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Washington Post
Sgt. Seth Bullock tries a serving of chicken and rice. Army food scientists are considering the entree for the 2013 MRE menu.

Military updating its meals

Science packs punch into wartime cuisine

– And now, from the folks who developed the atomic bomb, Kevlar underwear and the Humvee, presenting the latest in war-fighting technology:

Caffeinated meat.

That’s right, an Army lab here is testing a beef jerky stick that looks and tastes just like your average Slim Jim but contains an equivalent of a cup of coffee’s worth of caffeine to give even the sleepiest soldier that up-and-at-’em boost.

After a decade of war, military food scientists have been hard at work at a little-known research complex outside Boston transforming the field ration – known as the Meal, Ready to Eat, and perhaps the most complained-about food in the world – into something not just good-tasting but full of energy-enhancing ingredients.

“There is a lot of science that goes into this,” said David Accetta, a spokesman for the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center, where every item put into an MRE is tested and tasted.

In addition to caffeine, military technologists are lacing food with supplements such as omega 3s and curcumin, which act as anti-inflammatories. Maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate that gives service members a little turbo charge, is injected into an amped-up applesauce called Zapplesauce.

And that energizing goo gobbled by marathoners? The Army is developing its very own.

Complaining about the MRE has been a sport within the ranks for years. They’ve been called every derogatory name possible: Meals Rejected by Everyone. Meals Refused by the Enemy. Materials Resembling Edibles. Meals Refusing to Exit.

But in its latest permutations, officials here say, the MRE has gone gourmet – or as gourmet as can be for food that has a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees and can withstand an airdrop from thousands of feet.

The no-name casserole, mystery meat and mealy tuna have been replaced by dishes endorsed by the Natick center’s “sensory evaluators.” Recent chow additions include chicken and pesto pasta, feta cheese and tomato.

Dining alfresco in their trenches, soldiers now can choose from ratatouille, garlic mashed potatoes, salsa verde and a strawberry-banana dairy shake.

If you have the time to heat water, there’s instant Irish-cream coffee. If not, caffeinated beef jerky, the military’s variation on the commercially available Perky Jerky, should soon be turning up in MREs.

The technologists’ efforts may be paying off. In reviewing one of the newer entrees, a food writer for the Boston Globe wrote, “The pasta is tender but not falling apart, the sauce dense and sweet, similar to many commercial sauces.”