9 Supermarket Staples That Were Created by the Military

<a href="http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-150161552/stock-photo-chicago-il-august-an-international-supermarket-selling-fresh-grocery-and-frozen-items-in.html?src=1TeCoxt4Us72BxdIVAxnRg-1-10"> Kunal Mehta</a>/Shutterstock


Go down an aisle in your supermarket and pick up a packaged item. Chances are, the contents of that can, bag, box, or pouch were designed in a US military building in the suburbs of Boston.

According to Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s insightful new book, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat (Current), the effort to nourish faraway GIs with portable, nonperishable, and edible (if not tasty) food has shaped the landscape of our modern food system. How so? Since World War II, the US military’s well-funded food science lab in Massachusetts, the Natick Center, has dominated the development of new food science and technology to create meals with longer shelf life, better flavor and texture, and more convenient packaging. But the Natick Center doesn’t keep its findings to itself. It partners with private corporations (à la ConAgra, General Mills, Hershey, Hormel, Tyson, and Unilever, to name a few) to produce this food for the general public, as well. It’s a win-win for both sides: Corporations get a leg up on the latest and greatest processing and packaging techniques, and the military is ensured a massive supply of rations if war ever breaks out.

If you are feeling queasy about eating food originally created for soldiers, you better watch out: Just about any processed food with a shelf life of more than a couple of days probably has its origins in the Natick Center. Below we outline a few of the biggest military food breakthroughs that you can find in your local grocery store or bodega:

  • Canned food: The effort to preserve meat for troops in combat began in the United States in earnest during the Spanish-American War, but it took years before the military understood the science of germs, bacteria, and how food spoils, and could successfully can meat and other perishables.
  • Energy and granola bars: After trying trying in vain during World War II to create a chocolate bar that wouldn’t melt, the army developed a fortified fruit bar that was sweet and of “intermediate moisture.” The “fruit bar” evolved into the granola bars and energy bars found in every grocery store and gas station today.
  • Packaged, boneless meat: Meat is expensive, especially when you need to feed an entire army. Thus the development of restructured meat: taking the ignored meat chunks and scraps and creating a new, longer-lasting meat. Now many Americans prefer restructured nuggets, patties, and slices over fresh meat from the bone.
  • Sliced bread: Making bread is labor-intensive, and the product goes stale and moldy quickly, which is a problem for feeding soldiers who spend days and weeks far from kitchens with ovens. So military food scientists came up with anti-staling additives to make shelf-stable bread, which, after World War II, entered households everywhere, becoming the best thing since, well…
  • Dehydrated cheese: Soldiers had such a huge appetite for cheese during the world wars that suppliers had difficulty packaging and shipping enough to meet demand. So the Natick Center went to work to find a better way process cheese for troops. The result? Dehydrated cheese powder. Now it’s found everywhere from the cheese packets in our mac ‘n’ cheese to the Cheeto dust stuck to our fingers.
  • TV dinner packaging: In its search for more flexible packaging resistant to changes in temperature and pressure, the Natick Center had a breakthrough when it combined the flexibly of plastic and the vapor-resistance of foil. This led to the plastic and foil “retort pouches” used for everything from heat-and-serve TV dinners to juice pouches, sauce packets, squeeze yogurts, and pet food.
  • “Fresh-squeezed” juice and smoothies*: Ever wonder why the “fresh-squeezed,” unpasteurized bottles of fruit and vegetable juice in supermarket coolers last so long without spoiling or making you sick? It turns out their long shelf life owes itself to a military-invented food technology called high-pressure processing. Essentially, pressure is applied to foods at such a high volume that it breaks the bonds holding together bacteria molecules. This process is also used for salsa, guacamole, and “100 percent natural, no preservatives” cold cuts.
  • Packaged, prewashed salad: To transport fresh greens to troops, the military developed a way to package produce that controlled oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, slowing down ripening and spoilage.
  • Instant coffee: A freeze-drying process initially used for transporting blood and vaccines to battlefield medics during World War II was repurposed as a way to make familiar foods long-lasting and lightweight. That’s how we got instant coffee, as well as the fruit bits in your cereal, the vegetables chunks in your instant noodles, and cake mix—convenient, long lasting, tasty, and brought to you by the US military.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the kind of juice that undergoes high pressure processing.

OUR NEW CORRUPTION PROJECT

The more we thought about how MoJo's journalism can have the most impact heading into the 2020 election, the more we realized that so many of today's stories come down to corruption: democracy and the rule of law being undermined by the wealthy and powerful for their own gain.

So we're launching a new Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption. We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We'll publish what we find as a major series in the summer of 2020, including a special issue of our magazine, a dedicated online portal, and video and podcast series so it doesn't get lost in the daily deluge of breaking news.

It's unlike anything we've done before and we've got seed funding to get started, but we're asking readers to help crowdfund this new beat with an additional $500,000 so we can go even bigger. You can read why we're taking this approach and what we want to accomplish in "Corruption Isn't Just Another Scandal. It's the Rot Beneath All of Them," and if you like how it sounds, please help fund it with a tax-deductible donation today.

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate