No matter who they’re fighting for, soldiers around the world have something very basic in common: they need to eat. Perhaps unsurprisingly, field rations, known among U.S. soldiers as “Meals, Ready to Eat,” or “MREs,” have a pretty bad reputation among the troops, who have to rely on the freeze-dried, vacuum-sealed meals while out on patrol or on the battlefield. While no one expects field rations to provide a five-star dining experience, many militaries do what they can to give their soldiers a decent meal, whether it's serving traditional fare or measuring how eating MREs can affect their troops' health.
For American soldiers, Army-issued MREs come packed with everything soldiers need for a solid 1,200-calorie meal, including several courses, beverages, flameless heating elements and utensils. But the Army isn’t only concerned about fueling its soldiers: it wants them to enjoy their meal, as well.
"What is nutrition if you don't consume the food?" Army research dietitian Holly McClung says in a statement. "We need ways to keep warfighters interested in and excited about eating in the field after they have been training and eating MREs for several days."
In January, the United States Army put out a call for volunteers willing to survive solely off of MREs for almost a month in an attempt to see how the field rations might affect the delicate ecosystem of gut bacteria in the digestive system. After all, considering that MREs have to meet a laundry list of requirements, such as being able to survive a 1,250-foot parachute drop and stay edible for up to 3 1/2 years in temperatures of up to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, it stands to reason that officers would want to know how these specific modifications might affect their troops health, Emanuella Grinberg reports for CNN.
"Interactions between the millions of bacteria living in our gut and what we eat is a very important factor in gut health, but we don't know how MRE foods interact with those bacteria to impact gut health," Holly McClung says in a statement. "Ultimately, discovering how eating MREs influences gut bacteria and gut health will help our efforts to continually improve the MRE."
Studying how eating MREs affect soldiers’ microbiomes is one way that U.S. Army officials are trying to keep their troops healthy, but the Army also does what it can to make sure that soldiers aren’t eating the same meals over and over again. MREs cover a wide range of food, from spaghetti bolognese to caffeine-infused beef jerky, David Whelan reports for Munchies. Army researchers are even getting ready to unveil what some call the “holy grail of MRE’s”: pizza.
While the U.S. Army might offer one of the largest varieties of menu choices for its MREs, most countries try to offer their soldiers something that resembles their homeland’s cuisine. South Korean soldiers get treated to bibimbap and kimchi, while French fighters are offered deer pâté and duck confit. The range of food varies greatly: Colombian soldiers mostly live off of rice and beans, while the Italian Army issues its fighters a 40-percent alcohol “breakfast shot,” Whelan writes.
“When you’re in the deployed environment, it tends to be fear and the monotonous. So the only thing you have to look forward to is the chow,” Army Materiel Command director Bill Bigelow tells C.J. Lin for Stars and Stripes. “And if it’s monotonous chow, that just adds to your misery.”