By K. Houston Waters, USAG NatickJuly 30, 2018
NATICK, Mass. -- From the most remote locations on Earth, Soldiers will soon be able to enjoy their favorite meal. Slices of delicious comfort, in the form of Meal, Ready-to-Eat pepperoni pizza, are currently being cooked up in preparation for worldwide distribution.
Soldiers have been asking for a pizza MRE since the 1980s. In 2012, advancements in food technology allowed scientists from the Combat Feeding Directorate of the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Massachusetts, to begin to transform their vision of providing Soldiers a tasty and nutritious meal, with a three-year shelf-life, into a piping-hot reality.
Jeremy Whitsitt, CFD's deputy director, explains the science behind the process of creating a perfect shelf-stable pizza ration. "The real trick is to get bread, sauce, cheese, and pepperoni inside of a pouch, happily together for at least three years. With each of those individual components on their own, we can achieve the shelf life, but when you put them together -- chemistry happens. All these components are interacting. You have four very distinct food matrices all interacting with each other, which can cause some unwanted results. That's why developing a shelf-stable pizza has been so hard."
According to Whitsitt, the manufacturing aspect of producing a stable MRE pizza was also a challenge. CFD scientists and researchers were able to produce a viable prototype in a laboratory setting, but factoring in the impact of large-scale production and packaging was a significant hurdle to overcome.
"Were able to do a lot of things in the lab, but sometime when you scale up, working with a producer making these by the thousands, especially with a product that's never existed before and is not available in the commercial market, replicating the process and coming up with the same results is difficult. But we overcame challenges and we've got a good product now. And Soldiers will be seeing pizza pretty soon."
To ensure taste and quality, every item that goes into an MRE is extensively taste-tested by Soldiers in the field. The Army began field-testing the MRE pizza in August 2014.
Whitsitt believes MRE pizza should be available to Soldiers in 2019, with some locations possible in 2018.
The standard MRE contains a main course, side dish, a dessert or snack, crackers or bread with cheese, peanut butter or jelly, and a powered beverage mix -- all fortified with essential vitamins, nutrients, and around 1,200 calories total. The MRE pizza MRE will contain cherry/blueberry cobbler, cheese spread with cheddar and jalapeno cheese, Italian bread sticks, cookies, and chocolate protein powder mix.
Developing a great tasting MRE-pizza that can be stored safely, at up to 100 degrees Fahrenheit for three years, was only part of the equation for the CFD food technologists.
"When you break it down, food is fuel. The fuel that powers the Soldier. Everything that goes into the body has to be thought through very carefully," Whitsitt said. "We're doing a lot of work into what naturally occurring ingredients are needed to increase, and sustain, high performance for an extended period of time.
"Working with our partners in USARIEM and the medical community, we're ensuring that what they're investigating -- the physiological research -- makes its way into ration components. That rations not only have the shelf life that they need but will be something that Soldiers want to eat. The idea is that these things will increase their performance so they can get back into the fight," he added.