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Honey, they shrank the MRE

A meal in a bar may come to a combat ration near you

The Army is developing a new ration that uses vacuum-microwave technology to shrink items. Items under development from the Close Combat Assault Ration at the Pentagon May 24, 2018 Photo by GARY SHEFTICK/U.S. ARMY

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Soldiers of the future may be eating bacon and egg breakfasts via tiny food bars, due to a new process that shrinks meals to a fraction of their normal size.

Think sous vide, but for tactical quiches that may end up in your next Meal, Ready to Eat.

One dish begins with bacon, egg, cheese and heavy cream. The ingredients are inserted into a vacuum microwave dryer for 80 minutes of shrinkage and then squeezed by a machine. The result: a bar that's smaller than a Snicker's candy bar but with twice as many calories - and much more nutrition.

"A complete meal in a bar, that's my goal," said Tom Yang, senior food technologist at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development, and Engineering Center.

Yang and other food scientists at Natick are researching the Army's new generation of portable rations. On the menu of the future are MRE pizzas, portable fruit, and a light-weight ration for soldiers on the go.

In an article on Military.com this week, Natick's team leader on the project estimates up to 40 percent of the current weight of an MRE could go away.

"This is a ration that's designed to be extremely lightweight and compact," Lauren Oleksyk, team leader for Food Engineering, told Military.com. "Some of the first prototypes will be field-tested in the near future. The bars that we're looking at for that ration are not necessarily full meal-replacement bars, but (we're) using a technology for drying and compression that would enable us to make a full meal-replacement bar if needed."

These bars may soon be found in the new ration, the Close Combat Assault Ration, which is supposed to contain three times the nutrition of a normal MRE while being lighter and smaller. Prototypes for the new ration are about one-third the weight of similar MREs, an Army statement said.

The military is trying to figure out how to feed small, isolated units who may go up to a week without resupply, Yang said. Currently, a soldier would need 21 MREs to survive that week.

"No one wants to carry that much MREs," Yang said. "The No. 1 feedback from the field: we need to be able to reduce the weight."

The secret for losing weight - for food, if not the people who eat it - may be a technology known as vacuum-microwave drying.

This method involves placing food into a dryer, sucking all the air out of the container and then dehydrating the food until it shrinks.

The Army hopes vacuum-microwave drying technology will allow them to put fruit and vegetables into rations. The vacuumed microwaved banana is about a third of its original size while still being springy and pliable - not hard like a fully dehydrated banana chip.

Early reviews have been positive. Army Lt. Gen. Ted Martin, deputy commanding general of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command, took a taste test this month. He shared with Military.com photos of a packaged caramel cheesecake slice - 280 calories.

"I had my doubts but was actually very impressed with the food," Martin told Military.com via a Twitter message.

In vacuum-microwave drying, the food is cooked at 30 degrees Celsius, or essentially room temperature, which means less exposure to harsh temperatures that could make everything tough or powdery. The mildness of the drying also means the food does not lose as much nutrition.

The goal, Yang said, is to create MRE bacon that is springy like a raisin, not dry like beef jerky.

The Army believes the new technology will result in rations with fresher-tasting fruits and vegetables.

A vacuumed microwaved banana after compression is about a third of its original size while still being springy and pliable - not hard like a fully dehydrated banana chip, according to a military press release.

It listed other items in the new rations, including a tart cherry nut bar, cheddar cheese bar, mocha dessert bar, vacuum-dried strawberries, fruit and nut trail mix, Korean barbeque stir fry, spinach quiche and French toast.

Yang said he recently shrunk cheesecake into portable bar form, which made him happy.

He noted that while the technology has been around for decades, the shrinking machines used to be too large and bulky. But as the dryers have shrunk, their utility has grown.

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