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Ready-to-Eat Rations Include Tootsie Rolls, Pound Cake : A Look at What Will Sustain Soldier of Future

July 23, 1989|BROOKE A. MASTERS | The Washington Post

WASHINGTON — When the average infantryman eats dinner after a hard day on the battlefield, Army researchers found, he wants fast food, candy and bread.

The U.S. Army's Natick Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass., has been evaluating combat rations and equipment, and this week showed lawmakers in the Dirksen Senate Office Building the latest in Army equipment--improved rations, clothing, parachutes and more.

Besides bread, the soldier of tomorrow will be able to eat such unwarrior-like food as pound cake and Tootsie Rolls.

The equipment on display was developed by the Natick researchers, but it is produced by outside contractors who bid for approximately $3.5 billion in contracts annually, said Robert Lewis, Natick's technical director.

Meals Ready to Eat

The researchers have spent the last few years developing ways to improve Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), which have been the Army's standard combat ration since they replaced C-rations in 1980.

Three MREs a day must provide a soldier with 3,600 calories and the surgeon general's military daily allowance of vitamins and minerals. At the same time, MREs must be completely portable and have a shelf life of three years.

Until recently, those requirements severely restricted the menu, because the food must fit into small, airtight pouches. Soldiers consistently told researchers they wanted more choices, bigger entrees and food more like what they ate at home, said Jerry Darsch, chief of Natick's food technology division.

Listened to Complaints

Many of them did not finish their meals. "We like to think we have 781,000 consultants in the Army alone and we try to listen to what they have to say," Darsch said.

To begin to meet soldiers complaints, the Army added nine new entrees, commercial candies like M&Ms and Tootsie Rolls, 1-inch-tall bottles of Tabasco sauce and drink mixes such as Kool-Aid. The entree size has been increased from 5 1/2 ounces to 8 ounces. The new meals cost $3.50 apiece, about the same as the old ones, Darsch said.

More changes are on the way. Natick researchers recently developed a way to make "shelf-stable bread products"--everything from plain white bread to pound cake to pizza crusts. Baked with a special sugar product that keeps it from going stale, the bread is stored with a small packet of preservatives that absorb oxygen and moisture. The textures are somewhat denser than that of normal bread, but the shelf-stable variety tastes like its supermarket cousin.

Ballpark Franks, Burritos

In the next couple of years, soldiers will also be getting burritos, hamburgers and even hot dogs with buns. The hot dogs are a bit smaller than those sold in supermarkets, but they taste like a ballpark frank, although probably lower in cholesterol, sodium and fat. Darsch noted that all Army food is specially chosen to be healthful.

Because it takes three years to get new foods into all the bases, soldiers stuck with old rations will get supplemental food packs containing breads, candies and other new foods such as beef jerky and granola.

Ways to Heat Rations

The researchers are also looking for ways to heat the rations. Soldiers complain that rations taste awful cold. Tank crews will be given special heaters that operate much like electric blankets, and ground troops will receive metal canteen cups and stands in which they can heat water to warm the MRE pouches.

A little further in the future will come self-heating meals. Each MRE will come with a small package of a chemical--a magnesium alloy--that will produce heat when the soldier adds water.

Even as the Natick researchers spruce up the regular diet, they have also developed specialized food for soldiers in arctic conditions and for reconnaissance forces who need to travel very light. Rations, Cold Weather provide soldiers with 4,500 calories a day and use more dehydrated foods that do not freeze in extreme cold.

The Special Operations forces that spend long periods behind enemy lines also have a meal of their own, Rations, Lightweight 30 Days. These small packs consist primarily of dried foods and are designed to be "the ultimate in nutritional and caloric density," Darsch said. Each day's ration provides 2,000 calories and weighs less than a pound.

Latest in Army Clothing

The Natick researchers said they have not forgotten the rest of the soldier's life. The display featured the latest in Army clothing--from bulletproof vests to suits that protect against toxic materials and come with a four-hour air supply. The researchers' goals are always to provide more protection at less weight, said researcher Dave Cheney.

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