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Caffeinated beef jerky tested for military MREs

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Soldier eating a Meal, Ready to Eat. (U.S. Army, Natick, Mass.)

Ten years of warfare have brought about notable improvements in at least one oft-maligned feature of modern military life: Meals, Ready to Eat, known as MREs--which troops in the field have graced with such alternate titles as "Meals Refused by the Enemy," among others.

But while "complaining about the MRE has been a sport within the ranks for years," the Washington Post's Christian Davenport wrote Saturday, "in its latest permutations ... the MRE has gone gourmet"--or at least, Davenport concedes, as gourmet as possible for food required to have "a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees" and to be able to "withstand an airdrop from thousands of feet."

At an Army lab outside of Boston, Mass., Davenport reports, specialists in military cuisine are seeking to improve the taste and range of MRE offerings, while also heightening the nutritional and energy profiles of the deploy-able military menu. The plan is to infuse items with caffeine, anti-inflammatory agents, vitamin and energy supplements to give troops added strength and metabolic firepower, Davenport writes.

"An Army lab here is testing a beef jerky stick that . . . contains an equivalent of a cup of coffee's worth of caffeine to give even the sleepiest soldier that up-and-at-'em boost," Davenport reported.

Lab techs "are lacing food with supplements such as omega 3s and curcumin,"--an anti-oxidant, he continued. The recipe for "amped-up applesauce, called 'Zapplesauce,'" includes maltodextrin--a form of complex carbohydrate supplement.

"There is a lot of science that goes into this," David Accetta, a spokesman for the Natick, Mass.-based Army lab which taste-tests the battle-ready meal improvements, told Davenport. "And that's what a lot of people don't realize. It's not just a bunch of cooks in the kitchen making up recipes."

But science and energy supplements alone won't keep up war fighters' morale, as generals have known going back to Napoleon.

"If applesauce doesn't look like applesauce, a war fighter is not going to eat it," Jeremy Whitsitt, with the Defense Department's feeding directorate, told Davenport. "Nothing takes out a battalion of soldiers quicker than bad food."

To that end, the Army's Natick, Mass.-based Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center MRE testers have "started asking soldiers for feedback" using questionnaires, while also reviewing mess hall dumpsters to learn which items have yet to pass the all-important soldier taste tests.The efforts to improve on the MRE have led to a doubling of MRE menu options to about two dozen, including chicken pesto and rice, "ratatouille, garlic mashed potatoes, and salsa verde."

However, there's still one much-requested dish the MRE technologists have to date not yet succeeded in adapting for the rigors of the battlefield: pizza.

"The bread, the cheese, the sauce are a nightmare," Davenport wrote. After a few days, the sauce "makes even the most robust crust soggy. And its high water content breeds bacteria."

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