The shelf life of an MRE is a highly popular concept people wonder about. Before delving into what the shelf life of an MRE is, let’s first look at what an MRE is.
What Is an MRE?
MREs are ready-to-eat foods that come handy in emergencies and can be crucial for survival. The term MRE stands for ‘meal, ready to eat.’ One MRE is one complete meal. An MRE consists of an entrée, some other food items and a drink. It comes enclosed in a case. One case can contain up to 12 MREs.
MREs are an operational food for the US military. The whole meal can be eaten without the need to cook. The idea gained popularity after World War II and has been used ever since. When going into the battlefield, the idea of carrying conventional food items along seems a bit sluggish.
Since an MRE is a completely cooked and packaged food, it can be eaten right away, although a flameless ration heater (FRH) is provided in many cases so that an individual can have a hot meal when needed. During combat, cooking a hot meal and savoring it there and then seems like a distant dream, so these ready-to-eat meals come with the FRH to make this dream a reality.
The packaging of the MRE is designed in such a way that it’s able to resist any environmental hazards and exposure to tough conditions, making it perfect for the military. Furthermore, the packaging can survive a parachute drop of more than 12,000 feet, keeping the MRE edible.
This ready-to-eat food comes in a variety of flavors, including vegetarian. Here are some of the contents that are typically included in an MRE.
- Main course
- Side dish
- Spread (peanut butter, cheese, etc.)
- Powdered drink (cocoa, coffee, tea or any flavor of juice)
While MREs are typically common in the military, they have also been used in case of natural disasters. During hurricanes and earthquakes, MREs have been supplied to the public many a times. Since these ready-to-eat meals can sustain any drastic environmental changes, they come in handy during calamities.
In the earlier times, MREs were rejected by service members due to their low nutritional content, but the military has since then revised the contents of the ready-to-eat meals, inculcating heathier, more nutritional alternatives.
The MRE bag is called the trilaminate retort pouch. It is, in fact, a can that’s flexible and made of aluminum and has several plastic layers. Preserving food through canning has been an extensively used and widely popular idea through the years. The concept behind canning food, may it be in pouches or steel cans, is quite elementary.
The food is boiled in the can so that all the bacteria can be killed, and sealing it prevents any new bacteria from entering. As the food is completely sealed and has been sterilized, there are very few chances of it getting spoiled. Once the can is opened, the bacteria can make its way in and attack the food. That is why there is a need to refrigerate the food, as you can read on the label of numerous food products.
In general, we think of cans as being made up of metal, but any container that is sealable can be substituted for a can. The contents of an MRE are packed in a sealable pouch. This pouch has varied advantages over a can. For example, it is lighter in weight and due to its flexible body, it can resist any wreckage in the battlefield. The pouch is also flat, which makes it easier to carry around or keep in the pocket. Due to its compact size, heating the contents of the MRE is an easy task.
In the recent years, more attention is being given to the nutritional aspect of the content, keeping in view the link between an individual’s age, background and lifestyle.
The shelf life of an MRE has always been a major concern for the armed forces. The rations were tested time and again, and a whole lot of research was done on how to keep the food edible for a long period given the rough military conditions.
MRE pouches were designed keeping in view the requirements are much different than for the average commercial food. The concept was to keep them safe and able to handle detrimental situations. Therefore, MREs were exposed to different abuse tests like obstacle transversal.
While keeping the food inside the pockets of their field clothing, military officers were asked to do some tough physical activities. A drop test from a parachute was also done, and the MRE was kept under extreme temperatures. After all this research, the MRE pouch was designed.
This pouch has been considerably altered over the years. Beginning from World War II to date, the bag has undergone many changes. The research to improve MRE packaging is still going on. The army is devising ways to keep the pouches non-foil so that the weight of the MREs could be further reduced. An added benefit would be an airtight barrier to keep the food fresh for a long time.
Why is there a need for this? Although MRE bags are able to keep out moisture and air, this does not guarantee a lasting, airtight barrier. This could later result in air seeping in through the spaces present.
The concept behind the designing and packaging of MRE was to keep the food edible for as long as possible. The adverse conditions during a mission or combat cannot allow normal food to last long or remain edible enough. Therefore, MRE pouches are designed keeping all these factors in mind.
The MRE food is packed in pouches with triple layers of aluminum/plastic which can better withstand the rough military condition than normal cans. The food contained in them is first cooked at a high temperature to sterilize and make it stable for use at room temperature.
Just as normal canned food has a shelf life, MREs also have a limited shelf life depending on the storage temperature. Under favorable conditions, an MRE can last up to 5 to 7 years.
Researchers have tested the life of an MRE lots of times. MREs that were almost 10 to 15 years old were found to have good taste minus the discoloration and appearance. Also, these foods were found to have high nutritional content.
If you’re curious as a civilian to know more about the shelf life, the two things that should be the determining factors are manufacturing date and storage conditions. The storage condition has a direct relation with the life of an MRE. The US military checks MRE packages after 3 years to check for longevity and throws them out after 5 years from the date of manufacture.
The 5-year shelf life is only applicable if the MRE has been stored at room temperature. According to military specifications, the MRE should be able to sustain extreme temperatures for a small duration of time, whether it’s freezingly cold or extremely hot.
Keeping MREs in the refrigerator can greatly increase their shelf life, but it’s not specified for how long. Sellers of MREs claim that they can last up to 11 years if stored at a temperate of 16 degrees Celsius or 60 degrees Fahrenheit in the fridge.
MREs have a lot of preservatives and a high fat content. The reason why there’s so much fat is that it serves as a natural preservative and contains a lot of calories, which is essential for all the physical activities required in the military. Similarly, the sodium present in the preservatives can be sweated out through running, exercising and other physical activities.
The main purpose of an MRE is convenience, and it serves that purpose fully. The taste is yet another thing to talk about when it comes to ready-to-eat meals. The taste of the MRE will be dependent on the life of an MRE. As previously mentioned, it is obvious that there’s a direction relation between the storage temperature and the MRE shelf life. Hence, the shorter the life of the MRE, the higher chances that food will taste better as the food will tend to go bad the longer it is kept in storage.
The packaging of an MRE can tell you a great deal about what day it was packed and the year of production. Each bag is coded with a number series. These numbers contain the production date of the MRE. These include the year and day it was produced. Hence, you can easily know if a certain MRE is good to eat.
Refrigerating the MRE would increase its shelf life, but regular refrigeration can result in the stretching of the pouch, which may spoil the meal. Although these packages are designed to sustain adverse conditions, continuous refrigeration can affect the layers of the pouch, hence spoiling the meal.