Army tests new MRE packaging for fresher food

Military researchers are examining new ways to improve your Meals Ready to Eat — without even touching the food. The Army says using a new non-foil material for food packaging could make MREs weigh less, cost less and better serve environment. But the probably the most important benefit to service members: it could provide a more airtight barrier to protect food and ensure freshness.

What you need to know about the research and the new material that could be born out of it:

1. Think small. The package under development would use nanontechnology, that would probably require a Ph.D. to intuitively understand. Developed by the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, the materials consist of nanocomposite films that incorporate nano-clay particles into thermoplastic resins. In less fancy-speak, they weave synthetic materials even tighter to keep water and air out, using materials 1,000 times smaller than conventional materials, according to the Army.

A package of penne pasta contained in a nanocomposite packaging. (Photo: Dave Kamm/Army)

2. Why do this? Well, though MRE bags, in the short term, keep moisture and air out already, like most materials they do not provide a 100 percent airtight barrier. Over long periods of time some air will seep through the space between the molecules that makes up the bag. That can decrease freshness and shorten shelf life. The new bags will meet the Army requirement for MREs of a three-year shelf-life, and have a five-year shelf life for space applications.

3. Lighter is better. Aside from fresher food, the lighter material can reduce the logistical burden of the warfighter. Every ounce matters, whether loading down a soldier or a supply vessel, so the Army is always looking at ways to cut weight.

In addition, the work at NRDEC's Combat Feeding Directorate also involves study of these packaging methods to determine the effects of different processing methods on vitamin stability. Not only would food be fresher and safer, the Army's press release said, it would retain more nutrition.

4. Next steps. Testing still needs to be done to ensure it meets all the standards the Army has set for the new food-sacks: "After further demonstration and validation work, we will know if these materials have acceptable performance to be considered for incorporation into ration packaging for the warfighter," Dr. Jo Ann Ratto, team leader for the Advanced Materials Engineering Team at CFD, said.

The intent is for the packaging to meet the MRE requirement of maintaining a three-year shelf life.

5. New menu options. The change comes after some other recent adjustments to the MRE were announced last year. This year saw the additions of white-meat chicken chunks, new buffalo and hot chili lime sauces, cranberry-grape drink powder, applesauce pound cake, and hash brown potatoes with bacon.

Items new for 2016 will include macaroni in tomato sauce, spinach fettuccine, chocolate protein drink powder and crushed red pepper. Last we heard, work was continuing on pepperoni pizza MRE. The coveted food was not expected to reach troops until 2017, at the earliest.