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Three-year pizza to join US Army MRE delicacies

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February 24, 2014

The new MRE pizza being tried out by the troops (Photo: US Army)

The new MRE pizza being tried out by the troops (Photo: US Army)

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Pizza with a three-year shelf life will soon be joining the US Army's field rations menu. These infamous MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat) have a long and checkered history, acquiring such sobriquets over the years as "Meals Rejected by Everyone" and "Materials Resembling Edibles." Pizza has long topped the list of requested meals, but the task of providing a palatable slice of this complex food that will survive the required three-year shelf life has foiled all attempts. Now, the folks at Natick's Combat Feeding Directorate have achieved a minor miracle in food technology: stopping time for a slice of pizza.

MREs are the basis for feeding assault troops engaged in battlefield combat action. Each MRE provides 1300 calories of high-fat, high-sodium nutrition suited for active combat duty.

MRE #10: Chile and macaroni (Photo: US Army)

Individual MREs come sealed in a four-layer plastic pouch measuring about 10 x 6 inches (25 x 15 cm) and weighing about a pound and a half (0.68 kg). The nominal shelf life of an MRE is three years at a storage temperature of 80 ºF (27 ºC), but they must also be able to survive short exposure to temperature extremes from -60 ºF (-51 ºC) to 120 ºF (49 ºC.) MRE packaging must be able to survive parachute deployment from an altitude of 1250 ft (380 m), and a free fall drop from 100 ft (30 m).

Much more difficult than satisfying these physical and chemical requirements, however, is satisfying people's instinctive response to a food. The problem is well known in humanoid robotics, where it is called the uncanny valley.

If the characteristics and behavior of a humanoid robot are very close to those of a natural human, people will accept the robot as an entity that might be a friend. If the approximation of human characteristics is poor, the robot will still be acceptable as a separate, non-humanoid entity. However, if the robot appears close to human norms, but not close enough, the robot will be rejected as strange and dangerous.

People also have an uncanny valley when it comes to food acceptance. It is often easier to come up with a new dish than to try to reproduce one that is enjoyed and valued. A new dish will be evaluated on its own merits, while a reproduction will be compared to an existing standard. For example, a slice of pizza which has a soggy crust and an oversweet taste will be evaluated differently than a sweet tomato bread pudding with cheese and meat topping. It all comes down to expectations, but our expectations can present extremely powerful barriers to surmount.

A sample of the new MRE pepperoni pizza (Photo: US Army)

So how do you make a slice of pizza that will survive three years unrefrigerated that still appears, smells, tastes, and has the mouthfeel of a fresh slice of pizza? Natick senior food technnologist Michelle Richardson took on the task after non-soggy sandwiches entered the MRE choices in the 1990s.

Pizza is a complex food consisting of four major components: bread, sauce, cheese, and sausage (pepperoni in this case). Each of these components has different characteristic levels of moisture, acid, and texture, which must combine harmoniously to produce a slice that will generally be viewed as a "good pizza." In contrast, another combination of bread, sauce, cheese, and sausage made from a hardtack biscuit covered with ketchup, Roquefort cheese, and finely chopped hot dogs won't remind anyone of a good pizza.

Richardson had to reach deep into her bag of tricks to pull off the new pizza. The pizza dough had to be enhanced with humectants, substances like propylene glycol or sorbitol, that bind moisture within the bread. This both reduces the possibility of bacterial growth and the tendency of the sauce to make the crust soggy.

Another problem encountered with bread products is that they go stale with time. Contrary to popular opinion, staling is not caused by the bread drying out (which would be counteracted by humectants). Instead, the moisture in the bread migrates within the bread, causing the starch granules to recrystallize. In the end, Richardson and her assistants used gums and enzymes to hold the water within the starch granules, making the pizza crust shelf-stable.

The challenge with pizza sauce is to keep the moisture held within the sauce, thereby preventing separation of the components and maintaining the sauce's freshness and mouthfeel. A mix of glycerin, rice syrup, and other sugars were used to make the shelf-stable pizza sauce.

For enhanced shelf life, a low-moisture cheese is usually called for. However, one usually expects a pizza to have a reasonably soft, stringy cheese, properties usually not found in low-moisture cheeses. While Natick had used a low-moisture (probably Mozzarella) cheese in other dishes, this cheese became too browned in cooking, making the pizza look burned. This problem was addressed by altering the cooking schedule (time and temperature) and through making blends of various cheeses.

Pepperoni is both fermented and dried, resulting in an acidic, low-moisture sausage that is resistant to most bacterial growth. However, the low pH of pepperoni can encourage mold growth. The result of natural bacterial processes, this is a component which is difficult to control within narrow limits. Beyond the process of making pepperoni, the most important factors in rendering the sausage shelf-stable are osmotic drying and surrounding the pepperoni (and the entire pizza) in a nitrogen atmosphere.

Packaged and ready for a long period in storage, the new MRE pizza fills a long-felt need ...

A native of Rhode Island, which has a sizable Italian population, Richardson says she set the bar high: “When I first started developing this, me and my daughter would go and taste pizza because I wanted to use that as my benchmark.”

The Natick pizza MRE is being prepared for final testing. In particular, several types of pepperonis and pizzas are being tested, both for spoilage and for soldier acceptance, to decide what version will make the final cut. We trust it will not disappoint.

Source: US Army

About the Author
Brian Dodson From an early age Brian wanted to become a scientist. He did, earning a Ph.D. in physics and embarking on an R&D career which has recently broken the 40th anniversary. What he didn't expect was that along the way he would become a patent agent, a rocket scientist, a gourmet cook, a biotech entrepreneur, an opera tenor and a science writer.   All articles by Brian Dodson
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10 Comments

I wonder how many calories this pizza has and how much fat. It does also seem to have an awful lot of chemicals ect.

Maybe not so good for the troops but what pizza is?

Aussie Bob
25th February, 2014 @ 01:47 am PST

wonder what the cost is - as it may be an item (or a variant of) that sells to the general public

JPAR
25th February, 2014 @ 04:45 am PST

I would like to be able to purchase some of these meals as part of my disaster preparations.

No, I am not of the opinion that we face a Zombie Apocalypse any time soon, or ever, for that matter. I am just of the opinion that it won't be too long before we see the 'King's new clothes' for what they are. I.e. that we see the little pieces of cotton reinforced paper that we call money really are only little pieces of cotton reinforced paper, no matter how large might be their supposed denomination. If that doesn't finish us off as a functioning society, then resource depletion, especially that of oil, probably will. And even if society survives those two, we still have over-population and climate change to contend with, which, considering the resource depletion, are really going to work wonders for the food demand numbers and our ability to meet that demand. I think the in phrase that best suits the situation we face is 'a perfect storm'.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more that I really would like to be able to purchase some of these 'three-year' meals.

Mel Tisdale
25th February, 2014 @ 05:07 am PST

I think its good that US troops gets pizza in there food. So if US ever decides to invade Europe then we can just fall back until US troops are out of breath then walk over give them more pizza and send them home. "Peace thro food"

Toffe Kaal
25th February, 2014 @ 07:26 am PST

God help us. God help us all.

Gabe Ets-Hokin
25th February, 2014 @ 09:54 am PST

First, Aussie Bob clearly does not know jack about Pizza. "Aussie" would be the first big clue here. Visit New York City, maybe New Jersey also, and then Chicago. Next, I have had the full range of C-rations including that foul crap labelled "Lima Beans in Tomato Paste". I have also had LRRPs, Long Range Ration, Patrol, freeze dried, not bad, imagine a pork chop as a dry, crunchy potato chip. This brings us to the MRE era. New technology and a new interest in pleasing the troops ordered by General Colin Powell, a Vietnam vet who remembers well the C-Ration series. Overall, MREs are fine but the menu is short and so it repeats rapidly through a month. Breakfast items have always been a problem as well as meeting religious dietary issues, i.e., pork. Next, Mel, calorie counts for troops in the field are really not a big deal. Everyone burns lots of calories in lots of ways. I am sure that Natick's pizza will not measure up to something hot, fresh, and with lots of toppings but still this will be progress. The only thing to mourn are the compressed cakes from the C-Rations. They were all very good and literally, some civilian at Natick found this out and set about replacing them with bland nutrition.

StWils
25th February, 2014 @ 10:06 am PST

I just love bite-sized portions of food science.

Fretting Freddy the Ferret pressing the Fret
25th February, 2014 @ 02:29 pm PST

It might be more popular as tortilla

jochair
25th February, 2014 @ 03:25 pm PST

I can recall keeping a few cases of C-rats in my locker for my lost weekends and how fast they became a great commodity in the 'black market'. These pizza-rats will surely go big in the new and improved 'black market'.

YukonJack
26th February, 2014 @ 09:19 am PST

I enjoyed C-rat's and MRE's. I was just thankful I had food to eat.

acyron
19th March, 2014 @ 12:23 pm PDT
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