Organizing Theory & Artistry

Veteran’s Day Salute: The MRE

"Thanksgiving on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan." U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Andrew Smith. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

Today is Veteran’s Day in the United States where we honor those who have served in the armed forces of the United States. Last year, Ruly Ruth gave some great tips on honoring our veterans.

This year, tying in with our emergency preparedness theme, I thought we would discuss the MRE and learn a little bit about our military through what they eat on the battlefield.

The U.S. military has several types of prepackaged meals. They include:

"seriously, you can't make this stuff up." Photo by Robert Couse-Baker. From the Flickr Creative Commons.
1) The MRE – which comes in 24 different flavors, 4 of which are vegetarian, as well as Kosher and Halal versions and versions for hot and cold climate extremes. The MRE comes in a shelf-stable pack along with a “flameless heater” to warm up the entrée.

“The Meal, Ready to Eat™ (MRE™) is used by all Military Services to sustain individuals during operations where food service facilities are not available. They are the cornerstone of military subsistence, intended to provide a Warfighter’s sole subsistence for up to 21 days of deployment (in accordance with AR 40-25) yet nutritionally adequate to be used for longer periods if necessary.”

-U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center,Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 8th edition, May 2010.

For all the science nerds out there who want to know how the “flameless heater” works, here is a great description.

“The idea behind a flameless heater is to use the oxidation of a metal to generate heat. . . . To make a flameless heater, magnesium dust is mixed with salt and a little iron dust in a thin, flexible pad about the size of a playing card. To activate the heater, a soldier adds a little water. Within seconds the flameless heater reaches the boiling point and is bubbling and steaming. To heat the meal, the soldier simply inserts the heater and the MRE pouch back in the box that the pouch came in. Ten minutes later, dinner is served!”

–Marshall Brain, How MREs Work, howstuffworks.com

"A Soldier samples a pocket sandwich, one of the componenets of the First Strike Ration." U.S. Army Photo.
2) The First Strike Ration – A more compact and calorie dense meal that comes in 3 flavors, none of which are vegetarian.

“The First Strike Ration® (FSR®) is a compact, eat-on the move, assault ration intended to be consumed during the first 72 hours of intense conflict by forward deployed Warfighters . . . . Each FSR® provides an average of 2900 calories (13% protein, 34% fat, 53% carbohydrate). . . . To meet the needs of lighter, more mobile troops, one FSR® per day is issued to each Warfighter . . . .”

-U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center,Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 8th edition, May 2010.

"UGR-A Serving Line in the Field." U.S. Army Photo.
3) Unitized Group Rations – These are the foods that military cooks and food service personnel use to feed large groups of Warfighters. From the pictures, they look like the civilian equivalent of family-size heat n’ serve frozen foods like lasagnas and casseroles—except these don’t require refrigeration.

“The UGR-H&S™ is designed to be the first group meal provided to Warfighters in early deployment where field kitchens without refrigeration capability are available . . . In the earliest stages of deployment, the MRE™ is versatile and nutritionally adequate enough to provide a Warfighter’s only subsistence each day. However, as soon as field kitchens can be set up and cooks can begin preparing hot meals, the UGR™ provides increased variety to Warfighters. Feedback from troops over many years has told us time and time again that there is a huge intangible benefit of being able to relax in a group setting and enjoy a hot meal. The UGR™ provides this capability.”

-U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center,Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 8th edition, May 2010.

"Food?" Photo by nukeit1 (James McCauley). From the Flickr Creative Commons.
4) Humanitarian Daily Rations – These meals are generally not eaten by the military but are provided to displaced people in the conflict areas.

“The components [of the Humanitarian Daily Ration] are designed to provide a full day’s sustenance to a moderately malnourished individual. In order to provide the widest possible acceptance from the variety of potential consumers with diverse religious and dietary restrictions from around the world, the HDR contains no animal products or animal by-products, except that minimal amounts of dairy products are permitted. Alcohol and alcohol based ingredients are also banned. The meal bag is similar to the MRETM meal bag except that it is a salmon color and contains graphics depicting how to open the bag and that the contents should be eaten.”

-U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center,Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 8th edition, May 2010

Meal, Alternative Regionally Customized. U.S. Army Photo.
5) MARC Meals – These are special shelf-stable vegetarian meals designed for detainees at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.

“The final product configuration includes 10 different luncheon entrée menus containing food components familiar to Southwest Asian/Middle East populations.”

-U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center,Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 8th edition, May 2010

"Tube food provided to U.S. Air Force U-2 pilots." U.S. Air Force photo/Master Sgt. Jason Tudor.
6) Tube meals – These have the biggest ick factor for me. This is food liquefied and put into something that looks like a toothpaste tube. We must have some very dedicated Air Force pilots to be able to do their intense and stressful jobs while eating these “foods” for their sustenance.

“Tube foods are often referred to as high-altitude rations, or ‘foods with altitude.’ The purpose of tube food is to feed U2 pilots in the U.S. Air Force (USAF) during reconnaissance missions that last for periods up to 12 hours. Due to the flying height of U2 jets during such missions, pilots must wear pressurized suits and helmets that cannot be removed, making it impossible for them to consume food with their hands or utensils. Instead, tube food is designed to attach directly to a feeding tube that extends from the outside of the helmet to the inside where the pilot is able to sip the food from a straw-like tube.”

–U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center, Operational Rations of the Department of Defense, 8th edition, May 2010

To their credit, the military does try to continually improve the food and make it better. Each year the content of MREs changes with some foods retired and new foods introduced.

“After Operation Desert Storm, surveys indicated that Warfighter food preferences closely resembled those of the general non-military population. Warfighters wanted more ethnic foods and more vegetarian offerings.”

—U.S. Army Natick Soldier RD&E Center, Vegetarian Meals in the MRE

"tabasco." Photo by Robert Couse-Baker. From the Flickr Creative Commons.

I also found it funny that the survey also showed that regardless of the meal, most warfighters wanted hot sauce to season it with (I suppose to mask the taste) so every MRE comes with a cute little bottle of Tabasco sauce.

The military also does seem to try to improve the nutritional content of these meals with each iteration. The current nutritional guidelines for MREs are:

“The contents of one MRE meal bag provides an average of 1250 kilocalories (13 % protein, 36 % fat, and 51 % carbohydrates). It also provides 1/3 of the Military Recommended Daily Allowance of vitamins and minerals determined essential by the Surgeon General of the United States.”

-Defense Logistics Agency, Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE)

I did my own calculation of the nutritional content of one days worth of MREs. I picked at random 3 MREs from the 2010 meal list found here.

The MREs I chose were the maple sausage and granola MRE, the Veggie Burger in BBQ sauce MRE and the boneless pork rib with potato cheddar soup MRE. It is surprisingly hard to find any information about what exactly is in the MRE. I scraped together my information based on photos and reviews of the MREs at mreinfo.com, MRE calorie counts at livestrong.com and myfitnesspal.com, as well as MREs for sale at survival stores and on eBay.

I wasn’t able to find information for some of the meal components and for some of them I used civilian emergency foods of a similar description.  Others I just left out.

My results showed that one days worth of MRE’s provided:

  • 3, 457 calories (According to mypyramid.gov’s calculator this would be roughly appropriate for a 21 year old man, 6 feet tall, 175 pounds exercising more than 60 minutes per day. It is almost 1,000 calories too many for women, even those exercising 60 minutes a day or more.)
  • 165 mg cholesterol (This is far less than the 300 mg allowed for both men and women so the MRE does well here.)
  • 9 grams trans fat (Trans fats are acknowledged to be the most dangerous kinds of fats and the recommendation is generally around 2 grams of trans fat per 2,000 calories.  9 grams is really quite a high amount of trans fat. All of the trans fat in the MRE meals came from the baked goods like snack bread, cookies and muffins. Hopefully they will cut this way down in the next version of the MRE.)
  • 4,239 mg sodium (Big failure for the MRE here. Way too much salt! Almost 3 times the recommended daily allowance.)
  • 21.5 grams fiber (If these meals are aimed primarily at young men, recall that the desired fiber quantity for men under 50 is 38 grams. This is about half. Perhaps this is the reason that you cannot read about MRE’s without finding some warfighter’s detailed story about constipation! For women, this is much closer to the 25g they need but remember that the number of calories is generally far too high for most women so women probably need more fiber-dense foods as well.)
  • Roughly 14% protein, 21% fat, 65% carbs, which meets general guidelines for athletic people.
  • These MREs provided 368% of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) for vitamin C, almost 100% of calcium and iron, about half of the Vitamin E, Riboflavin, Niacin and Folate, about 36% of vitamin A and about 25% of vitamin B6. Adding a multivitamin to the MRE might not be a bad idea.

But the crucial question . .. how does the MRE taste? Apparently OK but certainly not for everyone. Here you can see a BBC reporter tasting the “chili macaroni” meal with U.S. troops.

And here is a group of schoolchildren tasting the meals at the Army Reserve Enrichment Camp.

I have a new appreciation for the many sacrifices of our warfighters and am thankful today for everyone who has served our country.  Please feel free to share in the comments your Veterans Day wishes and remembrances.