This paper really changed the way I thought about the United States’ food supply. Feeding the City was my first summer course at BU; our assignment was to pick a topic surrounding the way we feed cities. This research helped me understand the history of the way we eat and the impacts that could/will have on us in the future.
Running late for something and need a quick snack on the way? Or maybe even a quick meal? In the United States, in 2016, that’s no problem. Our grocery stores and supermarkets are packed with prepared processed goods that stay shelf-safe for long periods of time and require little to no effort to prepare. Sealed ham and cheese sandwiches, canned fruit, granola bars, and microwaveable dinners are common household items for most American families. Our reliance on these products makes it hard to believe that most of them were only invented within the past one hundred years. Our food system has been revolutionized more in this past century than the rest of the time humans have walked the earth. The farming techniques, food preservation methods, and mass production of foods we use now are largely due to the United States military’s research and development.
Keeping troops fed during the perils of modern warfare is no easy task. But, to put it simply, the best fed soldiers win the war. Therefore, it is logical that defense budgets focus on research and development in the realm of food science to ensure combat soldiers are nutritiously satisfied and victorious (Stipp, 2003). With plenty of effort and funds, the progress made for military use benefits the general public as well, since the U.S. government only temporarily holds these useful patents (Salcedo, 2015).
Historically, soldiers ravaged towns and country sides to feed themselves (including the occasional cannibalism), or used their equestrian beasts to hold themselves over between pillages. Prior to 1800, not much had been accomplished by means of food preservation. Fermentation or drying and salting were the best techniques if food was brought on any journey, but of course had to be supplemented by other available resources in order to provide adequate nutritional value. During their revolutionary wars, the French government challenged their people, with the reward of one year’s salary, to come up with a new preservation method to help sustain troops. The familiar process, Pasteurization, was actually invented (but not scientifically understood) by a man named Nicolas Appert. After perfecting his antimicrobial technique, he presented the ‘fresh’ food to Napoleon’s minister of the interior. It took a few years for the French government to realize his idea was genius, but once they did, they convinced him to relinquish his rights to it (Salcedo, 2015). This discovery was one of the first food science techniques developed for military use that progressed society as a whole.
Shortly after Appert’s work was ‘sold’ to the French government, Peter Durand crafted the tin can. Originally, only six to ten cans were able to be constructed daily and were required to simmer for six hours each. This technology was almost exclusively used by the British Navy to bring large quantities of stews and soups along on voyages for its limey sailors. Later, during the American Civil War, smaller, cheaper cans that could be produced more efficiently, became part of the daily rations for soldiers. But it wasn’t until the Spanish-American war that the majority of meatpackers were practically forced to get onboard with heart sterilization and canning (Salcedo, 2015).
Unfortunately, the temperature abuse that the cans withstood were not tolerated by the soldiers in the Caribbean. While serving in Cuba, Theodore Roosevelt stated that the canned meat was so bad, “I think we threw it overboard.” Once he became president he helped push through the Pure Food and Drug Act, which mandated that research be conducted on killing microorganisms, forcing the army to rethink its strategy on supplying food to the troops (Salcedo, 2015).
Food science developments made before the start of World War II were helpful, but not as plentiful and necessary as those during. The U.S. military went from feeding 400,000 recruits to 12 million in just four years. In order to improve rations, an Army branch called the Quartermaster Corps, which was now responsible for feeding all branches of the military, called on civilians for help. People like Milton Hershey, Harvard professors, and MIT’s Department of Food Technology responded. Still, men overseas would rather go hungry than eat their rations, so, with urgency, the food industry was asked to focus more of their time and effort, and especially to allocate funds, on further research (Salcedo, 2015).
In the 1930’s, baby food was processed and produced in cans. While this development was a significant step forward for women and childcare professionals in the U.S., many parents were skeptical and wrote to the Child Bureau to question the safety and quality of these mushed nutrients. This revolution in child feeding is used widely all over the world today (Bentley, 2014).
After serious laboratory studies, it was determined that the high heat sterilization of the canned meats not only destroyed harmful bacteria and pathogens, but the more pleasant aspects of the food as well, like taste and texture (Salcedo, 2015).
For the first time in history, large groups of people were relying on commercially produced and processed foods. But, the nutritional value they contained was useless if the men considered them unpalatable. A new field of study then developed: food acceptance research. Prior to WWII, the masses hadn’t relied on anyone else but themselves for their next meal. Local tastes and individual family ideals were the biggest contributing factors to meal time items, so the monotonous, factory produced rations were largely rejected (Dove, 1946). The Army still considers food acceptance research so important that they dumpster dive to see what hasn’t been eaten (Stipp).
The Quartermaster Corps sought Milton Hershey’s assistance with an emergency ration bar that included chocolate was nutritious enough to sustain a soldier for a whole day. The large-scale production helped Hershey and his company become the prime chocolatier for the U.S. Army. Anyone who has been to a grocery store, mini-mart, convenience store, or gas station, knows that was beneficial for him because Hershey chocolate is everywhere (Fisher & Fisher, 2011). The K ration bar that was developed with that chocolate has inspired numerous other granola, breakfast, cereal, energy, and protein bars since (Salcedo, 2015).
Additional preservation methods were developed during WWII, such as freeze drying and intermediate-moisture foods (IMFs). Although freeze drying a product created a less than desirable taste, it preserved nutrients and was shelf stable for long periods of time. It was also significantly lighter than canned goods (Fisher & Fisher, 2011). Remnants of that technique are still seen on our grocery store shelves today, with things like instant coffee and bits of shriveled fruits in cereal. Although most of the investment on freeze drying has been tossed to the wayside, IMFs are still being sent to our brothers at arms overseas and line our grocery store shelves. Salts and sugars are added to these foods to bring down the water activity, which is one of the biggest spoilage factors for food. Despite its great ability to stay fresh, these salted and sugared foods then become more addictive than they originally would have been. And as any evening news coverage can tell you, added salts and sugars are raising our blood pressure, instances of heart attacks, and diabetes. Some IMFs that we see on our shelves today include cookies, breakfast pastries, and energy bars (Salcedo, 2015).
Cooperative Research and Development Agreements (also known as CRADAs) are one of the ways the military involves industry and academia in their food science ventures. Many big name companies (ConAgra, Frito-Lay/PepsiCo, General Mills, just to name a few) were involved in CRADAs in 2007. Many companies started helping the military during WWII and found it to be mutually beneficial because the techniques and processing they developed were then marketable to the general public since they didn’t have to relinquish any patents. These military encouraged research ideas were also better at feeding the troops than industry would have been on their own, since their bottom line was a goal instead of money (Meiselman & Schutz, 2003).
As any red-blooded American knows, bread, cheese, and packaged deli meat are a few of the main ingredients of a quality sandwich. However, the ones that line the grocery store shelves today are not the same products that were available before WWII. Even these common goods were ‘improved’ by wartime efforts. When most Americans were still going to the butcher for actual cuts of meat, bones were left in as an insurance policy that the meat was fresh and free of spoilage. But, these cuts of meat were not convenient for sending to our troops. It was also not possible to have the meat travel alive, and ‘by the hoof’. To supply our Army with adequate protein, the Quartermaster Corps decided to develop a way to send our men boneless meats. Charcuterie on a large scale was expensive and more difficult to procure than what Oscar Mayer helped the Army supply. At a slow pace, it was discovered that meat could be shaved, mixed together, manipulated, and then have its pH lowered to ensure preservation (Fisher & Fisher, 2011). This method allowed for the Army to utilize less favorable cuts, reduce waste, and increase protein consumption both in the field and at home (Salcedo, 2015).
Bread baking was time consuming and yielded small, perishable amounts. Canned bread being shipped overseas was a failure. The Quartermaster Corps needed to find a way to preserve flavor, aroma, texture, and the product itself. The modern loaf of bread stales slower, is made of less ingredients, and the end product has higher rates of gluten (which, controversially, may be increasing the cases of Celiac’s disease). By manipulating the enzymes in the dough, the bread bakes faster and is much lighter than it was before the war. All of these changes led an Army contractor to say that the carbohydrate loaf produced was a “non-staling bread-like product” (Salcedo, 2015).
The additives developed during WWII sparked further research and in a CRADA with Nabisco in 1996, food scientists discovered ways of making preserved foods taste better. These additives can be found in many grocery store items: frozen foods, baby foods, energy bars, bakery items, candy, cereals, and many more (Salcedo, 2015).
Plastic wrapped cheese slices are a fond childhood memory for most college-aged students these days, but the ability to preserve cheese and form it as a slice was developed for our military, as well. With the help of emulsifying salts, these slices can withstand higher temperatures than traditional cheese making methods and can also be produced much cheaper. But with these added salts and change of recipe, the Kraft company, still a booming voice in the snack world, created something that is deemed a ‘cheese-like product’ (Salcedo, 2015). But, the development of cheese products didn’t end with Kraft slices. When the internal structure of cheese is shortened, is dries and fines. This creates a cheese flavored powder. Not long after this dusty development, the Cheeto was born. Boxed mac ‘n’ cheese and Goldfish, Cheeto’s close cousins, were soon to follow and are still a big hit with children and youth (Salcedo, 2015). Don’t ask, ‘what did the Army ever do for me?’
The Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn received the largest funding from the Quartermaster Corps in 1944 to help create a polymer with viscosity, elasticity, and strength. A copolymer, called Saran, was the development. This tough structure was water and oxygen resistant and used for outdoor seat covers, among other things. With further development, the copolymer was constructed into a film to seal food packaging. And as any frustrated kitchen professional can tell you, Saran wrap was not only successful for the troops, but, in 1949, for commercial and at home kitchen use, as well. Despite the observations of the Quartermaster committee on plastics, the leeching of the polymer blend was ignored by the Army, but the commercial recipe was discreetly changed in 2004 by the S. C. Johnson & Son brand. The wrap we fuss about at home (when it sticks to itself) is much less likely to disintegrate into our food. (Salcedo). This will be a word of relief to my mother.
With all these improvements to food, increase in military mouths to feed, and fighting taking place in other countries, America’s agricultural productivity actually increased. With the increase in crops the U.S. was able to feed not only our own troops, but some of our allies, as well. Our government saw the value in that and decided that some farm workers qualified to skip out on the draft. The war also led to search for a long lasting butter alternative. Margarine was born, and with that cash crop soy bean industry started to boom. This cheaper protein crop was a great export to troops, but created some soil problems on the home side. There are also some skeptics about soy products because of its ability to increase estrogen levels; something especially frowned upon for feeding manly troops (Collingham, 2012).
In the 1960’s and 70’s the players in the American plastic industry gathered for a conference to discuss what was next in the plastic world. The Quartermaster Corps was looking for ideas to help with their synergistic packaging material project. Research and development with names like Monsanto, Dow Chemical, Kodak, Pillsbury, and Procter & Gamble, and experiment with materials like foil, vinyl, and laminate resulted in exactly what the Army was looking for: a tactical juice box. The Quartermaster Corps needed a pouch that could withstand high temperature and high pressure, and again, the industry delivered. PCNC (polymer/clay non-composites) are still a concern for some, and the FDA has yet to make a ruling on whether some of our food packaging that contains them is safe. The investigations into the kinds of health effects that could be risked are few and far between (Salcedo, 2015).
How does packaged guacamole stay green when a cut avocado turns brown in less than an hour? Hurdle technology and high-pressure processing are ways that uncooked processed foods can stay shelf stable for long periods of time. They are used to keep products that have varying moisture levels stable (wet sauce, dry crust, moist cheese), prevent nonenzymatic browning, control lipid oxidation, and prevent microbial contamination (Salcedo, 2015).
The Quartermaster Corps has also implemented a very important seven-point plan called HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points). They started this plan when working on food for future space programs. President Obama signed into law, in 2011, a mandate that said that all food serving establishments must follow the HACCP plan (Salcedo, 2015). It was announced just recently that any manned missions to Mars will have their food developed by the same center that the Quartermaster Corps used for their greatest food developments. The HACCP plan and reliability of the Quartermaster Corps are necessary for these food developments because there is no room for error when astronauts are in space. This food will need to last for 3-5 years and maximum vitamin stability. Research and development has begun this year since testing will taking years (Benson, 2016).
It is clear what the individual soldiers would like more development on: peanut butter sandwiches, crispy French fries, and medium-rare steak. The texture of the fries and peanut butter don’t cut the mustard after sitting on a shelf, and the bloody pink of a steak cooks after exposed to high heat to prevent contamination. The boys in the dessert just aren’t happy with their three-year old chicken sandwiches (Stipp, 2003). It’s important that our military continues its food acceptance research because nutrients have to be palatable, or we risk losing wars and lives. Through food habit, psycho-physiological, and organoleptic studies and statistical theory, the Army determines what’s best for delivering nutrients and what’s most likely to be eaten (Meilselman & Schutz, 2003). The Quartermaster Corps is still working on a dermal nutrient delivery system to help supplement soldiers that are eating prepared rations for long periods of time. They hope that someday a patch can help deliver micronutrients to help their mental and physical performances (Stipp, 2003).
In the 1960’s, approximately half of the funds the Army had for research and development went to academia and private industry, while the other half stayed inside military agencies; most of the money the Navy spent on R&D went to outside sources. To this day there is no shortage of industry interest in this market. The Navy’s evaluation of proposals for these bids include scientific merit of proposal, relevance of military mission, and competence of investigator (Weidenbaum, 1961). Whoever can prove their best value will win the contract. Unlike many other fields, the military supplies used for our troops are almost completely produced by American companies. This is all thanks to the Buy American Act and Berry Amendment. The Defense Supply Center of Philadelphia spends around $13 billion on food, clothing, and products for our troops through companies based in the United States (Grasso, 2010).
New crops, technologies, and equipment, all from military research and development, have trickled down to the most basic food suppliers. Our military has shaped most of our food supply without most of us knowing it. The improvements (and problems) with our current edibles have come from names we are familiar with, but through contracts we weren’t aware of. With our troops, and hopefully, our freedom in mind, the Quartermaster Corps has created food of the future yesterday. Time can only tell what further developments will be made on the food science front, and whether the current ones need further review for health concerns. But, until then, our last year’s Kraft cheese dust macaroni, General Mills IMF cereal bars, and high pressure processed green guacamole covered with Saran wrap will have to do.
Benson, J. (2016, May 24). Natick’s food packaging/processing will support Mars mission. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from https://www.army.mil/article/168406/naticks_food_packagingprocessing_will_support_mars_mission
Bentley, A. (2014). Industrial Food, Industrial Baby Food: THE 1890S TO THE 1930S. In Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet (pp. 15-42). University of California Press. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.bu.edu/stable/10.1525/j.ctt14btg4h.5
Collingham, L. M. (2012). The taste of war: World War II and the battle for food. New York: Penguin Press.
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Fisher, J. C., & Fisher, C. (2011). Food in the American military: A history. Jefferson, NC: McFarland &.
Grasso, V. B. (2010, February 25). Department of Defense Food Procurement: Background and Status. Retrieved August 11, 2016, from https://fas.org/sgp/crs/natsec/RS22190.pdf
Meiselman, H. L., & Schutz, H. G. (2003, June 1). History of food acceptance research in the US Army. Appetite, 40(3), 199-216. doi:10.1016/s0195-6663(03)00007-2
Salcedo, A. M. (2015). Combat-ready kitchen: How the U.S. military shapes the way you eat. New York City, NY: Penguin Random House LLC.
Stipp, D. (2003). Son of Spam. Fortune, 147(1), 46-47.
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