PULLMAN, Wash. -- The soldiers of the future will require more than micro computers, better body armor and lethal firearms. They will also need macaroni and cheese.
Uncle Sam wants macaroni and cheese that will remain tasty and nutritious for three years after it is cooked.
Under a contract with the Department of Defense, food scientists at Washington State University are using microwave cooking technology to create a macaroni-and-cheese dish that can be used in the Meals, Ready To Eat field rations the military has produced for two decades.
The scientists are also trying to create egg and fresh vegetable dishes that will meet military specifications.
"There is no macaroni and cheese or egg products in MREs," said Juming Tang, a professor of biological systems engineering at the university.
Testing in microwaves
Unfortunately for military forces in Afghanistan, production based on Tang's research is several years away.
The MREs are soft-sided, sealed pouches that contain complete meals -- an entree, a starch, fruit, crackers, spread and dessert -- intended to sustain troops on the battlefield. They pack more than 1,200 calories into a small package with a three-year shelf life, even in hot, cold or filthy conditions.
The MREs can be dropped without parachutes from helicopters, and contain a chemical device that can quickly heat the contents, allowing for hot meals miles from any field kitchen.
But while beef, ham, turkey and chicken are among the two dozen entrees available, macaroni and egg dishes are not.
The intense, bacteria-killing heat from steaming or boiling the food inside the pouches fundamentally alters the color and consistency of pasta and dairy products. Eggs and cheese turn green and smell funny. Macaroni gets unappetizingly soggy.
Tang's team, which includes mathematicians, engineers, chemists and microbiologists, is using microwaves to fully cook the meals in the pouches in a fraction of the time. The fast cooking helps preserve the integrity of the food, he said.
The idea of using microwaves has been around for a long time, but until recently the packaging and some other technology was not up to the task of mass-producing field rations.
The pouches must be lightweight and flexible, thick enough to keep contaminants out and survive air drops, but thin enough to easily rip open.
In addition, the contents must be "shelf-stable," meaning they do not need refrigeration.
Microwaves cook foods to desired temperatures much faster than steaming or boiling. But a problem has been ensuring uniform temperatures inside the food pouches. One spot that isn't cooked enough can become a breeding ground for the bacteria that produce botulism, Tang said.
Food research is one of the missions of the U.S. Army's Natick Soldier Center in Massachusetts, which gave Tang a $460,000 contract for his research.
Keeping bacteria away
Tom Yang, a senior food technologist, said the first goal of researchers is to ensure that soldiers receive the 3,600 calories a day they need in the field. That jumps to 4,500 calories a day in cold weather.
The ideal situation is for soldiers to eat one MRE and two fresh meals each day, he said.
The food is actually cooked after the MRE package is sealed, to ensure no contamination gets in.
Tang said a key requirement is that the interior temperature of food reach at least the boiling point to kill potential toxins, and that can take up to two hours using conventional preparation methods.
Two hours of cooking "would degrade the texture of pasta into the consistency of cheesecake, and the cheese would taste burnt," Tang said.
Microwaves are a much more efficient way, hitting the required temperatures in food in about five minutes.
The research is being eagerly watched by Annie's Homegrown of Wakefield, Mass., the nation's largest brand of all-natural macaroni and cheese. The company has also tried to create a prepared macaroni and cheese product that is shelf-stable.
"It has to taste good and mimic all things about homemade macaroni and cheese," said vice president Lisa White. "Anything with dairy is not stable."
White believes macaroni and cheese would be an important addition to military rations.
"It makes common sense since it is one of the most popular American foods," White said. "Macaroni and cheese is viewed as a comfort food."
Boxed macaroni and cheese is a $600 million a year market.