The term MRE is quite common in the army. MRE stands for ‘meal, ready-to-eat.’ As the term suggests, an MRE is a complete meal consisting of a main course, side dish and beverage. These meals are prepared keeping in consideration the nutritional benefits it should provide to a service member while tasting good.
MREs are the most convenient way of carrying food along on a mission. Given the rough and adverse military conditions, being able to carry conventional food is quite tricky. With service members always on the go and constantly located in remote and distant areas, the need to have portable food is extremely important.
The concept of MREs has been taken from World War II. The original version of an MRE was initially developed when the troops had to be fed canned foods. The canned ration was not only heavy, but it also had a shorter shelf life. Carrying the food was a problem as making long treks and going back and forth toward the ration vehicle was time-consuming, and the weight decreased the soldier’s performance.
Also, with canned food, the options available to soldiers were limited. More often than not, servicemembers would leave the food half-finished, thus reducing nutritional effectiveness.
Then came MREs, which were designed to be light while standing the test of time. This was mainly thanks to the bag they came in.
MRE Bag Design
The MRE bag is also known as a trilaminate retort pouch. It is made by joining aluminum and plastic layers. It preserves food almost the same way as cans. The food which is kept inside the bag is first cooked at high temperature, ensuring that all bacteria is killed, and placed in the pouch to be sealed. After the pouch is sealed, it is heated so that the food can be sterilized.
The seal ensures that the food stays fresh for a long time. This process is not any different from the tradition metal canning. The food present in those cans is first sterilized in heat containers which are sealed so that bacteria and air cannot enter.
The taste of an MRE is similar to canned foods, but the distinctive factor is the longevity. MREs are designed mainly for military purposes, so they can withstand extreme conditions and wreckage.
FRH (Flameless Ration Heater)
Almost everyone prefers a hot meal, but given the many missions a servicemember must undergo, having a hot meal seems like a distant dream. Therefore, after undergoing extensive research, MREs have been fitted with a way to heat up the meal. They introduced the flameless ration heater (FRH). The whole meal can be heated using this heater.
The FRH is a type of chemical heating and a widely used idea. The process is quite like iron rusting which uses the atoms present in the iron and combines it with the oxygen atoms to produce iron oxide. It is a slow process, but when iron is exposed to water, rusting happens faster.
FRH more or less uses the same process to generate heat. Made of magnesium dust amalgamated with salt and a minimal amount of iron, it is flexible and compact to carry, which is important given the many miles soldiers cover on foot.
Durability of an MRE Bag
The shelf life of an MRE has always been among the priorities for the army. The ration was tested many times, and research was done on how to keep the food edible for a long time, given the aggressive conditions the troops face.
MRE pouches were created using strict standards which were different from the average commercial food. The requirement was to keep food safe and able to resist all detrimental effects. Therefore, the MREs underwent many abuse tests such as obstacle transversal and parachute drops.
Military members were required to do vigorous physical exercises while keeping the MRE bag in their field clothing. All such exercises were made to ensure the MRE bag stays intact and resistant to harsh changes. A parachute drop test was also planned along with keeping the MRE under extreme temperatures.
After considerable experimentation and research, the MRE bag was designed. It has since then seen many changes. The army keeps devising ways to improve the bag like eliminating foil so that the weight of the bag could be further reduced. This reduction is necessary as constant running, jumping and other physical activities are a part of the army, so the weight of the MRE bag should be low.
Another feature that they army keeps researching to incorporate is an airtight barrier. Even though the MRE bag does a god job of keeping moisture and air out, it cannot do so for a long time. This results in air seeping in through the spaces present, hence spoiling the food.
It has been observed that refrigerating the MRE can increase its shelf life, but it’s not clear by how much. Sellers of MRE claim that it can last up to 11 years if stored at a temperate of 16 degrees C or 60 degrees F in the fridge.
The MRE is full of preservatives and high fat content. The fat serves as a natural preservative which is important for all the physical activities that the troops are subjected to. Furthermore, the sodium is sweated out through running, exercising and other physical exertion.
The MRE was made for convenience, though its taste is another thing to talk about. Unlike conventional food, these ready-to-eat meals are made using a lot of preservatives to ensure a long shelf life, which has a negative impact on taste. There is a direct relation between how long it is stored for and its taste. Hence, an MRE which is 3 years old will taste better than one manufactured 5 years ago.
The US military checks MRE packages after 3 years to assure longevity and throws them out after 5 years from the date of manufacture.
The Evolution of the MRE Bag
As previously discussed, the concept of an MRE came into existence when the troops were to be given food and the available option then was only canned meal. Although canned meal was fine for a few days, for a substantial amount of time, it failed to do what was needed, which was to keep the food edible for as long as possible.
Hence, the MRE was introduced as the combat ration in US military around the years 1975 to 1980. In a field evaluation which lasted for 34 days, the infantry division did not eat anything except for MREs three times in a day. Even though the food was deemed acceptable by the troop, the consumption was still less as only about 60% calories were used. The calorie count and the nutritional value were very important when the meal was being decided for the troop.
As the troops were exposed to rough and vigorous conditions, it was vital that the meal be high on nutrition while tempting for the taste buds so that the troops could satiate their hunger without compromising on taste. All these factors were paid attention to when designing the MRE. The weight of the MRE was also one of the major components. As the troops had to be on the go all the time, the bags had to be compact and easy to carry or fit into field clothing or else there would be no serious advantage of the MRE.
Another test was conducted on the same division a few years later which showed increased consumption and calorie intake. Based on the result of this test, various changes were made to the content of the MRE. New entrees were introduced, and an increase in the dessert from 5 oz to 8 oz was delightfully welcomed by the troops. Commercial candies, cold beverage bases and sauces were also added to the menu.
After further testing and gaining feedback from the troops, new changes were introduced to the menu. For instance, the wet pack fruit was replaced by dehydrated fruit and dried freeze coffee was replaced by instant coffee.
As the meal options in the MRE underwent changes, the bag design was also changed. Initially, the MRE bag was a plain brown pouch. In 1998, large menu numbers were added to the sides of the bag. The US army has continuously been upgrading and evaluating new graphics for the bag. They initially started with 18 designs and reduced it to 9. The number was brought down to 5 after further evaluation. These designs were field tested, and the soldier’s preferences were considered to decide on the final design.
Finally, the three best designs were picked, and the army decided to use all three of them on the bag. Based on the cost and the risk of plausible printing errors, the designs were changed slightly from the one originally picked.