Chief Warrant Officer John Cantrell has torn into roughly 500 MREs -- Meals, Ready to Eat -- during his 20-year Army career, and he knows what to do when he gets one. He starts dealing.
"Everyone wants the Tootsie Rolls," said the Kansas native, 45, who's served in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bosnia and Hungary. The chewy candies are in four of the current 24 MRE selections, and they hold up indefinitely. "I'll trade any of the fruit or any cakes or cookies for them," he says.
_____MREs_____Then and Now
More menu options and a greater variety of foods are the most noticeable changes in the military's MREs since the 1980s. The systems command in charge of menu planning has MREs working through 2007. A comparison of some popular items:
MRE No. 1 (1981)
to MRE No. 5 (1985)
Ham & Chicken Loaf
Beef Slices in BBQ sauce
Frankfurters with Beans
Turkey Diced with Gravy
MRE No. 23 (2003)
to MRE No. 27 (2007)
Almond Poppyseed Poundcake
Mexican Macaroni & Cheese
Cajun Rice with Sausage
Chili with Beef
Mango Peach Applesauce
Meatballs in Marinara Sauce
Chicken & Dumplings
Wild Berry and Tropical Fruit Skittles
"A strawberry shake can usually be traded for a whole meal," e-mailed Marine Cpl. Richard Wade, 21, from Ramadi, Iraq. As "soon as a group of Marines opens up MREs, you'll start hearing them yelling out trades. Everyone has their own recipes. Some guys get pretty religious about it."
More than a million troops have been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan since terrorists struck New York and the Pentagon in 2001. Plenty of them have subsisted at least some of the time on MREs, the portable chow eaten in the field, although many day-to-day meals are prepared and served in mess halls. MREs don't get a lot of respect from the troops, who know them all by number. But today's descendants of canned rations are a technological wonder.
They must be able to hold up for three years at 80 degrees or six months at 100 degrees, withstand airdrops from thousands of feet and fit into a rucksack. Their long shelf life makes them attractive to survivalists, who buy MREs online. The foods are rated on a 1-9 scale for aroma, flavor, texture, appearance and overall quality. A menu is accepted if it scores a 6.5 or above overall.
MREs have changed significantly even from those of the 1991 Persian Gulf War. Spaghetti with meat sauce has remained a constant, but vegetarian and lacto-ovo options (with dairy, but no animal or alcohol products) have been around since 1996. A wider range of ethnic entrees, such as this year's chicken fajitas, goes far beyond the pork chow mein offered in 1993.
They deliver at least 1,200 calories per meal (50 percent carbohydrates, 35 percent fat and 15 percent protein), or 3,600 per day for those who eat them for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Complete menus range from 1,200 to 1,350 calories per meal, formulated to fuel troops who operate in high gear.
MREs contain a full meal, including a cardboard-boxed entree and side dish, dessert, and cracker or snack bread. Condiments, seasonings, utensils and flavored drink mixes are also included. And since the early 1990s, each one comes with a flameless ration heater.
MRE menu planning starts at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., part of the Defense Department's Combat Feeding Program. The program's blue-paneled building, referred to as " the blue palace," sits on a Defense Department campus on a 78-acre peninsula, surrounded by Lake Cochituate.
The combat feeding program employs about 100 people, primarily civilians. "We actively seek surveys and information from soldiers," says Max Biela, team leader for the Operational Forces Interface Group at Natick. Decisions on which rations stay in the MREs and which go are made "strictly by soldier input," he said.
For soldiers at various bases around the country, answering the call to MRE duty means testing items such as Meatballs in Marinara Sauce and Chicken and Dumplings, which will replace the Jambalaya and the Cajun Rice with Sausage in 2007 in MRE No. 27. Selected units that volunteer to participate while they're training in the field are asked to eat MREs for a period that usually runs from seven to 10 days, depending on the length of the field exercise, and then they fill out questionnaires.
The food technologists at Natick pay close attention to the feedback and adjust MRE menus accordingly on an annual basis, and the responses can be brutal.
"Few people like the brownies. They're dry as hell," said Cpl. Wade via e-mail.
While some menu items never really find a following, Judith Aylward, senior food technologist and registered dietitian with the Combat Feeding Program, said, "Comfort foods like beef stew have been enduring favorites since the beginning" -- MRE I dates from 1981. A current soldier favorite: Menu No. 8 -- Hamburger Patty with Mexican Macaroni & Cheese, Bacon-Cheese spread, barbecue sauce and wheat snack bread.