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Book Review: Military Food Engineering and Ration Technology
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Book Review: Military Food Engineering and Ration Technology by Paul Nunes and Brian Johnson

Military Food Engineering and Ration Technology

Written by: Ann H. Barrett and Armand V. Cardello
Reviewed by: Carla L. Kuesten

Military Food Engineering and Ration Technology

This book about feeding the warfighter begins with a quote from Frederick the Great—“Understand that the foundation of any army is the belly.  It is necessary to procure nourishment for the soldier wherever you assemble him and wherever you conduct him.  This is the primary duty of a general” (pg. 3).  Now, the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate (DoD CFD) is responsible for making each individual soldier, sailor, airman and marine, our most flexible and adaptable weapon systems of the United States Military, perform as effectively as possible.  From laboratory to factory to foxhole, providing nutrition, functionality and operational capability is important to ensure peak performance over long periods of time.  This book review highlights the military’s use of state-of-the-art product development and technological innovation needed to optimize physical and cognitive performance against the rigorous requirements demanded for warfighters. 

Six thrust areas are pursued for rations: 1) Revolutionary Packaging Technologies to maintain shelf-life quality and reduce packaging and food waste, 2) Novel Preservation and Stabilization Technologies to prevent spoilage and maintain sensory quality, 3) Performance Optimization Research  to optimize both cognitive and physical performance of the warfighter, 4) New Modeling and Simulation Techniques to predict shelf-life and ensure rations are appetizing, 5) Food Safety and Biosensors that give inspectors tools to monitor contaminants in the ration supply chain, and finally, 6) Equipment and Energy Technology that focuses on reduction of energy requirements of food preparation.

The standard ration, called Meal, Ready to Eat™, has a minimum shelf life of three years at 80°F, weight, volume, variety, and acceptability are key factors as warfighters may need to eat these for weeks or months at a time in austere environments.  Two new ration concepts have been developed:  The First Strike Ration®, which provides a full day’s nutrition in a single lightweight pouch, allowing an eat-on-the-move capability; and the Unitized Group Ration-Express™, a self-contained, self-heating group ration for 18 warfighters that requires no fuel, no cooks, and no equipment.  All ration components undergo extensive field testing before introduction. 

This book also highlights what the DoD CFD and associated laboratories located at the Natick Soldier Center do to maintain and optimize warfighter performance—their mission—provide the best possible rations to the warfighter.  Challenges facing the DoD CFD in their mission include:  “continued reduction in weight, volume and equipment energy consumption, improvements in phytonutrient validation and delivery, shelf life optimization and the ongoing need to meet the changing needs of the military as its mission continues to adapt to changing conflicts” (pg. xiii).

The book is divided into 7 sections which cover the following topics: 

  1. Introduction to Military Feeding
  2. Primary Processing Technologies
  3. Stabilization and Enhancement of Rations
  4. Nutritional Optimization of Rations
  5. Delivery and Distribution of Rations
  6. Warfighter Assessment and Acceptance of Rations
  7. The Future of Military Feeding

Beyond the introductory chapter, roughly the first half of the book is dedicated to processing technologies (thermal and non-thermal), ration types (caloric densification, tube foods, and irradiated foods), and stabilization and enhancement of rations (safety, packaging, and intermediate moisture technologies for rations)—the specific details are left for those interested in the history and details of these technologies to read and are not covered further in this review.  Innovative product development is key to successful incorporation of all these considerations for military use.

A brief overview of the remaining sections follows with a focus on how the DoD CFD continuously strives forward with advancements to deliver state-of-the-art emerging technologies for future use by the military.  These innovative efforts involve extensive performance testing for informed decisions to identify, select and include the best optimizers for rations.

Nutritional Optimization of Rations

This section covers menu design and nutritional quality, as well as performance optimizing ration components.  All combat rations must meet the Nutritional Standard for Operational Rations (NSORs), mandated by the Office of the Surgeon General (OTSG).  Daily rations must provide 3,600 kilocalories (kcal) per day, 1,200 kcal per meal, with 50-55 percent of the kcals coming from carbohydrate, 10-15 percent from protein and not greater than 35 percent of kcals from fat (pg. 259).  Shelf life requirements are largely dependent on ration type and environment; testing being an integral part of development for operational rations.  Menu design is critical to acceptance by the warfighter; food types include entrée, starch, snack, cracker, spread/condiment, beverage and dessert.  Food items are field tested on a 9-point scale (1=”dislike extremely”, 9=”like extremely”); those products meeting shelf life and nutritional requirements and score 6 or higher on the 9-point scale will be down-selected for inclusion into the appropriate field evaluation warfighter acceptance. 

While no warfighter breakfast is complete without some type of eggs, eggs pose special challenges for combat rations - spray dried, canned, retorted, scrambled, or freeze-dried - all leaving something to be desired in terms of odors and flavors.  Work is ongoing to improve eggs.  Special purpose rations may include performance-based items such as sports gels and caffeinated gum with a dual use in cold weather or high altitude operations where increased energy requirements need to be met and maintain health and performance.  New items for future focus include:  fiber (more vegetables, fruit and legumes, adding fiber to baked items, beverages and snacks), trans-fatty acids and mega-3 fatty acids and probiotics, reduction of trans-fatty acids (impact shelf life).

Increased demand on cognitive and physical abilities due to more advanced, sophisticated weaponry are impacted by stressors such as extreme temperature, sleep deprivation, and stress and/or inflammation due to injury and physical exertion have a negative impact on immune function which leads to reduced physical performance and fatigue.  Thus, to optimize performance there is interest and innovative research efforts on the following components:  bioactives with purported physiological benefits, micronutrients (caffeine, tyrosine, phytonutrients, iron), and macronutrients (protein and carbohydrates).  Special considerations include:  hydration digestion kinetics, stability, gut health (pre- and probiotics), and lastly omega‑3 fatty acids.

Delivery and Distribution of Rations

This section covers packaging, delivery and distribution and military field kitchen technology—the necessity to maintain quality and safety of the rations from the time they are manufactured until they are consumed.  Topics covered include:  sudden surges of requirements, austere conditions and extreme environments, unpredictable and changing destinations, distribution and unit load requirements, unique requirements for delivery (ground vs. air), asset visibility (use of active and passive radio frequency identification – RFID - which contain electronic information which identifies the shipping information and products within the containers), time-temperature indicators, and surveillance inspection for total life-cycle quality assurance.  Future research areas in this space include wireless technologies for asset visibility and integration with supply chain management systems to streamline the supply chain to ensure proper management of food suppliers throughout the military supply chain—to ensure ration safety, quality and nutrition.

Military field kitchens differ from fixed facilities in that they must be mobile and transportable, have size and weight constraints, must be robust (rail-impact, off-the-road, and sling-loaded air transportation), must operate in environmental extremes, be maintainable by the cook, and reliable in a war zone.  These kitchens cannot be plugged in or plumbed to water and gas utilities and must be designed based on the rations it needs to prepare.  Various types of equipment are covered including:  the mobile kitchen trailer, the modern burner unit, containerized kitchen, kitchen, company level field feeding (KCLFF), assault kitchen, self-powered tray ration heater, refrigerated container system, multi-temperature refrigerated container system, and the food sanitation center, to name a few of the standard kitchen equipment units.  Advanced technology is used for improvements on reducing fuel and water consumption and improving overall efficiency.  Several projects are focused on new technologies, solar power, grey water recycling, and waste-to-energy conversion.  Toward modernization, the new Battlefield Kitchen (BFK) has replaced the mobile kitchen trailer.  (An illustration of the new BFK is shown on page 339.)

Warfighter Assessment and Acceptance of Rations

Section 6 covers consumer and sensory testing of rations, field testing of rations, and cognitive and physical performance of rations.  The Food Acceptance Branch within the Quartermaster Subsistence Research and Development Laboratory in Chicago (established in 1944) revolutionized sensory and consumer research on military rations, as well as the entire science of sensory and consumer research.

Already in 1936, peacetime research and development on military rations began with the initial establishment of the Subsistence Research Laboratory at the Quartermaster Depot in Chicago, IL, with focus on four elements required of any ration - nutritional adequacy, storage stability, military functionality, and sensory acceptability.  In development of a “blitz” ration in 1941, Dr. Ancel Keyes stated that this new ration must “be palatable and should be relished by the men not only for a single meal, but for a succession of meals” (Hamilton, 2003), but was too late for the many soldiers serving in World War II who complained about their steady diet of processed foods.  The new Food Acceptance Branch revolutionized sensory and consumer research on military rations.  Details are provided on concepts and methods for testing rations and factors influencing acceptance and perception of rations; all toward the desired results of improved morale, nutrition and performance for warfighters.

Field testing of rations is conducted with the warfighters - giving them the opportunity to evaluate new and current items during their regular military training; perceptions of the rations may be influenced by the environments in which they are prepared (i.e., heating an entrée with a chemical heater or eating cold if time does not allow for heating) and consumed (outside in all weather conditions, for example).  Research efforts with military rations in the field come with some procedural limitations and “noise”.  Specific challenges are detailed which cover personnel and training activity, equipment and staffing, and other concerns such as presentation schedule, cooking and food preparation, and supply and transport.  Example questionnaires are shared as well as details of administration and data collection.  Increased ration testing is expected in order to improve physical and cognitive performance through nutritional enhancement and supplements.

Research studies on nutritional factors influencing cognitive and physical performance and mood conducted by the Natick Soldier Research Development and Engineering Center and Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine are listed in tables spanning nine pages (pgs. 434-442).  Basic issues and experimental control to consider in designing such studies is examined, including selection of appropriate tasks for the performance measure of interest, consideration of the environment in which the meal or supplement will be consumed and the relevant tasks to be performed in that environment.  The context in which the nutritional manipulation is consumed (e.g., physical fatigue, temperature, stress, sleep deprivation, calorie restriction, etc.) will influence efficacy.  Future work will focus on developing sound, consistent methodologies so that definitive conclusions regarding the efficacy of nutritional manipulations on cognitive function can be achieved as well as bridge the gap between traditional laboratory studies and the field.

The Future of Military Feeding

The book closes with a final chapter on future directions in military feeding—the challenge ahead for the Joint Services Field Feeding enterprise is cited “to develop field feeding solutions (both rations and equipment) that meet the needs of the military operating environment (including enormous constraints) while satisfying the emerging eating habits of the warfighters who populate the services” (pg. 469). 

Looking forward, the DoD CFD conduct biannual two-day technology brainstorming sessions.  The 2009 session cited in the book led to these most significant potential areas for research investment:  1) maximize use of locally sourced food products and ingredients, 2) develop highly efficient (nutritionally dense) food products and rations, 3) develop food products and ration packaging that ease meal preparation requirements at the point of consumption, 4) develop transformational food products and ingredients that allow for customization at the point of consumption, and 5) develop food processing and preservation processes that facilitate streamlining the logistics chain.  Future innovative focus will be on developing sound methodologies that provide definitive conclusions on physical and cognitive functions; as the context in which nutritional manipulations are consumed (physical fatigue, temperature, stress, etc.) influence their efficacy.  To bridge the gap between laboratory and field research, innovative research may involve:  1) use of virtual reality, 2) use of wireless technologies, 3) use of physiological markers of behavior, and 4) use of embedded technologies that allow on-line assessment of cognitive state.  All the initiatives and research efforts covered in this review speak to just how inventive, pioneering, ground-breaking and advanced are the development efforts on behalf of our military.

In summary, this book provides a thorough overview of the depth of research and support offered over the years by the DoD CFD in support of our military.  After reading this book, one cannot help but appreciate how important, how massive the scale, and how complex it is to feed warfighters across the globe.  The DoD CFD continues their work via bi-annual Technology Brainstorming Sessions to draw out potential areas for investment in future research projects that will ultimately lead to change in ration components, menus, or perhaps creation of a new ration or family of rations. 


Hamilton, A.  2003.  World War II’s Mobilization of the Science of Food Acceptability:  How Ration Palatability Became a Military Research Priority.  Ecology of Food and Nutrition 42:325-356.

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