August 10, 2015


HOW MILITARY R&D CREATED THE FOOD WE EAT  (Nicola Twilley, 8/10/15, Popular Science)

Faced with the challenge of feeding millions of men, scattered across the globe, the U.S. Army invested its not insubstantial resources into the development of lighter, longer-lasting rations, either in the army's own R&D labs in Natick, Massachusetts, or in collaboration with universities. The military shared its findings with American food corporations, who were both eager for lucrative government vendor contracts and loathe to invest their own capital in primary research--a dynamic that ensured that the U.S. Army's combat-feeding objectives underlie an astonishing number of grocery store staples. Wartime innovations in blood plasma transport paved the way for instant coffee, the McRib is descended from military research into "fabricated modules of meat," and the finger-staining dust on Cheetos can be traced back to a dehydrated, compressed "jungle" cheese invented by government scientists in 1943.

But the path from the Department of Defense to Piggly Wiggly is frequently far from direct. Take the PowerBar, whose origins Marx de Salcedo traces back to the Second World War-era Logan bar, or emergency D ration, a fortified, meal-replacement chocolate bar that was deliberately designed to melt less easily and taste less good, so that soldiers wouldn't be tempted to eat it before they truly needed it.

Following the war, non-melting chocolate spun off into a separate research project (M&Ms aside, it is still an unsolved problem), while the meal-in-a-bar idea was given a boost by the 1969 development of a mathematical model to map water activity in different foods under different conditions--research that was carried out by MIT scientists but funded by the Natick Center. The amount of available water in food determines, to a large extent, how quickly it spoils, and the ability to accurately model it meant that scientists could begin to reformulate foods to lower their water activity. The result? An explosion of enticingly named "Intermediate Moisture Foods," including all those cookies, bars, and pastries that combine the previously incompatible ideals of a soft and chewy texture and a near eternal shelf life.

The military hired Pillsbury to make the first IMF bars--Space Food Sticks, introduced in 1970--with the explicit hope that industry would adopt the technology and then invest their own resources to develop improved recipes and production techniques. Within a decade, dieters and outdoor enthusiasts became the early adopters for the first fortified energy bars, meal replacement bars, and chewy granola bars. Today, the category takes up an entire aisle in most grocery stores, contributing to the comprehensive snackification of the American diet. In turn, the former director of the Combat Feeding Directorate at Natick tells Marx de Salceda that the military is now considering replacing the outmoded concept of breakfast, lunch, and dinner with "more of a grazing event."

Posted by at August 10, 2015 7:09 PM

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