The military made our food easier, longer lasting — and more bland
CombatReady Kitchen How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat
by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo describes McDonald’s seasonal sensation the McRib as, “a washboardshaped cutlet composed of porcine oddments, soaked in treacly barbecue sauce, strewn with pickles and onions, and stuffed in an oblong bun.”
For this we can thank the US military, whose culinary philosophy de Salcedo says is “get the cheapest stuff there is and figure out a way to get the grunts to eat it.”
In “CombatReady Kitchen,” de Salcedo lays out the extensive history of the military’s foodscience efforts and how they led to the prepackaged, heavily preserved and often nutrientdrained foods — like the McRib — that dominate our fastfood restaurants and local supermarkets.
The US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, located in a suburb of Boston, is the “beating heart of the industrialfood system,” says de Salcedo, who writes that the center houses seven research centers with names like the “Combat Feeding Directorate.”
“As Hollywood is to movies, as Nashville is to country music, and as New York City is to the publishing industry, the Natick Center is to the processed foods that form the bedrock of the American diet,” she writes, noting that the center’s inventions include “energy bars, restructured meat, nonstaling bread and instant coffee,” to name just a few.
Over the years, the military has often paired with major food conglomerates to try to find ways to feed our nation’s frontline fighters for the lowest possible cost. But their collective findings have rarely remained simply military. Once those uses were established, the conglomerates adapted them to our modern runandgun way of life.
While the cost and time savings can be genuine, these sorts of food products are sometimes created by “stripping every little last bit of protein from carcasses,” or by using binding agents including “cow’s blood and pig’s blood clotting factor, bacterial enzymes, algae and chemicals.” Bon appetit! Here’s the dubious path two staples of our daily diet took from military research to your lunch plate.
The Army’s decadeslong efforts to find ways to preserve bread began in World War II. Eventually, the military settled on bread being preserved with “microbial enzymes, especially bacterial ones, which soften texture, increase volume, add color and ex tend shelf life by one or two weeks.”
Enzymes are regarded as a “processing aid,” so their inclusion need not be noted on a product’s packaging. But that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact.
“These changes may be a recipe for ill health,” de Salcedo writes, blaming the increased amounts of gluten and yeast, and the “less developed fermentation” in bread that increased enzymes require, on “recent spikes in autoimmune disorders such as Crohn’s and intestinal dysfunctions such as celiac disease.”
If you eat processed bread, de Salcedo lays out one other interesting fact: Your bread may not be bread.
Noting how the French have officially defined bread as requiring, among other things, to rise for a longer period of time, “all those neatly packaged loaves in the supermarket — the farmhouse white, the 100 percent whole wheat, the multigrain — which have only risen 50 minutes, are not bread. In the words of the armyfunded contractors whose 1950s research on enzymes helped to create them, they are ‘nonstaling breadlike products.’ ”
Boxed beef now accounts for “more than 90 percent of the beef sold in supermarkets.”
While fresh kill worked fine for millennia, after World War I, the US military desired cheaper ways to feed a large army. Once initial efforts to box beef resulted in the discovery that, “a quarter carcass weighed 25 percent less without its bones, fat, and cartilage and, when frozen into a rectangular solid, wrapped in burlap and waxed paper, and stacked, occupied 60 percent less space,” our fate was sealed.
In 1938, the Navy Veterinary Department, working with meatpackers Armour and Swift, developed a boning technique that “got almost all the edible meat off the carcass,” sorting it into “different classes” including “roasts and steaks, chunks for soups and stews, and — don’t look too closely — grinding grade.” It worked for soldiers in the field, and the Defense Department, years later, announced that, “The Army has put boneless beef on a basis where further experimentation is not necessary. It is now ready for civilian use.”
Over time and with little thought, the public “learned to prefer our animal in the forms pioneered by the military: boneless, which halves its shipping volume, and restructured, which allows [for] cheaper cuts. By far most of the animal protein we eat has been reassembled from bits and pieces by machines and is purchased everywhere but the meat department — deli case, frozenfoods section, vending machine, cafeteria, drivethrough.”
Soldiers with MREs, “meals ready to eat” — the original fast food.