Sunday, June 3, 2012

Millitary Industrial Food Products - Pork Rib MRE

Napoleon famously remarked that "an army marches on its stomach." And 200 years after a lack of provisions crippled the empire-building tyrant's invasion of Russia, keeping soldiers healthfully fed remains one of the biggest concerns facing any armed force during combat.

If you've ever served in the U.S. military you're already familiar with MREs. I haven't, but if you have friends who have you've probably heard them talk about the individual, ready-to-eat complete meals in a bag that are given to U.S. G.I.s during field operations. 

Veterans will reminisce about certain individual items they enjoyed finding in their MREs. The pound cake that is frequently included as a dessert seems to be one of the most common items for people to have fond memories of. Meanwhile the meals' main entree and side dishes have supposedly improved a lot over the past several decades but they still aren't considered something a normal person would willingly consume under normal conditions.

I'm not a normal person when it comes to sampling barbecue. I'm someone who willing ate a McRib at the McDonald's across the street from Jack's Bar-B-Q Rib Shack just to compare it to the real Memphis barbecue being served at Jack's. So when I heard that the Department of Defense had a pork rib MRE in its arsenal I had to go on ebay and find one. While each MRE is marked "U.S. government property commercial resale is unlawful," there are no actual laws against selling MREs on the civilian market. 

I found a pork rib meal bundled with another MRE featuring chili with beans for $7.49. Shipping was $6.99 for a total cost of $14.48. So I was spending roughly $7.24 per meal, meaning I cold have easily gone to a real barbecue joint for a nice, hot meal. But the pork rib MRE isn't intended for someone who can take a break from work to duck into a restaurant. My MREs arrived back in the middle of April, but there was no rush to eat them. Being shelf-stable for at least three years is one of the requirements the meals' suppliers have to meet. And you hear plenty of accounts of people eating decade-old MREs that are still fine.

In Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma he quotes a corn farmer who bitterly says he grows his crops "for the military industrial complex." A food system based on huge petrochemical-dependent monocrops is bad for our health and the health of our environment. But large stockpiles of nonperishable food controlled by a handful of companies is great from a centrally-planned, military industrial viewpoint. Of course it also requires unsustainable use of oil and topsoil along with unsustainable increases in debt and health care costs. By definition, unsustainable means something that can't last, so it won't.

The MRE is an ultraprocessed military industrial food product that contains almost as much disposable packaging material made from petrochemicals as actual food. It represents almost everything wrong with the current path our society is on. Ironically they're are also extremely popular with survivalists who recognize the unsustainable course of our current society and who get wrapped up in planning ways to survive as individuals for a few extra months after a societal collapse instead of focusing on ways to create a society that can actually sustain itself into the future.

When I originally posted on Facebook that I'd obtained a pork rib MRE I wasn't sure how I'd go about tasting the thing. A friend who is currently serving with the Army Infantry in Afghanistan said I needed to eat the entire contents of the bag in one sitting like an actual solider would. So in honor of my friend Davey I decided to do just that during a typical work day when I wouldn't be able to turn to my kitchen for help doctoring any part of the meal up.

So during the middle of the day on Friday I found myself parked in the very back of a car dealership parking lot on Covington Pike dumping out the contents of my pork rib MRE bag to make lunch for myself. I intentionally sought out a place where no one would see what I was doing to avoid looking like a crazy person since I was in my work vehicle and some people get a little nervous when they see a bearded guy sitting in large windowless van eating a MRE.

 The MRE included two beverage options; coffee that could be heated up in a plastic bag provided with the meal kit or a Gatorade-like lemon-lime drink mix. I didn't bother with either of the beverage choices, although I did make my wife a cup of coffee with the coffee mix the next morning. 

The main item and side item in each MRE are chosen based how they combine to create the desired total mix of calories from fat, protein and carbohydrates that the military wants to see. Combining foods that a normal person would ever think to put together in a meal isn't a priority. My meal included tortillas, barbecue sauce and cheese spread to make tacos out of the shredded rib meat. That much seemed to make sense.

So what side item does a G.I in the field get paired with his shredded pork ribs, tortillas, sauce and cheese? New England clam chowder. If there are two foods that naturally seem to go together, especially on a hot day in the middle of the desert, it's pork ribs and New England clam chowder, right? And who doesn't love seeing sea clams listed as the second ingredient in pouch of food that has been designed to sit on a room-temperature shelf for years?

For people unfamiliar with MREs, each of the meals includes a heating element in a plastic bag. You add a little water to activate it, then place one of the individual food pouches in the bag, place the bag in the cardboard carton the food pouch came in and lean it up against a "rock or something" for about ten minutes while it heats up.

 Seriously, the instructions say to prop it up against a rock or something.

There were some old street lights laying on their side at the back of the parking lot so I used them for my "or something." I was glad I was doing this somewhere that no one was watching me too closely.

After ten minutes had passed I removed the pork rib pouch and placed the clam chowder pouch in the carton with the heating element so it could warm up while I was trying my "ribs." I didn't have a plate so I just placed the tortillas on a car part catalog I had sitting around and could throw away when I was done. In retrospect, I would have been much better off eating the meat straight out of the pouch with the sauce and cheese spread stirred in, then just eating the tortillas as a side.

The pork rib meat literally looked exactly like canned dog food.

Adding the barbecue sauce and cheese spread didn't do much towards making it look more appetizing.

While I braced myself for something truly terrible the pork taco ended up being blandly edible. The tortillas were completely crumbling apart so I ate the filling with the spoon included in the meal kit while tearing off pieces of the tortilla and eating them separately. I ended up just eating one of the tortillas and tossing the other. When I was done with that it was time to check on the clam chowder.

The heating element must have been running out of steam because the clam chowder was merely lukewarm. The taste wasn't terrible by the standards of shelf-stable, lukewarm clam chowder eaten out of a foil-lined plastic pouch. Like the pork rib meat, it was extremely bland and wasn't something an average person would ever choose to eat. The meal ended up being exactly what it was intended to be; something that is edible enough to quickly pack some needed calories into a young, physically active person. I've eaten worse tasting meals while traveling on airplanes and I can easily believe that the modern MREs represent a huge improvement over WWII and Vietnam-era rations.

When veterans talk about MREs, the items they usually get nostalgic about are the desserts. The bag of trail mix consisting of nuts, raisins and M&M-like candy pieces was easily the most palatable part of my meal, which isn't surprising since shelf-stable trail mix doesn't require the unholy industrial alchemy that ribs and clam chowder do.

All together, I consumed 1,045 calories from the MRE. If I'd eaten the extra tortilla and added the lemon-lime drink mix to my drinking water that total would have gone up to 1,285. So consuming three meals like this in a day would get someone fairly close to the roughly 4,000 calories a day that pentagon studies have determined are burned by a soldier in the field carrying over 100 pounds of gear all day long. There is an old saying that hunger is the best seasoning and I'm sure that goes a long way towards making an MRE seem more palatable, although I still have a new sympathy for anyone eating them three meals a day for an extended period of time.

 I'm not a coffee drinker but my wife is. Since I'd already used the heating element from the MRE I made her a cup Saturday morning by heating the beverage pouch in a pan of not-quite-boiling water on the stove for the prescribed six minutes. She unsurprisingly described the resulting coffee as, "not very good, but it would do if it was the only coffee around."

I frequently mention that USDA recommendations for a grain-heavy diet are based on the agency's mission of selling agricultural products, not the health of the people consuming those products. It is interesting to note how the macronutrient ratios the government provides to G.I.s in combat, where proper nourishment is important to protect a large investment in training, compare to what it recommends to the average consumer.

Of the 1,045 calories I ate with my meal, roughly 64 percent came from fat, 24 percent came from carbohydrates and 14 percent came from protein. Even if I'd consumed the extra tortilla and the drink mix the ratios would have worked out to roughly 52 percent fat, 35 percent carbohydrates and 11 percent protein.

That is a far cry from USDA recommendations of 25 percent of calories from fat and 60 percent from carbohydrates, which shows that the military recognizes fat as a superior calorie source to carbohydrates. Eating 4,000 calories worth of MREs in a day would only give you a little bit more than the 300 grams of carbohydrates the USDA recommends for a 2,000 calorie diet. And the carbohydrates included in the meals are different than the ones most civilians are consuming. The mix used to make a 12-ounce serving of lemon-lime drink has 130 calories from a combination of 20 grams of real sugar combined with 13 grams of maltodextrin, a corn-derived product that breaks down into pure glucose.

Plain sugar is half glucose, half fructose while high fructose corn syrup is 55 percent fructose, 45 percent glucose. So the carbs in 130 calories worth of the military drink mix end up coming from 10 grams of fructose and 23 grams of glucose. A beverage with the same number of calories derived from high fructose corn syrup would have over 18 grams of fructose and a little less than 15 grams of glucose. Since fructose is uniquely fattening and damaging to the body it makes sense that even in sugary beverages the military is limiting the amount of it that G.I.s consume in the field.

The USDA recommends carbohydrates as the ideal energy source for our increasingly-hefty civilian population, despite decades of evidence that the more we replace natural fats with processed carbohydrates in our diets, the fatter and sicker we become. But when it comes to bodies that the military has seriously invested in the health of; bodies that are burning 4,000 calories a day through strenuous work; the government recognizes the value of fat as a satiating, concentrated source of energy.

I was surprised by the relative lack of protein in the MREs. My meal only contained 37 grams of it. Multiply that by three meals and that is only 111 grams in an entire day. That fits in pretty close to the USDA's recommendation of 50 grams in a 2,000 calorie diet, but I'd expect to see far more protein being fed to troops whose bodies are having to maintain muscle mass in such rigorous environments. The fact that they are able to stay in shape on that diet shows that as long as you eat plenty of fat for energy your body can get by fine with moderate amounts of protein because it is able to use all that protein towards maintaining muscle mass.


  1. This is probably my favorite post you've done so far. What I love about your blog is how you take a topic that has been written about so many times before and which seems deceptively simple (Memphis BBQ and BBQ in general) and you elevate it to a whole new level.

    You have some fascinating insights and revelations about how culture, economics, and politics effect the way we eat - I'm addition to being entertaining as hell.

    You really ought to consider turning this into a book.

    1. Thank you. I'd love to write a book one day and one thing I really like about doing the blog is that it has helped me get into the habit of writing on a regular basis.

  2. I remember having those while I was in the Air Force. Your description of MREs is accurate. The only time I ate them was during "war games" when I was ordered to do so by an evaluator. Typically, I would pack sub sandwiches whenever I went on exercises.
    By the way, I agree with Johanna's comments. This blog article, just like many others that you're written in the past, is very enlightening. Keep up the good work.

    1. Thanks. We still need to meet up sometime. I've noticed that the person doing the Memphis Barbecue Ghost Pit Chronicles blog is also a VECA resident too. I'd be interested to invite them as well when we plan something.

  3. You seem to really know your stuff. It's refreshing to read someone who is living healthy by his own method and not pushing numerous supplements or pitching an expensive dietary system. But to simplify, what would be your most important advice? Less grains more protein? Smaller portions? Less sugars and starches? And what about carbs such as brown rice and sweet potato? Sorry for the number of questions, but at last I've found a great source of unbiased information. -Colin

    1. I don't worry about calories at all. I mostly try to eat traditional real foods and limit my carbs to less than 100 grams per day with as little of that as possible coming from sugar and wheat. I love sweet potatoes. I like rice and regular potatoes too but I try to limit how much of them I eat since they are so full of starch.

      I go for a high fat diet not a high protein one, although I eat enough meat, eggs, etc., that I still get plenty of protein. I get the majority of my calories from healthy natural fats and I try to avoid the toxic man-made fats that are chemically extracted from plants like corn, soy and canola. Heart disease rates have jumped up in every culture where these fats have displaced natural ones. At home I do my cooking with real butter, pork lard, coconut oil and olive oil.

      I try to eat plenty of traditional foods like organ meats, homemade chicken stock and homemade sauerkraut. For cooking at home I buy almost all my meat and eggs from local producers I trust at farmer's markets. I also buy local whole milk that is unhomogenized so the fat in it is still in its healthy natural state.

      For more info a great place to start is the documentary Fat Head, which you can stream from Netflix. I also highly recommend the book Deep Nutrition by Catherine Shanahan. And you can find a wealth of information through some of the other blogs listed in my blogroll in the right column of this page.

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