When Cambridge-based writer Anastacia Marx de Salcedo took a close look at the ingredients she was using to make turkey and ham sandwiches for her kids’ lunchboxes, she was surprised to discover that half of them had connections to military research and development. That discovery prompted the author to take a deep dive into the military origins of processed foods, from granola bars to bagged salad greens, that have become staples of the American diet.
Much of Marx de Salcedo’s research focused on the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, a collection of anonymous office buildings that she calls “ground zero for the processed food industry.” Marx de Salcedo traces the connections between military research, processed food, and the American diet in her new book, “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the US Military Shapes the Way You Eat.”
Q. How did Natick become the primary site of military research on food?
A. The Natick center is here because of MIT. During World War II, MIT was involved with things such as dehydrated potatoes. They created some of the very early emergency rations based on pemmican [a mixture of dried meat, berries, and fat used by Native Americans] that were rejected by soldiers.
Q. Does the Natick lab only focus on food?
A. They research and develop anything that has to do with supporting the individual soldier. That means anything from footwear to textiles to combat rations. They have all sorts of laboratories that are used in the development of combat rations. There are food scientists and food technologists.
Q. What are some of the requirements for military food?
A. You have to make sure that food is safe, doesn’t get contaminated by bacteria, and the flavor doesn’t degrade over time. Doing that involves a lot of what they call “cook and look.” A combat ration needs to remain fresh for three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. That’s a long time. They do things like drop it from the height of a helicopter. They jiggle it to simulate being on miles and miles of bad road. They squish it. Finally they have a sensory evaluation laboratory where people taste it. I got to taste a breakfast patty that had been sitting around for eight months. I found that it was palatable. It wasn’t the greatest.
Q. How widely used are those developments outside the military?
A. I estimated that 50 percent of foods in the supermarket have military origins. It could be even higher. Pretty much every section of the grocery store has been influenced. Probably the one with the greatest influence is the meat section. One [military] innovation was to cut meat off the bone, chill and freeze it, or ship it. That came about in World War I as a way for the Army to reduce the weight volume of shipments overseas. Even things such as sorting meat into different groups — all chops or all steaks — came out of military research.
Q. How does the military deal with fruits and vegetables?
A. One [military technology] is packaged salads and greens that we can just open up and eat. They use something called modified atmosphere packaging. What it is is a mix of the normal gases you would find in the atmosphere that are changed to delay the spoilage of the contents. The whole process was developed by the Navy in the 1970s and was used on lettuce that was shipped to Vietnam.
Q. Granola and energy bars were also born at the Natick lab.
A. They are the crown jewel of Army-developed foods. It goes back almost a century to when the military was looking for some sort of emergency ration for soldiers. After World War II, they came up with this idea of a combat ration feeding system of freeze-dried food bars. You’d have everything from breakfast cereal and bacon and eggs to macaroni and cheese and pea soup. It never actually got fielded.
Q. How did those turn into the bars we eat today?
A. When NASA was looking for a way to feed astronauts, they decided to use the system with a small tweak. They turned the bars into small tubes so they wouldn’t release crumbs into zero gravity. In the early 1970s, the Natick center and NASA were able to create the very first intermediate moisture food, our first energy bar. The contractor on the product then went to work with all of the ready-to-eat cereal conglomerates to create the very first generation of energy bars. The second generation came in the mid- to late-1980s for athletes.
Q. What’s next in military food?
A. One of the trends in military feedings is an increasing reliance on packaged foods because it’s far and away the most cost-effective way of feeding soldiers. Shipping fresh food to battlefields and setting up camp kitchens and dealing with food waste is much more expensive than air dropping a bunch of packages. The army is considering moving to an all-grazing style of eating rather than meals.
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo talks about “Combat-Ready Kitchen” March 16 at 6 p.m. at Boston University, 725 Commonwealth Ave., Room 211. Her talk is part of the “Pépin Lecture Series.” For details, call 617-353-9852.