Someone—maybe Napoleon, maybe Alexander the Great—once said that an army marches on its stomach. And why shouldn’t it? Starving troops have more pressing priorities than winning battles.
The US military knows this well, and it’s been spearheading food science research for well over a century in order to build the world’s most efficient army. But the countless innovations it’s developed are hardly confined to the canteen—in fact, we can find them in every supermarket in America, and even abroad.
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, a food writer and journalist, has been researching the US Army’s food science innovations for years. As the author of Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat, she spent hours at the Natick Soldier Center, a military base located just outside of Boston. Natick is a hive of military innovation, where engineers develop everything from boots to meals-ready-to-eat (MREs) for American soldiers. And after those advancements have made their way into soldiers’ meals, they often trickle into the consumer market.
Marx de Salcedo estimates that if we removed every item with military origin or influence in our grocery stores, the shelves would be half empty. With that in mind, I recently asked her to join me at a supermarket in Brooklyn, where we walked through the aisles and talked about how the US military has had a hand in just about everything we commonly eat.
I realize that my choice of supermarket is a little bougie for Marx de Salcedo’s tastes—hey, this is Williamsburg, after all—as we begin a seemingly futile hunt for Cheetos. We quickly find, however, that even higher-end stores aren’t immune from military influence.
Among the pricey winter citrus and multiple cultivars of kale are some those seemingly immortal packaged salad mixes. I recall that I’ve had an unopened one in my fridge for the past three weeks, and it’s shown no signs of wilting.
“These bags of ready-to-eat salad are preserved using something called modified atmosphere packaging, which delays ripening and spoiling,” Marx de Salcedo says. “That was developed during the 1960s by Whirlpool in a project with the Navy, and it was first used to send lettuce and celery to Vietnam. It was first used in container loading, but over time, modified atmosphere packaging has come down to the individual package.”
We arrive at a display of cold juices—the bottled smoothies and the green blends that are common to grocery stores everywhere now. “Some of these have been preserved using high-pressure processing,” Marx de Salcedo says. “High-pressure processing was a new food preservation technique that was developed during the late 1990s and the early 2000s as part of this big push by the Army to come up with some new food preservation techniques that didn’t depend on thermal sterilization, as that really changes the taste and the texture of food. High-pressure processing is the application of a huge amount of pressure into food through water in a special, pressurized chamber. It was worked on by a consortium of companies that include Hormel, Best Foods, Mars, Unilever—all the big guys.” She notes that small companies began to use high-pressure processing technology as well, developing items like that refrigerated guacamole that stays green for weeks.
Marx de Salcedo cautions that some of these kinds of juices are flash pasteurized, rather than high-pressure processed. “You have to read the label. If it says ‘cold pasteurized,’ that’s what they call high-pressure processing.”
The technology was originally developed in response to a spate of foodborne illness outbreaks, including the famous one that hit Odwalla in 1996. “Then they started to high-pressure process the juice because it preserves a fresh taste—the official term by the USDA is a ‘fresh-like taste and texture.’ And according to the evidence that is emerging, it retains nutrients and doesn’t seem to seem to create harmful byproducts.”
Next, we head to the frozen section and ponder the origins of Minute Maid. “Frozen concentrated orange juice was developed during World War II because the Army wanted to make sure that soldiers were getting enough vitamin C,” Marx de Salcedo says. In 1942, a team of USDA food scientists discovered a way to evaporate the water from the juice while retaining that fresh-squeezed flavor. The process was developed specifically for the Quartermaster Corps, but Marx de Salcedo notes that the juice never made it to the troops. “Instead, the company took that innovation and went to market with it as Minute Maid.”
“The first TV dinner was developed to be flown overseas,” Marx de Salcedo tells me. Before Swanson, there was a company called Maxson Food Systems, which developed frozen trays of meat, vegetables, and potatoes called “strato-plates,” which were served to the troops on long flights. “The difficulty with those was that they were heated in conventional ovens, not the microwave—which is also a military invention, but it hadn’t been invented yet. I would consider all these TV dinners spawn of the original. Same design.”
Marx de Salcedo picks up a can of Pringles and turns to me. “You probably know this already, but when the designer of the Pringle canister died, his ashes were packed into one.” We’re both silent for a second.
She continues: “But the Pringle itself came out of the project that was done by the Quartermaster Corps and the USDA to develop dehydrated potato flakes, which were then used to create these reshaped, formed chips.”
We walk over to the meat department. But meat’s just meat, right? How could the Army have any influence in that?
“Here, everything is military innovation in a sense, just a really old one,” Marx de Salcedo says. “Back in the beginning of the 20th century, meat was not sold off the bone and not sold chilled. It was shipped out in carcasses and the butcher in the store would prepare it for the customer. During World War I and World War II, because of the enormous number of troops that needed to be fed, the military decided it was going to start cutting the meat off the carcasses and freezing them into boxes.”
She notes that this wasn’t a perfect process in the beginning: “The first go didn’t work out very well because they froze everything together using the old process of slow freezing, which turns the meat brown and looks disgusting. And when they sent it over, the Army cooks would hack it apart with axes and people protested. They worked out the kinks in World War II.”
Housewives were harder to convince than canteen cooks, but the new model eventually trickled down into the consumer market. “Through the changeover in the food industry came profit motives and different models, from having the meat industry centered at big cities and the railroads to feedlots accessible by the federal highway system,” she says. “To this day, it’s something like 90 percent of meat is sold in boxes. These are all the spawn of that.”
Digging into the middle of the store, we pass rows of Spam, Vienna sausages, and other canned meats, all of which were also used to feed troops during World War II. Marx de Salcedo picks up a can of Chef Boyardee. “This also came from the military—the whole mixing-up of the spaghetti and the meat in one can. And Chef Boyardee had been a ration packer.”
Canning was originally developed by a French confectioner to feed troops during the Napoleonic Wars, over a decade before Louis Pasteur was even born. And while canning continued to be vitally important for many armies around the world, it had its downsides.
“The retort pouch was developed during the 1960s to replace the can for rations,” Marx de Salcedo tells me. “Cans could be dangerous, sometimes causing injuries. They were awkward, expensive, and heavy. So over the course of that decade, the Natick Center worked to develop this laminated pouch to actually cook food inside it.” She notes that while it sounds simple, the development of the retort pouch required not only technical innovation but the invention of new production facilities and machinery. “What ended up happening was this retort pouch was fielded as a way to hold the entree for the MRE and the pouch bread. And then the Asian market really ran with it.”
I ask Marx de Salcedo if waste was a concern for the Army when it developed the retort pouch. “Of course! You saw the MREs, right? It’s like a Happy Meal,” she says. “One of the things the Army has been working on is a waste-to-energy converter, but they can’t use the retort pouches because of the foil layer.”
At long last, we find some boxed mac and cheese. “Ah, cheese powder,” Marx de Salcedo says. “It came about as part of an effort to reduce the weight and volume of food being shipped overseas.” The Army experimented with dehydrating all sorts of foods for troops, but cheese presented a problem: Because it has no internal structure, it just turned to dust. But that didn’t stop the Army from packing it up and sending it off to be used in sauces and soups.
“Then, after the end of the war, a little cheese dehydration industry had sprung up. It didn’t have a customer, so it turned to the grocery manufacturers,” Marx de Salcedo notes. “Frito-Lay was the very first national convenience food maker to use the dehydrated cheese powder with the Cheeto, which appeared in 1948.”
We come upon a shelf-stable package of flour tortillas. “This is actually one of my favorite new food preservation techniques, something called hurdle technology,” Marx de Salcedo says. Essentially, hurdle technology employs multiple food preservation techniques to combat spoilage. Pathogens are kept at bay by putting multiple “hurdles” in their way, such as reducing water activity in the food, increasing its pH, and using natural or artificial preservatives.
“These tortillas would be preserved with three hurdles. The first would be reduced water activity,” Marx de Salcedo says. “Water activity is different from straight-up water content. People had thought that what made food spoil was just water content, but in the 1950s, a scientist named William James Scott figured out that there is actually something called ‘free water,’ which referred to water that was not chemically bound to the rest of the food. So if you reduced the amount of free water, you would still have moisture in the food, but microorganisms would not be able to reproduce.”
Marx de Salcedo theorizes that the other two hurdles in the tortillas are antifungal or antibacterial agents, as well as plastic packaging. “Does this even have an expiration date?”
We make our way over to the energy bars and granola bars, which command an entire aisle here. “Energy bars have a long history that goes back to the turn of the 20th century and the introduction of chocolate into military rations,” Marx de Salcedo says. “The Army decided to use chocolate as an emergency ration but found out very quickly that people like chocolate—it’s very hard for them to save chocolate.” So the Army added ingredients to make the chocolate less appealing, but it did such a good job that the bars caused the soldiers to feel nauseated and lose weight. The project was tabled until shortly before World War II, when the Army collaborated with Hershey to produce what is known as the D ration. One of the Army’s four requirements for the bar is that it must taste “a little better than a boiled potato.”
Beyond chocolate, however, was freeze-dried food. “The Army had this idea that we were going to have a whole combat feeding system based on freeze-dried bars of food, from breakfast cereal to soup to entrees,” Marx de Salcedo says. People quickly realized, however, that freeze-dried food isn’t all that fun to eat.In the mid-1960s, the Natick Center began looking for a Plan B and discovered that General Foods had created a dog food patty that was shelf-stable, came in a package, and was soft and chewy. “The Natick center said, ‘Ah ha! This would be a good idea.’ They took that idea and worked with General Foods and MIT to work the kinks out of applying the idea of water activity to food.” Lo and behold, they did just that. The bars that astronauts ate during the Apollo 15 mission 1971 were the products of this research, and the forerunners of the bars we eat today.
Lastly, we come to the bread aisle.
“The innovation here was the addition of bacterial amylases and enzymes to bread to keep it from going stale and to keep soft for several weeks or months,” Marx de Salcedo says. “In a traditional loaf, you have amylases that come from the wheat and from the yeast. The amylases break down the starch into sugars, and the sugar is consumed by the yeast. Both the yeast and the wheat prefer a cool temperature range, and their enzymes are inactivated by baking. But some bacteria can tolerate high heat and are not inactivated by baking, so when you add enzymes that have been extracted from bacteria, they continue to function afterwards.”
Basically, those enzymes slow the crystallization of starch molecules that cause bread to become tough. But for all of you GMO-phobes out there, Marx de Salcedo makes an interesting point: Companies might choose to list enzymes on their product ingredient lists, but they are not required to because they disappear during processing.
“This is a whole other category of GMMOs, or genetically modified microorganisms. Most of the enzymes are genetically modified,” she adds. “And it’s not just bread. Enzymes are used routinely in all sorts of food, from filtering juices to cheeses, milks, and brewing.”
We continue to talk as we walk up and down the aisles, discussing the role of the Army in developing irradiated spices, improbably soft cookies, and even Saran wrap and aluminum foil. It becomes clear to me that the military’s influence on our food system is practically inescapable.
Before we depart, I decide to play devil’s advocate. The military might be responsible for cheese powder, but it’s also given us life-saving advances in food technology—and it’s even trying to recycle. So what’s wrong with a little US Army in your pantry?
“A combat ration, by Congressional mandate, must be able to last for three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit,” she says. Therefore, the military’s prime objectives with food are durability, longevity, affordability, and broad palatability. “Those are the values that are expressed in rations and end up in our consumer foods. The downside to that? The military has a mandate to get the food science that it undertakes or funds into consumer items because of preparedness. This is real. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it’s the truth. And that is so that the military can turn to big food companies and ask them to convert their production lines into rations production.”
Of course, it also makes financial sense for these big food companies to make cheaper, longer-lasting items. “The way that that has been done historically has been with chemical additives and the addition of a bunch of ingredients that are there to act as a shelf-life system—emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners. Those things have made food less healthy,” she reminds me.
“You have to remember that the combat ration is meant to be eaten during a very short period of time, under a very stressful and extreme situation. You might not be concerned with its long-term public health impacts, and certainly not its environmental impacts. It’s emergency food,” Marx de Salcedo says. “So the Army has a mandate to get combat ration science into consumer food? Well, that means that we consumers need to be involved in the development of that science, and we’re not.”
And with that, we took our leave. We never did find the Cheetos.