Natick lab strives for durable, delicious military rations

An MRE food packet. (Photo: Joanne Rathe/Globe staff)
An MRE food packet. (Photo: Joanne Rathe/Globe staff)

One December afternoon at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, a group of scientists gathered at the base’s Sensory Evaluation Laboratory for a taste test. On the menu: an experimental chocolate protein drink in shot glasses and two versions of a creamy beef and potato stew, arranged on cafeteria trays.

“Everyone has their own palate,” said Sydney Walker, a senior scientist at the food lab who was setting up the tasting. But she was already expecting a “strong reaction”; cream is always a hard sell.

Before new items are approved as Army rations, they must clear tests like this one. In the past few months, the lab had hosted tastings for chemically dried “osmo-meat,” a sheetlike jerky designed to survive for months without refrigeration. The consensus: weird, but not too weird. It has moved on to bigger field tests. “You give it to a young person — they give you their honest opinion and you work from there,” Walker said.

Military recruits develop extreme survival skills, and the food they eat must be equally hardy. Before it is opened up at dinner time, each “Meal, Ready-to-Eat” package — or MRE — has probably been air-dropped from a plane and survived months in blazing heat or freezing cold.

Vacuum-dried fruits and chicken. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Globe staff)

Vacuum-dried fruits and chicken. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Globe staff)

When troops dig into their grilled beef patties or lemon pepper tuna, they have Lauren Oleksyk to thank. She is the team leader of the food science lab at the Natick research center, the Army’s sole incubator for food innovation since 1953.

Oleksyk’s mission for the last three decades has been to create menus with variety that withstand the toughest conditions — six months at temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, three years without refrigeration — while also being delicious.

“It takes lot of science to get food to withstand a lot of these different constraints,” Oleksyk said.
Oleksyk’s resume includes a patent for a flourless bread that lasts three years on the shelf (her first project) and a “flameless” heater that warms up any of the 24 different hot entrees — including a few vegetarian options — on the menu.

The “heater” looks like a paper envelope and can hold a foil pouch of the ready-to-eat meal. A few drops of water added to the envelope triggers a reaction with magnesium and iron built into the paper sleeve, which generates enough heat to warm the meal in about 10 minutes.

In 2014, the Department of Defense approved funding for Oleksyk’s latest obsession: 3-D printing. “The applications are just endless,” she said. “With the development of high-speed printers, it’s just going to expand even more.”

Oleksyk’s team is exploring a partnership with the MIT Lincoln Labs, where researchers are investigating the viability of 3-D food printing, starting with baby food. (Because it starts out mushy, baby food is a natural trial substance.)

3D Systems, a company that has designed a printer for printing intricate sugar confections and is designing a high-speed food printer, is another potential collaborator.

But they will need a few key additions, Oleksyk explained — anything on the menu for an individual military ration typically requires an extra processing step to make sure the food lasts a long while. A research collaboration with 3D Systems will retrofit rapid 3-D food printers with another step to make the printed food last longer, giving it an extra-long shelf life.

Among the items in development at the Natick reasearch center is chemically dried “osmo-meat,” a sheetlike jerky designed to survive for months without refrigeration. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Globe staff)

Among the items in development at the Natick reasearch center is chemically dried “osmo-meat,” a sheetlike jerky designed to survive for months without refrigeration. (Photo: Wendy Maeda/Globe staff)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NASA has sidled up as a potential collaborator on Oleksyk’s project. Its vision? 3-D printing could sustain future manned missions.

It makes sense, Oleksyk said. “They also have shelf-life requirements like we do. They also have size constraints like we do. Their printers will also need to be small and compact.”

But they do have issues that the Army is less apt to worry about. “Their concern is, as the food is printed on the plate, will it stick or float away?” Oleksyk said.

Another project that has NASA’s attention is a shrinking technology that Oleksyk is developing with a company in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Creative Resonance has patented a way to create food bars without the sugary binders and preservatives that go into grocery store fruit bars.

It involves slamming a food product with high-frequency sound waves to shake it free of water, then “welding” it into a slab half its size.

Oleksyk has samples: A fruit-and-nut bar, something that looks like a coffee- mocha bar, and a solid chunk of chile con carne. Just add water, and they bounce back into shape.

NASA is interested in this technology to feed a mission to Mars — but first, the soldiers will decide if it tastes good enough.

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at [email protected]
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