolled around in 1942, M&M's became an instant hit with the troops because the candies could travel well and withstand high temperatures without melting.

shutterstock_120239824.jpgToday, M&M's remain a troop favorite, but the battleground has changed. While the first rendition of the delectable candies could withstand the temperatures of Europe, Africa, and the Pacific fairly well, they were found to be no match for the incessant heat of the Middle East. So, in the midst of Operation Desert Storm, food technologist Tom Yang led a team that redesigned M&M's so they wouldn't turn into a "sticky mess."

"Regular chocolate is protein in the center coated with fat, so that fat can easily melt," Yang explained to PBS' NOVA. "So we came up with sort of a reverse phase chocolate, putting the protein on the outside and the fat in the center. And protein is not that easy to melt."

A Meat Roll-Up

Yang isn't solely focused on the sweet side of food, however. He's recently been investigating a method called osmotic dehydration for use in military MREs (meals, ready-to-eat). The process involves rolling meat into thin sheets, extracting water via osmosis, then running the product through a brine composed primarily of an oligosaccharide food additive called maltodextrin. The end product is a meat roll-up, very much like a fruit roll-up.

Yang plans to adapt osmotic dehydration to all sorts of foods. "The beauty of this technology is you can use beef, you can use

pork, you can use poultry or you can even use fish or a combination of

fruit, vegetable and meat together," Yang said.

Years of Freshness

An American army soldier's "meat and potatoes" is the MRE. Available in 24 different varieties, the meal must -- as described by Director of Combat Feeding Program Jerry Darsch -- have at least "a minimum shelf life at three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, six months at 100. It has to be stored, distributed for minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.  It has to be able to be thrown -- free fall out of a chopper at 100 feet, and obviously airdropped with parachutes from about 2,000 feet and higher."

320px-MRE_20071124.PNGIt also has to be at least mildly pleasurable to eat. Military food scientists' constantly try to balance taste and longevity -- a difficult task -- but recently they made a breakthrough by creating a sandwich that can stay fresh for three years! The key to the near immortal sandwich was limiting moisture, which is necessary for bacteria to grow. The scientists utilized three surprisingly simple ingredients -- honey, sugar, and salt -- to retain moisture and seal it off at the same time, thus keeping the sandwich fresh and safe-to-eat. Oxygen, a primary cause of food deterioration, was also limited. A small package of iron filings placed within the sandwich bag traps the gas in a layer of rust.
 
Another part of the food pleasure equation is warmth. All MREs come equipped with a flameless heater. It's a small pad filled with magnesium dust, salt, and a little iron dust. Add water, and an oxidation reaction begins that releases a good amount of heat, which can be used to warm the food packages.

Military food scientists continue to push the envelope. During the Civil War, salted pork and hardtack was the faire du jour. Today, it's lemon pepper tuna, chicken pesto pasta, and beef roast with vegetables. Vast improvements have been made, but the work is never done.

Soldiers have been clamoring for pizza, but technologists have yet to master a version that fits to the MRE's stringent requirements.

(Images: MRE by Muttley via Wikimedia Commons, U.S. Marines via Shutterstock)