By Christen N. McCluney
Special to American Forces Press Service
Nov. 25, 2009 - Several military organizations are working together to provide soldiers with healthy, good-tasting, sustainable and nutritionally sound combat rations. "We're charged with a fairly awesome task, and that is to fuel the Defense Department's most flexible and adaptable weapons platform, and that of course is the individual warfighter," said Gerry Darsch, director of the Defense Department's Combat Feeding Program at the Massachusetts-based Natick Soldier Systems Center during a Nov. 23 interview on the Pentagon Channel podcast "Armed with Science: Research and Applications for the Modern Military.
Darsch was joined by Andy Young, chief of the Military Nutrition Division at the U.S. Army Institute of Environmental Medicine.
Because many military personnel have jobs similar to those in the civilian sector, their nutritional requirements aren't going to be very much different from those of their civilian counterparts, Young said, but some servicemembers in operational specialties do require more fuel and energy then most civilians. Achieving their nutritional requirements while working in the field can be especially difficult, he added.
The MRE -- shorthand for its designation in the supply system as Meal, Ready-to-Eat -- is the standard military ration. Each meal provides one-third of the military-recommended dietary allowance and must meet a variety of requirements, including long shelf life, tolerance of changes in temperature and stability in varying conditions, Darsch said.
"We do have a business philosophy here, and that is, 'Warfighter recommended, warfighter tested, and warfighter approved,'" he said. "And that is driving our continuous product-improvement program."
One of the latest developments that has come out of this program is known as the first-strike ration, or FSR. Before its introduction, servicemembers who were outside of a forward operating base for two to seven days were given MREs to travel with. Because of space limitations, soldiers would field-strip the meal and throw away more than half of the food, including a large portion of nutrients.
"The first-strike ration, in essence, is issued at one per warfighter per day, instead of two or three MREs," Young said. It reduces the weight and volume of the MRE by 50 percent, and also is more cost-efficient.
"The first-strike ration provides all the components that can be easily eaten on the move," Young said. "And we now can regain control, if you will, of nutrition and make sure that those warfighters are getting the nutrients that they so desperately need to maintain [or] enhance both cognitive and physical performance."
Working with the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine, the group convened a panel of nutrition experts from all over the world, many of whom had served in the military, and challenged them to get the best nutrition possible into a limited amount of space.
"After that, it was simply a matter of testing the actual performance improvements and capabilities of the ration in human subjects in the field conditions that would be used," Young said.
Focus groups and surveys revealed what products were being left behind, and from there, a list was put together of items that servicemembers wanted.
Packaging was one of the main issues, Darsch said. When the design of an electrolyte drink was changed into an hourglass-shaped package with a feature that allowed water to be added directly from a canteen or CamelBak, the consumption rate went from 33 percent to more than 70 percent.
The addition of a shelf-stable, pocket-style sandwich was another request from soldiers. Because microwave ovens and frozen food items aren't available in the field, the combat feeding team's technologists used "hurdle technology," a packaging process that balances water, atmosphere and acidity in the package, creating hurdles to bacterial growth and keeping the products shelf-stable.
The groups did field tests with the U.S. Forest Service, testing the rations on forest firefighters who have similar metabolic and work demands as infantry soldiers on the ground, Young said. They later tested the rations at Fort Benning, Ga., on the 75th Ranger Regiment's Pre-Ranger Course and with the Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Va.
The next goal, Darsch said, is to expand the first-strike rations menu from three to nine meals and to go into the field and allow warfighters an opportunity to rate the new menus.
"The most important thing about the first-strike in particular, and nutrition in general, for the warrior in the field is, it's not nutrition unless it's eaten," he said. "So it doesn't do you any good to take the package; you've got to actually eat it. And that's why the first-strike is such an important step forward for the particular audience it was targeted at -- that it actually improves consumption, and that, in turn, improves the nutrition."
(Christen N. McCluney works in the Defense Media Activity's emerging media directorate.)