Whether it’s a meal from McDonalds, a snack bar you take with you to work or that always reliable juice box you pack in your kids’ lunchbox, you can thank – or blame — the U.S. Military for much of it.
Many of the foods that we eat today, which have become part of our modern culture of convenience, were invented for soldiers.
According to the new book, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How The U.S. Military Shapes The Way You Eat, “many of the packaged, processed foods we find in today’s supermarkets started out as science experiments in an Army laboratory.”
In her book, author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, interlaces military history into a discussion of the food industry and modern health policy, all filtered through her own family’s experiences.
Military needs have driven food-preservation experiments for centuries, Marx de Salcedo told NPR.
One of America’s favorites, supermarket bread, is just one example. It’s longer lasting and different from the fresh, bakery kind because of the starch-snacking bacterial enzymes, discovered under a Quartermaster Corps contract with Kansas State College in the 1950s.
Another interesting nugget in the book: The first TV dinners were made for bomber crews on long overseas flights during World War II. The frozen meat, vegetables, and potatoes in a tray invented by an armed forces contractor.
We can also thank the U.S. military for putting the cheese in our favorite cheesy snack foods. During World War II, as part of an effort to reduce weight and volume of food shipments abroad, full-fat dehydrated cheese was invented. When the war ended, the cheese dehydrators found new customers in the emerging snack and convenience food manufacturers.
The book talks about how many food innovations can be traced back to the Natick Soldier Systems Center, a U.S. Army research complex in Natick, Mass. The center is behind the energy bar, which was originally created to give worn-out soldiers a boost. “Restructured meat, of which the McRib is an early example, was an outgrowth of a Natick Center program to lower the meat bill by gluing together cheap cuts to look like more expensive ones.”
Those coolers you’re carrying to the beach this summer – well, they’re able to keep your drinks and snacks icy cold thanks to a 1950’s Natick Center project. The rigid, strong, and lightweight material that was initially developed as building materials, was quickly incorporated into other uses, including refrigerated containers and insulated food coolers.
Also, the process of zapping herbs and spices with ionizing radiation is possible thanks to the Army’s longest-running and most expensive food research program—radiation sterilization.
While coming up with new ways to preserve food, the military helped create high-pressure processing, or HPP. HPP is the application of a tremendous amount of pressure to food. Companies took the technique and began applying it to their own products – like single-serving fresh juices, Ready-to-eat guacamole and many salsas. In the mid-2000s, Hormel applied the technique to deli meats too.
So what can we expect in our supermarkets in the future? One thing the military is working on is shelf-stable pizza, which could be left in your pantry as long as you leave canned goods in there.