MRE stands for Meal Ready-to-Eat, but some servicemen have come up with their own versions of those initials like "Meals Refusing to Exit" or "Meals Rejected by Everyone."
The Vegetarians in Paradise battle plan was to examine the vegetarian MRE's and report back to our veg readers on the quality, wholesomeness, and nutritional value of these portable packages. First, your editors decided to enlist the aid of two other brave souls to join our tasting panel to learn what vegetarian American soldiers were eating during their battles in Afghanistan and Iraq or just on field maneuvers.
The mission was not too complex. Of the 24 meals available, four were vegetarian with two of the four vegan, we thought. The four vegetarian MRE's are Pasta with Vegetables, Bean and Rice Burrito, Cheese Tortellini, and Pasta with Alfredo Sauce.
The VIP combatants focused on what we thought were the two vegan meals: Pasta with Vegetables and Bean and Rice Burrito. The Bean and Rice Burrito Meal was not completely vegan because of the Spice Pound Cake that contained egg whites and polysorbate 60. As we learned later after a second reading, the Pasta with Vegetables in Tomato Sauce included egg whites, parmesan cheese, and sugar.
The vegetarian corps decided to surround the Bean and Rice Burrito first by seizing the brown bag. This was not a paper bag but a heavy duty brown plastic bag with a "peelable seal" that made it relatively easy to rip open. The plastic bag that measures 5" (13cm) x 9" (23cm) x 2 3/4 (7cm)" (about the size of long novel) contains the entire meal and a unique pouch to heat the entrée. The package is designed to fit into the pocket of the military jacket or cargo pants pocket.
As one of our patrol opened the bag, we encircled a brown rectangular carton labeled Black Bean and Rice Burrito. Beneath the label was a list of ingredients and the Nutrition Facts label found on most prepared foods. The burrito, distributed by Ameriqual Foods of Evansville, Indiana weighed 4 oz. or 113 g.
Looking at the back of the carton, our combatants felt like they were reading a typical breakfast cereal box. "MILITARY RATIONS ARE GOOD PERFORMANCE MEALS" was the bold announcement at the top. Beneath it were phrases like "FOOD GIVES YOU ENERGY--THE MORE ENERGY YOU BURN, THE MORE FOOD YOU NEED."
"In the field you NEED three meals per day. One Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) contains 1200 to 1300 calories. Average daily calorie requirements in the field are 2800 to 3600 for males and 2000 to 2800 for females."
The package also listed tips if the person could not eat the entire meal. It stressed the importance of eating some of each item to receive balanced nutrition. Advice was given to eat the high carbohydrate items first and save the unopened snacks for those times when the group is on the move.
The heater to warm the burrito and create a hot meal is the most unique aspect of the MRE. The Flameless Ration Heater (FRH) was a clear plastic bag with a light green cast. We simply cut the top of the bag, poured water into the bag up to the line an inch from the bottom, and then inserted the burrito that was inside its own plastic bag.
The bag was then to be propped against a rock or other object to keep the water from escaping. Soon we noticed steam emerging from the bubbling heater bag that contained flat pouches with a mixture of three powdered metals: sodium, magnesium, and iron. The water reacts with the sodium to create hydrogen gas that heats the magnesium. The iron gets hot and reacts with the water to create more hydrogen and heat.
Inside the carton was the plastic bag containing the burrito. Opening the burrito bag, we saw an anemic, thin, pasty ghastly white object that had no resemblance to any burrito we had ever seen. As we cut it into four sample servings, we noticed there were few beans in the center. One of our scouts, who had previously worked as a bean counter, said there were no more than a dozen beans in the whole burrito.
One of the foodfighters grimaced as he chewed. "I'm glad I don't have to eat the whole thing." "Any resemblance to a real burrito is purely homicidal," said another. Still another could not finish the small portion. The consensus was that the foodfighters had lost the first battle. They had courageously faced this mock food and had lost.
While the burrito was heating, the troops paused for a cracker break. Inside the 1.3 oz. (37g) brown package, produced by Ameriqual, were unappealing chalky white crackers. Another Ameriqual package was simply labeled Fruit Bars. By this time the group was aware that Ameriqual did not really stand for American quality. Not finding any ingredient list or nutritional information on this package, we feared a trap if we seized the fruit bars.
As part of the cracker break, our forces opened another brown plastic package that contained 1.5 oz. (42.5 g) of peanut butter produced by Thermopac, Inc. in Stone Mountain, Georgia. We smeared the peanut butter on the cracker with the brown plastic spoon.
Instead of reacting with cheers, the group responded with moans and groans. "Why are they adding sugar to the peanut butter?" asked one food veteran. Another responded, "They add sugar and oil so that it will last three years on the shelf if the temperature doesn't go above 80 F (27 C)," said another. "If it was real food, they wouldn't have to add all those vitamins" was another comment. Everybody in the group complained about the peanut butter and said that even saltines purchased at the market tasted better than these crackers.
Another rectangular carton was labeled Pineapple. Its contents weighed 4.5 oz. or 128 g and was packaged by Sopakco Packaging in Mullins, South Carolina. The back of the carton had nutritional information about vitamin and mineral fortification under the heading "NUTRITION: A FORCE MULTIPLIER."
"Fortification Provides you the Additional Edge to Maximize Your Performance," is the statement on the carton. "Fortification Maximizes the Nutrition of the Ration by Adding or Increasing Vitamins and Minerals within some Ration Components."
The added vitamins and minerals are adapted from the Recommended Daily Allowances (RDA) to meet the needs of soldiers in combat. The items fortified are beverages, cheese spreads, peanut butter, crackers, cookies, and fruits. Many of the items are fortified with A,C, and B vitamins. Calcium is included in one of the beverages and the crackers while iron is added to the chocolate covered cookie. Those who like to read while they eat had plenty of reading matter on these packages. Unfortunately, the people who created the food were unaware of the nutritional advice on the packages.
Inside the brown plastic bag was crushed pineapple packed in pineapple juice. Opening and eating the overly sweetened pineapple provided its own challenges. In a few minutes we were transformed into a fearsome fighting force known as the Sticky Finger Brigade. We were no longer concerned about losing or misplacing our weapons. They would be firmly attached to our fingers. Thankfully, the meal included a towelette.
Another plastic bag contained the 2.5 oz. (71g) Spice Poundcake produced by Sterling Foods in San Antonio, Texas. Our tasting brigade decided to forgo the cake after reading the ingredients. When we saw that the number 1 and 2 items were sugar and enriched bleached flour, we knew it wasn't for us. Other items listed like eggs, egg whites, partially hydrogenated oils, convinced us that it was not only not vegan, but also not very nutritious. The poundcake is purported to be one of the most popular MRE items and is considered a highly tradable item. Unfortunately, our small intrepid squad had no one to trade with and nothing to trade for.
So that the troops stay well hydrated, the MRE includes a beverage like Iced Tea Drink Mix or Spiced Cider Mix. The contents could be added to 8 oz. of either cold or hot water. Both mixes are manufactured by Jianas Brothers Packaging Company of Kansas City, Missouri.
One non-commissioned eater read the label on the cider mix and decided immediately that he did not want it. "There is not one real ingredient in the package," he exclaimed. "It's all chemicals laced with a heavy dose of sugar. It's like kids Kool-Aid." Another said, "Either of these would make you more thirsty if you're fighting in desert heat. If I had to choose, I'd take the iced tea."
To add a little spice to the burrito, Trans-Packers Services Corp. of Brooklyn, New York provided a tiny 1/8 oz. bottle of McIlhenny's Tabasco Pepper Sauce. The Tabasco actually might make the burrito palatable. Those who didn't want that much spice in the meal could use the 4 grams of iodized salt packaged in light brown paper instead of plastic. The salt was provided by Diamond Crystal Brands, Inc. from Savannah, Georgia.
Completing the package was a brown plastic spoon packaged in transparent plastic, a moist towelette, two green gum squares, and a pack of toilet paper that one of our group mistook for napkins.
As the four members of our tasting corps turned thumbs down on Bean and Rice Burrito Menu No.12, we moved on to our next target: Pasta with Vegetables or Menu No.11. Busted. We had done a poor job of scouting before we launched our mission. As a result, we were ambushed by the Pasta with Vegetables in Tomato Sauce. We didn't read the ingredients carefully before we did our sampling. If we had, we would have realized that the burrito was the only truly vegan entrée of all four. We failed to notice that this pasta concoction contained egg whites and parmesan cheese as well as sugar.
After reconnoitering the package, we engaged this pseudo Italian entr&eacut;e and lost. The 8 oz. (227g) serving was reviled by all of the combatants. "This reminds me of those cans of Spaghetti O's I ate as a kid," said one of the tasters. "This is a step above the burritos, but not a very big step," said another. "Too mushy and too sweet" was another comment.
This meal was also packaged with gooey pineapple, the package of crackers, and the peanut butter. It also contained vacuum-packed roasted and salted peanuts, and a package of Charms hard candy, possibly as a reward for eating the rest of the meal.
A clear plastic package contained Tabasco sauce, iced tea drink mix, spiced cider instant apple flavor drink mix, iodized salt, a moist towelette, toilet paper, two pieces of green gum, and a pack of matches designed for moist climates.
These MRE meals would definitely sustain a person who is involved in military maneuvers or combat, but the food unfortunately mirrors the manufactured foods available throughout the United States and much of the world. A vegetarian would have a tough enough time maneuvering through the military food choices. If the person were an ovo-lacto vegetarian, he might be fortunate enough to find one of the four vegetarian meals among the 24 shipped to the troups. But then again, it might be like an airline flight where they invariably run out of vegetarian meals.
A vegan, limited to burritos, might be in danger of perishing from friendly food, if one wants to refer to this package as friendly. He might have to spend most of the day trading for peanuts, peanut butter, fruit, jelly, and crackers.
Instead of beginning with wholesome food, manufacturers have resorted to highly processed foods that have most of the nutrients removed. Then the food is supplemented with some vitamins and minerals to make it appear healthy. The MRE's do provide 1200 to 1300 calories, but many are empty calories. The requirement that they have a long shelf life and not spoil in warm temperatures means they require preservatives and are loaded with hydrogenated fat and sugar to keep them from spoiling.
If the generals consulted nutritionists and dieticians who agreed to these meals, they were misled. If they failed to consult nutritionists or dieticians, they were remiss. Our soldiers deserve much better fare.
Napoleon was right when he said, "An army travels on its stomach." Two centuries later armies are still traveling on their stomachs. Unfortunately, the stomachs are filled with junk food artificially pumped up with vitamins and minerals. The Department of Defense needs to understand that since US military forces travel on their MRE's, soldiers need their stomachs filled with food that is nourishing, satisfying, and healthy.
One suggestion VIP would like to make is to have an MRE Day where everyone in the Defense Department, Congress, the President and his cabinet are served three MRE's during the course of that day with the media watching and reporting on the event. In the days following that momentous occasion, changes in the military diet would come rapidly.
To give our readers a better idea of what MRE's contain, VIP is providing the Nutrition Facts and Ingredients for the two vegetarian MRE's sampled.
Black Bean and Rice Burrito
INGREDIENTS: FLOUR TORTILLA [ENRICHED WHEAT FLOUR (WHEAT FLOUR, MALTED BARLEY FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), WATER, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN AND COTTONSEED OIL WITH MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, SALT, BAKING POWDER, POTASSIUM SORBATE, SODIUM STEAROL, LACTYLATE, CALCIUM SULFATE], WATER, BLACK BEANS, RICE, SOYBEAN OIL, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, GREEN PEPPERS, ONIONS, SPICES.
Pasta with Vegetables in Tomato Sauce
INGREDIENTS: WATER, TOMATOES, ENRICHED MACARONI (SEMOLINA, EGG WHITES, NIACIN, FERROUS SULFATE, THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, AND FOLIC ACID), TOMATO PASTE, CARROTS, CORN, GREEN BEANS, ONIONS, PEAS, FOOD STARCH-MODIFIED WITH ERYTHORBIC ACID ADDED, MUSHROOMS, SOYBEAN OIL, GARLIC PUREE (PASTEURIZED AND ACIDIFIED WITH CITRIC ACID), PARMESAN CHEESE, SUGAR, SALT, CELERY, RED BELL PEPPER, AND SPICES.
INGREDIENTS: PINEAPPLE AND PINEAPPLE JUICE, WATER, SUGAR, SODIUM CITRATE/CITRIC ACID, ASCORBIC ACID
INGREDIENTS: WHEAT FLOUR, VEGETABLE SHORTENING, YEAST, CALCIUM CARBONATE, SALT, SODIUM BICARBONATE, EXTRACT OF MALTED BARLEY AND CORN.
INGREDIENTS: SUGAR, ENRICHED BLEACHED FLOUR (BLEACHED FLOUR, NIACIN, REDUCED IRON, THIAMINE MONONITRATE, RIBOFLAVIN, FOLIC ACID), EGGS, PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED SOYBEAN AND COTTONSEED OILS WITH MONO AND DIGLYCERIDES, EGG WHITES, WATER, GYCEROL, MALTODEXTRIN, CONTAINS 2% OR LESS OF THE FOLLOWING: SPICES, SALT, XANTHAM GUM, MODIFIED FOOD STARCH, GUAR GUM, SOYBEAN OIL, LEAVENING (SODIUM ACID PYROPHOSPHATE, SODIUM BICARBONATE, MONOCALCIUM PHOSPHATES), ARTIFICIAL FLAVOR, POTASSIUM SORBATE (TO PRESERVE FRESHNESS), HYDRATED MONOGLYCERIDES, POLYSORBATE 60.
INGREDIENTS: ROASTED PEANUTS, SUGAR, HYDROGENATED VEGETABLE OIL (RAPESEED, COTTONSEED, AND/OR SOYBEAN OILS), SALT, VITAMIN C, VITAMIN A, VITAMIN B6, VITAMIN B1
Peanut, Shelled, Roasted
INGREDIENTS: ROASTED PEANUTS, SALT
Iced Tea Drink Mix
INGREDIENTS: SUGAR, INSTANT TEA, CITRIC ACID, NATURAL LEMON FLAVOR, TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE (PREVENTS CAKING).
INGREDIENTS: SUGAR, MALIC ACID, GUM ARABIC, NATURAL AND ARTIFICIAL FLAVORS, CARAMEL COLOR, SODIUM CITRATE (CONTROLS ACIDITY), TRICALCIUM PHOSPHATE (PREVENTS CAKING), AND ASCORBIC ACID.