How The Military Has Affected What We Eat

U.S. Army Soldiers eat their Thanksgiving meal on Combat Outpost Cherkatah, Khowst province, Afghanistan, Nov. 26, 2009. The Soldiers are deployed with Company D, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment.

I am currently teaching a new course entitled Digesting the Modern Diet. While preparing for a lecture on the history of food, I learned that around 50% of the food currently sold in our grocery stores was influenced by wars or developed by or in collaboration with our military. Pretty much we are eating army food rations modified for consumers. The partnership between the military and food industry enables the sharing of resources, knowledge, expertise, and technology. The army is able to develop the type of food needed for soldiers and ensure that the food manufacturers are ready for large-scale production at all times. The food industry gains new foods they can market to consumers increasing sales and profits, as well as earn lucrative military contracts.

War and the military have a history of impacting what we eat. In more recent history, margarine got a boost in sales during World War I and II because butter was rationed. The rationing of bananas during World War II inspired James A. Dewar to replace the bananas with a cream filling in a small yellow cake, changing the recipe of the Twinkie to what we know today. In earlier history, the process of canning foods was discovered after Napolean offered 12,000 francs to find a way to preserve food for his army.

We should be eating healthy, natural, and nutritious foods. Therefore, it is concerning that we are eating foods developed for the military-specific goals of providing food to soldiers that are durable, convenient to ship, have a long shelf life, are affordable, are high caloric, and are flavorful enough so that soldiers keep eating. We can thank the military for developing dehydrated orange juice, instant coffee, cake mix, chicken nuggets, and keeping our pre-washed lettuce fresh. Even the science behind blood plasma transport and radar were used to develop instant coffee and the microwave, respectively.

Some examples of how the military and food industry worked together to first provide for our soldiers and then for us are M&M’s, Cheetos, energy bars, and High-Pressure Processing. Did you know that M&M’s stand for Mars and Murrie? While in the United Kingdom during the Spanish Civil War, Forrest Mars Sr. from Mars Inc. met soldiers eating small chocolate surrounded by a sugar shell to prevent melting. He took that idea back to the United States and with the help of Bruce Murrie, son of Hershey executive William Murrie, developed a process to make M&M’s, which were sold to the military so they could be part of the soldiers’ food rations. After the war, the chocolates were sold to Americans allowing people to enjoy chocolate all year long, even during the hot summer months.

Our love of licking orange cheese powder off our fingers when we eat Cheetos, stem from the military focusing on dehydrating foods. By removing the water from fruits, vegetables, potatoes, and eggs, they could reduce them in size and fit more food in containers when shipping to military sites overseas. Dehydrating cheese was not possible because it would melt from the heat. Through collaboration with the military, USDA, universities, and industry, including Kraft, in 1943, George Sanders from the USDA figured out a process to dehydrate cheese. However, because of the chemistry of cheese, it could not be reconstituted afterwards like the other dehydrated food. Instead, the army cooks used the cheese powder in meals. Once World War II was over, the army was stuck with a lot of powdered cheese. Kraft, Frito-Lay, and Nabisco came along and figured out that it can be used to coat foods and added to food products to provide flavor without using the more expensive real cheese. In 1948, Frito Company, now known as Frito-Lay, went from selling chips to the army to figuring out a way to puff and fry cornmeal and water and adding a final coat of cheese powder to create Cheetos.

Energy bars were developed In order to give WWII soldiers emergency rations that were small and caloric. They were a combination of chocolate, oat flour, and egg protein created by Hershey in order to give a burst of energy when needed and not melt while in the field. The recipe also ensured the bars did not taste that great so soldiers were not tempted to eat the chocolate all at once. After the war, the food industry changed the recipe to make them appetizing so consumers wanted to eat and buy them. It is projected that the food bar industry will bring in about 8.3 billion dollars in 2016, a 6.6% increase from 2015.

The military also had a role in the development of High-Pressure Processing (HPP). This process kills bacteria and sterilizes liquids and solid foods with less chemicals and preservatives by adding a lot of pressure to the food. The military developed and used this process so foods could last a while in the field. The food industry then took this technique and currently uses HPP on jams, single-serving fruit juices, salad dressing, deli meat, and ready-made guacamole.

Probably the biggest influence the military has had on how we currently eat is the research they did to understand why soldiers were not eating all of their Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MREs) and hiring Howard Moskowitz to study this subject. The army was concerned that the soldiers were not eating all of their food and getting the calories they needed while in combat. Howard was hired by the U.S. Army in 1969 to research this topic after receiving an undergraduate degree in mathematics and psychology and a PhD in experimental psychology. Howard learned from the soldiers that they would become bored of meals, such as the flavor-filled Turkey tetrazzini (even if at first they liked it), but not of foods like bread. This is called sensory-specific-satiety when flavorful foods eventually cause the brain to decrease interest in the food. It was there that Howard discovered the concept of the bliss point. This is the perfect amount of salt, sugar, and fat in a food item to satisfy your taste buds, yet, it does not trigger your brain to stop eating. Howard eventually began to work for the food industry where he has changed how food is made forever. With the knowledge of the bliss point and his background in math and psychology, he has developed algorithms to help companies determine the perfect bliss point so we keep on eating and coming back for more.

Although food processing began to change the way we ate in the early 1900s, it seems that the military, especially during World War II, has had the biggest impact on what is sold in our grocery stores and subsequently on how we eat. So next time you go food shopping, check the back of the box and see how many products have dehydrated cheese listed as one of the ingredients.

To learn more about the role of the military in the food industry, check out, Combat-Ready Kitchen: How The U.S. Military Shapes The Way You Eat, by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo and to learn more about the bliss point’s role in food production, pick up Salt, Sugar, Fat by Michael Moss.


Photo taken by U.S. Army on Flickr


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