Home / Technology / BioScience / New food technologies to enhance soldier perfomance for success in military operations.

New food technologies to enhance soldier perfomance for success in military operations.

With nutritional status being central to success in battle, food technology has long been considered an enabler for military operations. Food technology has been instrumental in ensuring that troops remain “fit to fight”. Early military leaders realised that how well their men were fed played a crucial role in success on the battlefield. Napoleon Bonaparte famously observed that “an army marches on its stomach”; that is, access to adequate quantities of nutritious food is a prerequisite to success in battle. Moreover, the relationship between food technology and war is two-way: the need to keep troops well-fed has also been a stimulus for the development of new food technologies.

Fresh foods spoil within days or even hours production. This has given rise to development of technologies for preserving food. Early food technologies produced flat bread, hard biscuits, cheese and salted meat, allowing Roman legionaries to carry rations for several days. Canning was invented in the late 18th century in response to the French Government’s offer of a substantial reward to the person whose invention would allow troops to carry their food when marching long distances.


World War II saw further advances in the form of stable and palatable canned meals, compressed cereal bars, candy-coated peanuts and other innovative foods in US combat rations. Two significant technology breakthroughs in the second half of the 20th century have altered the form of military rations. Freeze drying matured as an industrial technology, allowing the production of long-life, light-weight rations.


Three innovations in food technology of special value to the military occurred after WWII—flexible packaging, retort pouches and freeze drying. Flexible packaging, based on plastic laminates, led to reduced weight and less waste disposal through the development of retort pouched meals (meals in flexible packaging that have undergone heat sterilization), which have largely replaced metal cans in combat rations.


Improvements in quality of military rations, particularly their organoleptic properties, are emerging through application of innovative technologies such as high-pressure thermal processing, pulsed electric field, and microwave assisted thermal sterilization. Research and development of “functional foods”, such as those containing added essential fatty acids or probiotics offers the potential to provide combat rations that can further improve soldier health and performance.


Thanks to technological advancements, especially those made in recent decades, those serving today have access to an impressively wide range of edible options that are nutritionally dense, extremely portable and actually taste pretty good — at least for something with a shelf life of three years.


The biggest and most influential developments in feeding troops came about in the late 1970s and early 1980s with the creation of today’s most familiar rations: the Meal, Ready to Eat, or MRE. Thanks to major developments in food processing and packaging over the previous decades, the U.S. military was able to develop rations that were much lighter, more flexible and stable in a variety of environments and actually tasted better.


Chief among those developments was the retort pouch, a flat package made of plastic laminate and metal foils that could be filled with food, sealed and boiled to sterilize it to make it shelf stable. Because the packaging is flat and thin it could be sterilized much more quickly than metal cans, which in turn helped maintain better tasting food. Also, because the retort pouch is more compact and lighter than the rigid can, it reduces both bulk and load carriage.


Military food requirements

Surveys from recent wars have found dismounted ground combat troops carrying 90 to 140 pounds or more in combat. U.S. ground troops today carry an average of 27 pounds of personal protective equipment (body armor and helmet). This weight comes on top of an already heavy burden consisting of a weapon, ammunition, food and water, batteries, and other gear. Heavy loads reduce mobility, increase fatigue, and reduce mission performance.


In 2018, seminar was sponsored by Army Management Studies Board and organised by the ASC Centre and College, Bangalore to discuss food tech. The diverse cultural diversity of the Indian nation reflects in its army. Unlike armies elsewhere, the Indian palate has diverse tastes, and so does its Army. And given the different terrains it is deployed in, the food supplied to the army also requires diversity, culinary quality, nutrition as well as longevity.


Speaking at the event, Lt Gen Vipan Gupta said that “It was a historic event for ASC Centre and College.” Pointing out that Indian Army personnel serve in high-altitude and super high-altitude environments, dense jungles and deserts, he said that, “in some places, the conditions are so severe that survival becomes a challenge.”


The seminar focussed on leveraging food technology to help combat the ill effects of harsh weather and terrain. Institutes such as Central Food Technological Research Institute and Defence Food Research Laboratory showcased their products such as Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) Ration packs for tank and submarine crews and different kinds of cereal bars.


The industry experts, academia and Army personnel seemed to agree that functional foods, nutraceuticals and other dietary supplements in terrain specific rations would go a long way in mitigating ill-effects.



Army Researchers Working to Boost Soldier Performance

A push to prepare warfighters for multi-domain battle and conventional warfare has sparked a renewed interest in Army modernization. At the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, researchers and scientists are developing supporting equipment and looking for ways to enhance human performance. Research at the center covers a variety of focus areas, such as nutrition, biomechanics and neuroscience.


Researchers at Natick also examine nutrition requirements for soldiers in an operational environment. “We use operational stressors like exercise, sleep deprivation, altitude exposure, exposure to heat, to understand how those stressors affect physiology and therefore affect what you should be consuming,” said Stefan Pasiakos, nutrition physiologist and deputy chief of the military nutrition division in the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. There are already guidelines for athletes developed through organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine, but the Army looks to see how various nutrition standards hold up in an operational environment.


For example, researchers are looking to find the best dietary protein requirements for various scenarios, Pasiakos said. These studies examine the amount of proteins soldiers should consume and the right formulation of those proteins’ components. “There is a general understanding that requirements are likely higher because they’re physically active,” he said. “But it means more to understand what protein requirements should be in the combat rations, and do the way that they consume that dietary protein actually matter at work?”


The findings from the nutrition division feed into the development of food such as meals-ready-to-eat, or MREs, and the close combat assault ration, which are created at the combat feeding directorate. Julie Smith, a food technologist in the directorate, said her team is working to increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables to soldiers on the battlefield. Researchers have tested out ideas such as incorporating dehydrated fruits and vegetables into smoothies and pouches with spouts, she noted. “Obviously having a fresh apple is not going to work for the MRE because it has a shelf life of three years at 80 degrees Fahrenheit and six months at 100 [degrees],” she said.


They are trying to identify different alternatives to get more fruits and vegetables within the MRE. The directorate is also making improvements to the close-combat assault ration, which is designed to sustain units for seven days without resupply. By using microwave vacuum drying technology, the service is working to shrink down everything in the package to be light and easy to transport. Many of the foods, such as cheesecake, are shrunk into a bar form. The Army wants items “that are quick and fast that they can kind of just grab and go and something that [they] can break down and put in their pockets,” said Meg Walker, another food technologist at the directorate. The close-combat assault ration is more mission-specific, but similar technologies can be used for both rations, Smith noted.


“The goal is to have lightweight, low-volume rations,” she said. The meal-ready-to-eat will never be the same as the close-combat assault ration, “but it can incorporate some of those high calorie components within it,” she added. “We are looking at nutrient density of the MRE, but our purpose of the MRE is a general-purpose ration that’s acceptable by everyone.”



Freeze Drying

This process was first patented in 1945 by Jay Hormel to make preserved foods. It involves cooking the meal, quickly freezing it, and then placing the frozen food in a chamber under high vacuum—typically about a thousand times less than air pressure—and gentle heating. Under these conditions the ice crystals sublime directly to gas until a very dry, solid food with microscopic pores remains. Unlike the situation with conventional hot-air drying, there is minimal alteration of the physical structure of the food, and nutrients are better retained. The food therefore rehydrates more readily, retains more flavour, and the very low moisture (< 2% by weight) inhibits both microbial and mould growth, giving the food a long shelf life even at elevated storage temperatures. Removal of most of the water content of the food also results in an ultra-lightweight meal.


One major factor restricting the variety of food available to troops in the field is the limited shelf life of many processed foods. Most nations have strict requirements for shelf life of combat rations. As examples, Australia’s general purpose combat ration (Combat Ration One Man) is required to have a shelf life of 24 months when stored at 30 °C, while the US Army specify a shelf life of 36 months at 27 °C for the MRE.


Among technologies that were recently developed and are being studied for their potential to enhance combat feeding are pulsed electric field (PEF), microwave assisted thermal sterilization (MATS) and high-pressure processing sterilization (HPS). These technologies are capable of producing high-quality combat ration foods that have undergone less heat degradation than traditional thermal retort processes. Consequently, they have higher nutritional quality and better organoleptic properties.


PEF applies pulses of high voltage to food placed between two electrodes for periods of around one second. This leads to inactivation of micro-organisms, while minimising the energy required for processing foods . PEF has been trialled for combat rations,  but requires further development to be fully proven under commercial conditions. MATS technology uses 915 MHz microwave energy to penetrate and rapidly heat the packaged food. It has been developed for military applications by Washington State University and pilot machinery is being used commercially to make trial products. HPS has been derived from High Pressure Pasteurisation (HPP) by us using higher temperatures, pressures and times to achieve greater inactivation of spores than can be achieved by HPP. MATS in particular shows the potential to produce foods that not only retain a high proportion of the initial nutritional value, but also a high level of acceptability for several years after manufacture.


The combination of pressure and temperature inactivation can achieve sterilization with less degradation than thermal processing alone. MREs can be sterilized in their packaging. However, the industrial machinery to achieve the conditions is capital-intensive and also still undergoing development.


In concert with the development of sterilization technologies is the introduction of Continuous Product Improvement (CPI) concepts in both the USA and Australia. CPI has seen the steady improvement of combat rations whereby items are replaced or upgraded depending on feedback from soldiers, and on a structured program of sensory evaluation of ration food and beverage items. Consistent with CPI is the trend towards making greater use of “functional foods”, i.e. foods that are designed not only to provide basic nutritional needs but that have also been modified to deliver specific health benefits. Two examples are the use of probiotic bacteria to maintain digestive health, and the incorporation of omega-3 fatty acids for reducing inflammation and maintaining mental health. The advent of functional foods also shows promise for improving soldiers’ health and performance during periods when they rely exclusively on combat rations for food.


DIHAR technology will eliminate the need for consuming canned food by the armed forces at a higher altitude

Defence Institute of High Altitude Research (DIHAR), a DRDO’s laboratory and research entity for developing agri-technologies for higher altitude and cold desert areas, recently announced that it has developed a ‘micro-green’ or hydroponic technology to help soldiers grow fresh fruits and vegetables, without soil. The new method eliminates the need for consuming canned food by the armed forces and helps them grow fresh vegetables inside their bunkers in just 10-12 days.


According to a media report, DIHAR, under the ministry of defence, the team tested this technology in 64 posts, where they grew fresh vegetables such as radish, cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage and cucumber inside the bunker. The scientists used coco peat (coir from coconut) soil and low-intensity light inside the bunker to germinate the seeds.


Dr Narendra Singh, additional director of DIHAR, Leh-Ladakh, said that the result has been promising. The army has accepted the ‘micro-green’ technology and asked them to replicate it in more than 1000 posts along the Siachen Glacier, he added. With this, the Siachen troops will now be able to grow fresh vegetables that are rich in nutrients, contain negligible fat and zero cholesterol to boost immunity levels. Also, help them overcome health problems such as hypertension and gastro-intestinal ailments caused by tinned food.


Dr Narendra Singh, additional director of DIHAR, Leh-Ladakh, said that the result has been promising. The army has accepted the ‘micro-green’ technology and asked them to replicate it in more than 1000 posts along the Siachen Glacier, he added. With this, the Siachen troops will now be able to grow fresh vegetables that are rich in nutrients, contain negligible fat and zero cholesterol to boost immunity levels. Also, help them overcome health problems such as hypertension and gastro-intestinal ailments caused by tinned food.


3D food printing for tailored military rations

3D printing technology for food continues to advance. The 3D printing technology will be fundamental to the way people interact with food in the future. Supermarkets are already testing to 3D print customized cakes, restaurants are offering printed desserts. Some even claim that there will be a 3D food printer in every home in just two years.


Most food 3D printers use extrusion 3D printing technology, much like regular desktop FFF (FDM) 3D printers. Instead of using plastic material, though, food 3D printers use paste-type ingredients. The most common ingredients are chocolate, pancake batter and cream, although there are many other possibilities (even pizza!). They are 3D printed layer after layer, generally through a syringe-like extruder.


This technology uniquely offers customizability, which is as yet an unexploited advantage for fulfilling an individual’s preferences or specific nutritional needs. Application of this technology to military field feeding could in the future provide highly tailored ration components that meet the Warfighter’s real-time nutritional needs and preferences. Furthermore, placement of 3D printers on or near the battlefield could be logistically beneficial by reducing reliance on typical thermostabilized ration components, which have a mandated 3 year shelf life, and in which quality can degrade over time.



About Rajesh Uppal

Check Also

Empowering Lives and Enhancing Combat: Emerging Technologies in Robotic Suits and Military Exoskeletons

In recent years, the intersection of technology and healthcare has witnessed remarkable strides, particularly in …

error: Content is protected !!