There’s no avoiding the debris of modern living on a trip to your local grocery store—rows and rows of foods and products that, if not ready to eat, are designed and packaged to be prepared quickly and to last an age. Makes sense, right? Busy lives require time-saving measures.
But it turns out that a considerable quantity of these items exist as a result of food-preservation experiments first conducted by the military, at the nexus of which is the Natick Soldier Systems Center, the U.S. Army’s food science lab in Massachusetts. What’s more, the military has partnered for decades with private corporations and state universities in order to refine these innovations and to disseminate them as widely into civilian life as possible—a partnership with a federal mandate, it should be noted.
Some experts estimate that as many as 70 percent of products found in a typical supermarket originate with, or are influenced by, these experiments conducted by the military. But as Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, author of the well-received 2015 book Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat, points out, the military designed their products to be used in extreme, stressful situations over short periods of time.
“The problem then comes in the technology transfer aspect because the same things are being put in consumer items, albeit somewhat watered down, that are now being eaten day in, day out,” Marx de Salcedo told the Independent Media Institute. “That’s when we have to start to think about the health implications of it.”
Below are eight common supermarket foods or production processes with ties to the military.
1. Sliced bread
Traditionally made bread stales quickly. And so, to help keep it shelf-fresh for as long as possible, researchers at the Quartermaster Food and Container Institute government laboratory and (what is now) Kansas State University discovered that bacterial alpha-amylase retarded the staling of bread, and began to perfect the way it’s used in the bread baking process—processes that have been modified over the years since, leading to the bread found on modern-day grocery store shelves.
But Marx de Salcedo warns that some ingredients used to extend the shelf-life of foods—certain emulsifiers, stabilizers, thickeners, and the like—have not necessarily been “recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration. “There’s an assumption that they’re safe, but we really don’t know.”
Up until the 1940s, Kraft had cornered the market in processed cheese in the U.S., where it was being consumed in rapidly increasing quantities. But with the advent of WWII, the need became urgent for a cheese that could store and ship great distances in order to send to the troops abroad.
Initially, attempts to dehydrate cheese proved unsuccessful, due to its high fat content. But the process was eventually modified and refined, and before the end of the war, a successfully compressed and dehydrated cheese was unveiled. Now, dehydrated cheese can be found in everyday products like bags of Cheetos and Goldfish crackers.
3. Saran wrap
Yet another product developed during the war, Saran wrap was the result of a collaboration between the military and Dow Chemical. A patent for the product was filed within days of Hitler’s suicide in 1945, and Saran wrap landed on the commercial market four years later.
But Marx de Salcedo is highly critical of the use of plastics in not only the packaging of processed foods, but in the manufacturing of these foods, as well. “There is certainly some migration there,” said Marx de Salcedo, about the cross-contamination of foods from plastic products. “We really don’t know what the implications are.”
4. Processed meat
As Marx de Salcedo explains, there are five primary values that go into combat rations (commonly referred to as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs). They need to be self-stable, light, rugged, contain a certain amount of nutrition, “and finally, and this is the important one, they must be cheap,” she said. Which explains how processed meat became a U.S. staple.
In order to curb military spending on meat products, researchers at the Natick Center took unwanted scraps of beef, pork, lamb and veal, restructured it and served it to the troops as a substitute for more expensive cuts. The same process was adopted by the fast-food industry, leading to the existence today of products like McDonald’s McRib Sandwich.
5. High-pressure processing
Some of the innovations that have come out of military research into food preservation have had some benefit, said Marx de Salcedo, pointing to the advent of high-pressure processing.
Achieved by putting food products under tremendous force—the equivalent of 20 minivans on a single penny—high-pressure processing effectively kills any bacteria present in the food. And in the process, it breaks apart some of the bonds in food molecules, so it partially cooks the product, without heat, maintaining the foods' texture and flavor.
“It has improved processed foods, as far as we know,” said Marx de Salcedo, about this technique, which is now used to make products like ready-to-eat guacamole, deli meats and juices.
6. Instant coffee
The freeze-drying process, initially pioneered after WWI as a means of transporting plasma to fallen soldiers suffering battlefield shock, was co-opted to make foods compact, light-weight, and durable for the troops. On modern-day supermarket shelves, typical freeze-dried foods include coffee, noodles and milk.
7. Energy bars
Early iterations of the energy bar included freeze-dried food cubes that caused the crews of the early space flights dry mouths, nausea and weight loss. That's when researchers landed upon the art of "intermediate moisture"—the ability to keep ingredients soft and sweet tasting, even at room temperature. The first intermediate moisture energy bar was made with apricots and sent up with the Apollo 15 moon mission. The production process has morphed over the years to where we are now, where supermarket aisles are lined with an array of chewy protein and granola bars.
8. Microwave-assisted thermal sterilization
As to the future, Marx de Salcedo says that the military is working on technologies to "modularize" cooking equipment, which could create an opportunity for "fast food companies to spread out into smaller regions, where they can’t build big restaurants," she told Boston Public Market in 2015.
And she also points to microwave-assisted thermal sterilization—a method to prepare foods quickly in combat zones. This system microwaves pouches of food at a significantly lower frequency than the typical household microwave, “and that’s going to create this food that’s like a TV dinner that you can keep in your closet, so you won’t have to refrigerate it," Marx de Salcedo told the Independent Media Institute.
But in looking at these foods and preservation techniques, however, there's no avoiding the relationship between them and the rise of obesity, and obesity-related diseases, in the U.S. Just look at the stats. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, while more than 100 million adults now live with diabetes or prediabetes.
According to Ivy Ken, professor of sociology at George Western University, "As a society we are coming to grips with the fact that unhealthy processed food is ubiquitous because it is highly profitable for the large, multinational corporations that figure out ways to create demand for it in our schools, hospitals, prisons, and homes," she wrote, in an email to IMI.
Ironically, Ken describes the military one of the most "socialist organizations" in the country, due to how it revolutionized daily meal preparations at a time when people began working more hours in a typical day. However, she warned, "If we care about people's health, about women's autonomy, and about poor children's safety and well-being, then, we may need to look to the structure of the labor market and the wealth inequalities that make processed food such an appealing option."
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