get mres, compare mres, mre review The “Meal, Ready to Eat” or MRE was developed by the Department of Defense in response to a series of problems presented by previous field rations. The “C-rations” used during World War II and the “Meal, Combat, Individual” (MCI) that immediately preceded the MRE were canned “wet” rations that were intended for use when soldiers were unable to access a garrison or field kitchen. Though they were only supposed to be used for short periods of time, the reality was that on patrol field rations became the primary source of nutrition for soldiers. Thus, it was essential that the U.S. military address the shortcomings of the MCI in order to provide soldiers with a shelf stable ration that would adequately provide nutritional content for troops. The main problems with the MCI were: the cumbersome weight of the cans (sometimes up to 25 pounds), the lack of variety of the meals, and the lack of adequate nutritive content.

get mres, compare mres, mre review The Department of Defense began development of the Meal, Ready to Eat as early as 1963 in response to the heavy weight of the MCI. Early experiments focused on developing a dehydrated ration that could be carried in a canvas pouch. This led to the development of the “Long Range Patrol” (LRP) ration, which debuted in 1966. Unfortunately, though it solved the problem of weight, the LRP proved to be too expensive for continued use especially when compared to the existing MCI ration, leading to its limited usage and continued attempts at discontinuance by Quartermaster’s Command (QMC), the branch of the U.S. military charged with providing food sustenance to warfighters. By 1975 the LRP ration and other freeze dried rations such as the, “Jungle” ration were discontinued in favor of the first generation of the Meal, Ready to Eat. In 1978 the first large scale production of test of MREs was tested, this early version was encased in a plastic retort pouch and was shelf stable for up to three years in room temperature. After testing the U.S. Military deemed the MRE to be adequate for fulfilling the dietary requirements of soldiers and in 1981 the MRE-1 was first delivered to active duty troops. The first generation of the Meal, Ready to Eat attempted to improve on the variety of the MCI by offering six different menus. get mres, compare mres, mre reviewIn 1983 the MRE underwent its first field evaluation when the 25th Infantry Division was sent out for a 34 day mission with nothing to consume but the new MRE. Though the troops self-reported the new field ration as “adequate,” only 60% of the calories provided were actually consumed. The MRE was fielded once again in 1986 with similar results. Improvements that emerged from these studies included the expansion of the menu to a (limited) 12-item menu, introduction of commercial candy products to many of the menus, and the expansion of entrees from 5 ounces to 8 ounces. After these improvements were implemented the Department of Defense made the Meal, Ready to Eat the standard issue field ration for all warfighters in combat operations.

get mres, compare mres, mre reviewIn 1991 Operation Desert Storm provided the first opportunity for scientists of military nutrition to properly observe the MRE in extended combat scenarios. Results were mixed, though the meals were regarded by U.S. Military brass as adequate for nutritive purposes and were much lighter than the previous C-rations and MCI rations, on the ground the new field ration was regarded with contempt. Soldiers came up with many derogatory names for the rations including “Mr.E (mystery),” “Meals, Rejected by Everyone,” “Meals, Rarely Edible,” even “Meals, Rejected by Ethiopians.” They were sometimes referred to as “Three Lies in One: they aren’t meals, they aren’t ready, and they certainly aren’t edible.” The low content of dietary fiber also led to nicknames like “Meals, Refusing to Exit.” On one USO tour comedian (now Senator) Al Franken joked that he was on his fifth MRE and “none of them had an exit strategy.” With all of the new input scientists working for the Department of Defense went back to the drawing board to improve the meals. What they found was that if the MRE menu lacked variety warfighters were less likely to consume the necessary calories for combat situations. With this in mind the MRE-XIII was released in 1993 with an expanded menu (full) 12 items, many of the worst offenders from the previous generation were done away with and new items were introduced. In 1992 the Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) was introduced and dramatically improved the amount of calories that soldiers in the field consumed. In 1994 the MRE-XIV introduced commercial graphics (it seems troops were more likely to consume more calories if the packaging was something other than standard military olive drab), the packaging was made easier to open, and utensils (usually just spoons) were made longer (to make it easier to reach the contents) and biodegradable (to make them more environmentally friendly). Other innovations that were introduced in this generation were chocolate bars that did not melt, even in desert heat, and shelf stable bread that looked and felt like fresh bread even after weeks in the field.

get mres, review mres, mre comparisonBy 1996 the MRE menu had expanded to 18 meals (and eventually 24 where it now stands) and meals for specialized diets were first introduced. Today independent contractors working in association with the U.S. military provide vegetarian, Halal and Kosher meals. There is even a special menu for the Passover meal. All of these options are tailored to provide the same nutritive content without the offending contents of the standard MREs. The U.S. Military has also greatly improved the Research and Development aspect of the MRE. Early in the development of the MRE input from active duty troops was rarely sought out, but the overwhelmingly negative reaction Desert Storm troops gave it caused the Department of Defense to change the way it handled succeeding generations. Today the Continuous Product Improvement (CPI) program sends dieticians, engineers, and scientists to troops in the field to test out potential changes to the MRE. These controlled studies mean that feeding warfighters has become much more focused on the needs and tastes of actual active duty troops instead of a paternalistic system of “scientifically adequate” rations approved by top military brass. Changes made in response to the CPI program include the addition of a small Tabasco bottle in a number of the MREs and beverage packets (because today warfighters generally use hydration packs instead of canteens meaning there is no container to mix powders).

get mres, mre comparison, review mresThe modern-day MRE is a fully contained meal that provides all of the essential nutrients necessary to keep a fighter going in the field. Thanks to the tireless effort of the U.S. Military there has also been a substantial improvement to the percentage of nutrients the active duty soldier actually consumes as well. When the contemporary soldier opens their MRE today it includes: an entree, a side dish, a dessert (often a commercial candy), crackers or bread, and a spread of cheese, peanut butter, or jelly. In addition to the food it comes with an accessory pack that includes a powdered beverage (usually coffee or tea), utensils, the Flameless Ration Heater, beverage mixing bag, chewing gum, a matchbook, and spices (salt, pepper, and another spice).

The success of the Meal, Ready to Eat has led to investigations as to whether the technology could be applied to the civilian population, especially in times of desperate need, such as a natural disaster. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Ike, civilians displaced from their homes were provided with MREs. Unfortunately due to the high amount of calories in each MRE (approximately 1200-1300) many people gained weight because they were not as active as a warfighter out on patrol. This led to the development of the MRE’s closest cousin, the Humanitarian Daily Ration (HDR) in order to provide victims of natural disasters with the proper amount of nutrition.

get mres, compare mres, mre reviewThe success of the MRE bodes well for the U.S. Military, today the meals are tested and approved by active duty troops making them as popular as any field ration has ever been. The future of field rations lies with the Department of Defense’s ability and desire to continue to improve the MRE to suit the tastes and needs of warfighters. So far it looks like they are committed to listening to those fighters in the field meaning that the Meal, Ready to Eat has a bright future indeed.


A Prehistory of the MRE

Today the Meal, Ready-to-Eat, or MRE, represents the highest example of military ration technology such that it has become present in nearly all modern-day combat operations. Though the moniker, “Meal, Rejected by Everybody” (and other more worse variants) remain popular, the fact is that MREs have improved greatly since they were first fielded back in 1983. The commitment on the part of the US Military and Department of Defense to the science of nutrition in the field and the improvement in Meals, Ready-to-Eat are merely the latest solution to an ancient problem: “how does one feed and maintain a standing professional army?” Thus the history of the MRE is inseparable from the history of professional armies themselves. Understanding how different cultures in different time periods (including the U.S. Military) have responded to the problems presented by military rations is essential to understanding an important logistical part of military history and illuminates our understanding of the current state of MREs.

get mres, review mres, mre comparisonThe lack of sophistication of military rations in the pre-Roman era can be briefly explained by the fact that before the Romans no civilization seriously considered the military as an entity that stood apart from civilian life. Among advanced civilizations only the Hellenic empire founded by Alexander the Great had to consider the logistics of feeding large armies far away from supply lines provided by a home state, but its relatively brief duration meant that the Hellenes never developed sophisticated distinctions between civilian and military life. For the Romans, however, this distinction was crucial. As a civilization that fought to expand and defend a vast territory over the course of centuries it was necessary for them to develop advanced methods of maintaining a vast standing army and military rations were vitally important to that project. The Romans thusly developed the most advanced system of military rationing in antiquity, not to be surpassed until the modern era. Overcoming the difficulties of spoilage was the foremost challenge for the Romans. In an era that preceded modern methods of preservation the problem was overcome primarily through foraging and the storing of dry cereals (wheat, corn, and other grains) in granaries at the forts the army would establish on each particular campaign. get mres, review mres, mre comparisonAccording to Josephus the Romans were each equipped with a sickle for cutting down grains in conquered territories, a necessity given the sheer scale of the operation that they were engaged in. During the conquest of Britain, for instance, it is estimated that a Roman soldier would consume just under 3 pounds of corn per day leading a total daily consumption of thirty-three and a half tons! Most of the corn was produced by native (non-Roman) populations on vicii, civilian encampments adjacent to Roman forts. The vicus became an essential feature of Roman conquests and the community that would develop around Roman fort culture often became the source for the development of provincial economies and many provincial elites soon found it beneficial to ally with the conquering Romans for their own enrichment. After the decline and fall of the Roman Empire the logistical sophistication of military rationing would see little significant advancement until the modern era.

get mres, review mres, mre comparisonThroughout the medieval period and Early Modern era advances in military technology were extraordinary the pikeman and walled fortresses of the Middle Ages became obsolete as gunpowder made the musket and cannon necessities for any civilization that hoped to protect itself. The 18th and 19th century turn toward science meant that in the field of military nutrition researchers were increasingly applying the scientific method to military rations. James Lind, a British physician, authored his “Treatise of the Scurvy” in 1753 and was one of the pioneering works in the field of military nutrition. In 1778 an American, Benjamin Rush, published “Directions for Preserving the Health of Soldiers,” which advocated that a soldier’s diet should consist of mostly vegetables. While both Lind and Rush made important advancements in the field of military nutrition, military rations still remained hopelessly chained to cereals, meat, and, less often, fruits and vegetables, none of which were shelf stable. The necessity of maintaining and defending lengthy, expensive supply lines meant that armies were slowed down by attending to these realities and that campaigns were largely conducted during the spring and summer months when it was possible to defend them. Napoleon, who hated the fact his Grand Army could not campaign with the speed he desired, offered 12,000 franc to whoever invented a practical way of preserving food for military use. get mres, review mres, mre comparisonThis led to one of the most significant leaps forward for shelf stable foods when French confectioner Nicolas Appert submitted his design for preserving foods in airtight bottles in 1810, after years of experimentation. Appert’s bottles were sent to sea with French Navy that same year and it was found that the food was preserved for months earning Appert the nickname, “The Father of Canning.” Appert’s method was so practical that within a few years that Peter Durand, an adopted Briton originally born in France, had perfected a method of canning using tin cans. By 1813 Durand’s tin cans were standard military rations in the British Army and Navy.

In America the United States Military was also busily working on methods to improve military rations. Already by 1775 the Second Continental Congress had decreed that the Continental Army was to have a pint of milk and a ration of beans, peas, or vegetables in addition to their daily provision of meat and bread. The outbreak of the Civil War led to a number of formal scientific studies into the diet of soldiers. The eminent German-born chemist Eben Horsford (inventor of the modern formula for baking powder) developed a military ration for the Union Army that was considered the first practical individual ration due to its portability. Unfortunately it provided little nutritional value and was soon rejected. Various researchers continued their inquiries into military nutrition and continued to improve military rations for the U.S. military, but it was not until World War I that military nutrition became a formal concern with the creation of the Division of Food and Nutrition of the Medical Division, U.S. Army.

In 1917 U.S. Military troops overseas were provisioned with the generally adequate Pershing garrison rations when available. These however lacked meat and dairy products and were impractical as field rations due to their lack of portability. When troops did go into the field they were provisioned with the “Reserve Ration” consisting of a pound of meat (either bacon or jerky) and hard tack biscuits, while the “Reserve Ration” was a vast improvement over the previous “Iron Ration” it still did not provide an adequate balance of nutrition while troops were in the field and were intended strictly for consumption when troops were unable to access the garrison or camp kitchen. In 1938 the “Reserve Ration” was replaced by the famous C-ration, canned, pre-cooked, or prepared “wet” rations, that were intended for use when fresh food (A ration) or unprepared packaged food (B ration) were unavailable and when survival bars (D or K rations) were inadequate. The prevalence of the C-ration during World War II led to its notoriety and eventually, its infamy. Notoriously boring, C-rations consisted of two varieties the M-unit (meat variety) and B-unit (bread variety). get mres, review mres, mre comparisonTroops living for extended periods of time on C-rations complained of its monotony and the overly heavy weight of the cans in which they were packaged and researchers often noted that they did not provide an adequate variety of substantive nutritional content. In order to deflect these complaints the Quartermaster’s Branch, charged with providing nutrition to the U.S. Military, insisted that C-rations were only for short-term, infrequent use. Use of the C-ration continued until 1958 when it was replaced by the similar “wet” ration, the Meal, Combat, Individual (MCI) ration. The MCI proved to be only a modest improvement over the C-ration and was still widely despised by troops with particular disdain for certain entrees (the Ham & Lima Beans entree was referred to as Ham & Motherf****s). Like its predecessor the U.S. Military intended for the MCI ration to be used only infrequently, but in reality troops stationed in Vietnam often had to survive off of these hated rations for weeks at a time.

The MCI was the standard field ration for U.S. Military troops until 1975 when the Meal, Ready-to-Eat was finally developed and the Department of Defense made it the standard. The MRE immediately represented a vast improvement in portability and nutritional variety over the MCI, but early variations were still disliked for their poor taste and texture. Over the course of thirty-seven years private and U.S. Military researchers have managed to make MREs much tastier, a significant advance for Military ration technology. As technology improves one expects that the future of shelf stable military rations to be bright indeed.

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