NATICK, Mass. (Dec. 11, 2015) -- Imagine unwrapping a meal, ready-to-eat, or MRE, and digging into nostalgic comfort cuisines, like Parachute Pork, Battalion Brownie Pops and Ranger Red Hot Party Mix. Who in the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, is cooking up these creative concoctions, and where can we get some?

The recipes are pages from the cookbook "MRE Recipes: A collection of recipes bringing a creative twist to your MRE experience!" This book is one of the perks volunteers receive for joining USARIEM's ongoing, cutting-edge study, "Effects of Meal, Ready-to-Eat consumption on gut health," headed by Dr. J. Philip Karl, a scientist in USARIEM's Military Nutrition Division, or MND.

"We are looking at gut health and consumption of the MRE," said Holly McClung, a research dietitian from MND working on the project. "What we are doing is asking volunteers to consume a MRE-only diet for 21 straight days. Twenty-one days is consistent with current field feeding policy, and research has shown that consuming MREs for this length of time does not hurt a warfighter's nutritional status.

"But older and new research shows us that, in addition to nutritional status, a healthy gut is also important for physical and mental health," she said. "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. Ultimately, discovering how eating MREs influences gut bacteria and gut health will help our efforts to continually improve the MRE."

McClung said this study will help USARIEM discover new nutrition-based strategies for changing gut bacteria in a way that benefits warfighter health. Yet the researchers are facing a significant problem that could affect how soon they are able to develop these strategies: getting study volunteers to eat nothing but MREs for 21 straight days.

"Anytime you limit what somebody can eat, there is a possibility of that person becoming tired of the diet. In a research study like this, that means there is going to be a possibility of dedicated volunteers wanting to drop out of the study," McClung said. "They may get tired of the food. Even though there are 24 different meals, after three weeks, volunteers will have tried everything at least once. Many people can hit a wall.

"My idea was to put together a book of recipes that might invigorate volunteer interest in the study and the MREs. We needed to somehow increase variety within the foods available, so I thought, 'Why not try out some new recipes?'"

Enter the cookbook. What started out as McClung's brainchild became a reality after she handed the task off to newcomer research dietitian Adrienne Hatch to cook up some concoctions.

"It was really a great opportunity for me when Holly approached me to do this because it's already something I enjoy doing on my own," Hatch said. "To be able to take MREs and create a new recipe, because you're only given so many ingredients and components, and make something new and enticing out of that, was both a challenge and fun!"

What Hatch and McClung described as a fun way to entice volunteers to continue eating the MRE for their study could also serve as a steppingstone toward solving some of the constraints eating an MRE presents on the battlefield.

"What is nutrition if you don't consume the food," McClung asked. "One of the big hurdles we have seen in our field studies is getting the Soldier to eat. So, why, at the end of a 20-mile march, do you want to get all the food out and prepare it unless you've been thinking about it for those 20 miles? 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."

WHAT IS FOOD WORTH MARCHING FOR?

During the brainstorming stages of the book, Hatch was inspired by enticing, palatable dishes online - barbecue, cake pops, potato salad and other goodies. Hatch said her current love of food trends had its roots in her childhood.

"My mom actually had her own little cake business at home, where she made mainly birthday cakes and baked for special occasions," Hatch said. "I always grew up around my mom making some sort of pastry, something in the kitchen. I think it carried over into adulthood and professional life. On snow days last year, I decided to make cake pops because I wanted to perfect my recipe. With this, I was thinking, 'How could I bring a cake pop into the recipe book?' So, I came up with the Battalion Brownie Pops."

The new and improved recipes bring both a burst of life and nostalgia to the MRE. Getting the food into Soldiers' stomachs, however, can still be a challenge due to monotonous food choices and limited food options.

"The limitation in the number of ingredients in the MRE was my biggest challenge because you only have so much to work with," Hatch said. "It could get repetitive if you used the same type of ingredients in every recipe."

Hatch combated this problem by making the recipes adaptable. Combining different types of nuts, peanut butter or dried fruit can offer Soldiers a variety of flavors. This encourages Soldiers in the study and potentially on the field to show creativity and interest in what they are eating.

"That's what happened with our most recent volunteer," McClung said. "We gave these cookbooks out during the last iteration of our study, and the volunteer was really inspired by the book. He came up with his own Doc's BBQ Delight recipe using the pork patty and some of the barbecue sauce, and he actually put raisins in it to make it sweet."

DOES IT LIVE UP TO THE TASTE TEST?

The research dietitians spent a day in their test kitchen cooking and tasting MREs. McClung said they were surprised by how delicious the new concoctions tasted. After the recipes were tested and finalized, McClung and Hatch sought the expertise of colleague Phil Niro to put the creativity into a cookbook format that would entice volunteers to read, make and try the recipes. Both Hatch and McClung were eager to name a few of their favorite recipes - from sweet to spicy.

"Mountaineer Mousse Dip," Hatch said. "It's composed of the pudding pouch, dairy shake and water. You mix it up and get a whipped mousse type of consistency. I really liked dipping pretzels in it - because you get the salty and sweet - or the little sugar cookies are good with the mousse, as well."

"I'm not a real beef connoisseur, but I feel like Battlefield Beef Dip could be a hit as a Super Bowl dip," McClung said.

The book is only being released to volunteers for USARIEM's gut health study, as it is awaiting approval for copyright registration. McClung and Hatch think that the book will fulfill its original mission of keeping study volunteers engaged in the research. More than that, they also hope that the book, once it receives approval, contributes to USARIEM's progress toward benefiting warfighter performance by encouraging consumption of the rations that their partners at the Combat Feeding Directorate spend so much time, thought and science developing.

"We want to benefit the warfighter in as many ways nutritionally and physiologically as possible," Hatch said. "We hope that the ideas offered in this book help entice Soldiers to eat the foods needed to sustain health and energy in the field and ultimately benefit them as they carry out their missions."