June 10th, 2014
08:30 PM ET
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Lauren Oleksyk isn’t trying to bake the best pizza in the whole world, but she might be responsible for the best slice of a person’s life.

Oleksyk leads a team that's a critical link in the Army's material and supply chain. Its official name is the Food Processing, Engineering & Technology Team, Combat Feeding Directorate

While that title is certainly a mouthful, the team's mission is simple: Keep America’s warfighters fed and in peak physical shape under some of the harshest conditions on the planet.

See a full-sized version at CNN Money

Along with several other teams that are part of the Combat Feeding group, her FPETT group develops those Meals, Ready to Eat that you've probably heard about - and they're a far cry from your grandfather's K- or C-rations.

Oleksyk and the food team at the Natick Soldier Research, Development & Engineering Center in Massachusetts, must meet a wide battery of requirements for these modern MREs, including:

- Guaranteed shelf life acceptability for at least three years at 80°F or for six months at 100°F. (They’re indefinitely edible, but may not taste as good after the time lapse).

- Strict nutritional benchmarks (1,300 calories composed of 169 grams of carbohydrates, 41 grams of protein and 50 grams of fat, plus micronutrients such as vitamins, folic acid, calcium and zinc).

- Durable packaging that can survive temperature swings and a 100-foot drop from a plane and ideally generates a minimal amount of waste.

They’re the fuel that keeps America’s fighting force on their feet from the Arctic tundra to the hottest deserts. But that can’t work if the troops won't eat them.

“There’s a human factor to this,” says David Accetta, a former lieutenant colonel who now works as a public affairs officer at Natick. “It’s not just food. Not every soldier fires a weapon, but they do eat every day.”

That’s why every food item Oleksyk’s team develops - from kosher Florentine lasagna to caffeinated apple pie in a tube (for U2 reconnaissance pilots) - must pass muster from a panel of 40 trained “sensory panelists” for assessment at every step.

Each member of the group issues the samples a rating number from 1 to 9 in the categories of flavor, odor, texture and appearance. Foods that receive a rating of six or higher will move on to the next phase: testing by personnel out in the field.

“We ask them, ‘Do you like it? Is it good?’” says Accetta. “If you’re cold, wet, tired, hungry and eating this meal, good hot food can make all the difference."

That includes the mainly morale-based inclusion of 3.7 gram Tabasco packets along with the MREs. Oleksyk jokes, "There would be rioting if we got rid of those!"

They also include familiar sweets such as Oreos and M&Ms. And if the rest of the food in that meal is packed with edible performance optimizers such as caffeine, Omega-3 and curcumin (a turmeric derivative that acts as an anti-inflammatory), that’s even better.

“We’re out there to win, and we’ll take any advantage we can get,” says Accetta.

Currently, Oleksyk and her team are doing their part by developing a shelf-stable pizza, the single most asked-for dish of the past five years.

The department takes these requests seriously; the 24 MREs in rotation at any given time are based on requests, and they aim to combat “menu boredom,” she says. Pizza has been an uphill battle, mainly because there are so many components to consider - crust, sauce, cheese and toppings - and each has a different moisture and acidity level.

Oleksyk's team uses hurdle technology to work through these issues. They employ different formulations, construction methods and packaging to inhibit bacteria, control water and pH levels, regulate temperatures and introduce "oxygen scavengers" to ensure a slice of pizza baked today tastes just as fresh to someone ripping open the packet in the theater three years from now.

Or, possibly, four-plus years from now.

The day CNN visited the test kitchen in Natick, Oleksyk and her team, now two years into testing, were trying out a variety of commercial-grade edible films that provided a physical barrier between the components of the pizza to prevent "moisture migration." Some were taste-free, others were tomato-based and they all resulted in a dish that tasted pretty remarkably like pizza.

They're almost to the finish line, and the team isn't giving up any time soon. FPETT food scientist Michelle Richardson knows there is too much at stake. "Pizza is home. You look forward to pizza." That means getting the little details right.

"What we had tasted like pizza, but it looked wrong. You eat with your eyes, and you have to be able to identify this as pizza," Richardson said. She also rejected the notion of just encompassing the whole thing in a crust and eliminating the issue. "A pizza is not a calzone!"

Oleksyk is fighting the good fight alongside her team.

Even if though it won't be an artisanally crafted slice from a favorite coal-oven pizzeria back home, she says, "If you're a warfighter in theater, eating this meal in the dark with night vision goggles, it's going to be the best pizza you've ever tasted."

That's a victory any way you slice it.

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soundoff (45 Responses)
  1. KCole's Creative Corner

    Hello! I made a cooking blog that may appeal to you. I would greatly appreciate it if you would check it out https://kcolescreativecorner.wordpress.com The link is also in my profile. Thank you! :)

    May 29, 2015 at 9:43 pm |
  2. yum

    gotta wonder what chemicals are in it to make it last that long, meanwhile our Democrat and Republican Politicians are eating like Kings Ten Thousand Dollar Plate diners, with money they and their bankster buddies robbed from all of us.

    shows what they think of our troops...and of US

    August 10, 2014 at 9:39 am |
    • Denver Todd

      Yum, I think more importantly, MRE pizza will contribute to the war on women and must somehow be eliminated. Also, global warming is caused by some MREs, but not sure which ones.

      August 12, 2014 at 1:20 am |
  3. William Tate

    Having read this I thought it was very enlightening. I appreciate you spending some time and effort to put this informative article together. I once again find myself personally spending a significant amount of time both reading and posting comments. But so what, it was still worthwhile.


    June 22, 2014 at 12:04 am |
  4. bart

    You people in here would be amazed at what you`d eat after humping for a couple of days with little or no food. Monkey on a stick would be the cats meow ! I`ve eaten a lot worse the MREs.

    June 12, 2014 at 1:26 am |
  5. hurf

    who came up with the idea that MRE's need to last 3 years anyways? Nobody carries a 3 year supply of MRE's with them, if a soldier cant find food to eat before a normal expiration date then that 3 year MRE isnt going to save him from starvation.

    June 11, 2014 at 6:39 pm |
    • NODAT1

      wow I really don't think before you type

      June 12, 2014 at 7:16 am |
    • Ally

      Being shelf stable is important. 3 years may not be the kicker for a soldier, but MREs are also used for disaster preparedness. Anyone who has a disaster kit in their house would want it packed and ready to go. That food may be there for years until it's needed.

      June 12, 2014 at 2:40 pm |
  6. Janni J

    So if it has to go through all of that approval and testing. Who exactly were the people around when they made the Omelette MRE? Just wondering...

    June 11, 2014 at 4:49 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Funny you should ask! Every single person there I talked to said that was the single worst modern MRE they'd ever eaten.

      June 11, 2014 at 4:58 pm |
    • Carn E. Vore

      The omelet MRE by itself was bad. But the pack it came in had cheese and the little bottle of Tabasco sauce. So you took the omelet and broke it up, dumped the Tabasco in it, then mixed in the cheese and voila, it was tasty. Even better was if you had access to a microwave. Then you plopped the omelet out onto a paper plate, poured the Tabasco over the top of it, then squeezed the cheese evenly over the top. Nuke it for a minute and a half and it was a tasty breakfast.

      The one I could never eat was the spicy meatballs in tomato sauce. I would have heartburn for 12 hours after eating it.

      June 18, 2014 at 11:23 pm |
      • Kat Kinsman

        I actually tried a meatball one recently - not spicy, though. Pretty tasty! Not unlike Spaghetti Os.

        June 19, 2014 at 1:41 am |
  7. krehator

    When is sounds like it should taste good, it typically does not. The taste testers for this junk have no taste buds anymore.

    Granted, they are better today than many years ago, but don't fool yourself into thinking they taste good.

    June 11, 2014 at 3:07 pm |
    • mnbska

      taste is totally subjective. I often eat MREs when I'm just fueling myself while the family is out for a day or two. Tastes fine.

      June 11, 2014 at 4:15 pm |
  8. The Truth

    MREs are used for field and emergency rations. If you are eating MREs the taste is a heck of a lot more important then what its made out of. Anyone eating them will agree its not health food, but its something they can eat anywhere. If it tastes good that is even better. No one is going to get fat or have lasting health issues due to normal consumption of MREs over a military career. I know that out of personal experience.

    June 11, 2014 at 10:30 am |
    • Theonly

      Although...MRE's have lead to MRE's farts...and clogged bathrooms.

      June 11, 2014 at 1:17 pm |
  9. BEverly

    whats wrong with u people? These brave guys wants pizza then find a way to get it to them. I bet u are sitting on your fat asseswriting your nasty comments while waiting for the pizza guy. Go hang in the theatuer of war these guys r in and u will see the need the high levels of fats etc needed. While the rest of fat US citizens should eat their veggies. Moving and eating healthy here as i am taking my morning walk and typing too. Most of u consider eating pizza and watching TV multitasking.

    June 11, 2014 at 9:27 am |
  10. Bryan

    Why don't we worry about taking artificial fats (i.e. trans fat) out of the MREs first. Last time I went to the field I came across an MRE that had 6.5 grams for 1 serving.

    June 11, 2014 at 8:51 am |
  11. ajax06810

    Well. It's about time. I know that back in the day when we had bullets whizzing by our heads and we afraid of leaving cigarette butts on the ground behind us and going to the bathroom in a hole in the jungle was a very exposed and paranoid experience, we were always sayin', Man of man, would I love a pizza right now!

    June 11, 2014 at 7:21 am |
    • JCK

      Haaa as I opened a can of ham and limas with a P-38 in the Au Shau the last thing on my mind was the amount of sugar, fat, or salt in the mess. Cholestrol was not half as bad on my heart as a round from an AK.

      June 11, 2014 at 8:57 am |
  12. ABeliefIsNotFact

    I'd say ask any troop first to see if this is worth the money. Of course someone sitting on their fat @$$ trolling the internet wouldn't want to support efforts such as this. However, I think lunchables already solved this issue. Put everything in separate compartments. To 'bake' it, use traditional MRE flameless ration heater. Put the now assembled pizza in the bag with the flameless ration heater, and boom, fresh pizza. They could even package all the ingredients in plastic tube (like a frozen Popsicle tube) and harmonically separate the ingredients. All the person has to do is pull a tab on the outside of the plastic at the separator to break the seal between compartments and push the ingredients out onto the crust. Combine the 'Gogurts' concept with lunchables and you've decreased the waste factor, and made the process easier for 'on-the-go'. One piece of plastic for the ingredients, the MRE bag and heat source.

    June 11, 2014 at 5:07 am |
    • ABeliefIsNotFact

      Also don't forget that MREs are not just for troops; they also are used in natural disaster and emergency situations on the civilian side. We take for granted many things we use in our day to day lives that came from 'worthless' military spending...

      June 11, 2014 at 5:25 am |
  13. jcs6

    Why don't they just work on keeping our soldiers out of these stupid wars in the first place? Then they can just have bad pizza normally.

    June 11, 2014 at 4:52 am |
    • Benn

      Good logic, great idea, but impractical as long as you have the caliber of politicians we have today.

      June 11, 2014 at 6:48 am |
  14. utilitarian

    As a vet, I can tell you that this is ridiculous. Even if they could make a "pizza" in to a MRE it would be a waste of time. Literally, no one in the field has time for that kind of mess. Make more chili mac and jalapeno cheese.

    June 11, 2014 at 4:44 am |
    • Name*Antonio

      Amen! to the Jalapeño cheese. I wish all MREs had pound cakes too....

      June 11, 2014 at 9:40 am |
    • Carn E. Vore

      I don't think you know what "literally" means. And I don't think you know how much time military folks in the field spend twiddling their thumbs,

      June 18, 2014 at 11:26 pm |
  15. j0eschm0e1

    That is the dumbest idea EVER. Have you ever had a pizza dry out (in the box) while in the fridge? There's no rehydrating it at all, without making it into a gooey doughy trash item. MRE's are dried out and you add water to reconstitute before you eat. (Warm water is best) But pizza? Someone should be ashamed of ever thinking it up. I realize they are trying to help the mindset of the military individual, but really? Do these people realize how much of it will be wasted?

    June 11, 2014 at 4:42 am |
    • anytime_jason

      MREs are not dehydrated, you idiot. You don't need to add water to reconsitute them at all. The only ration that is currently dehydrated is the Cold Weather Meal, I think. That must be so they don't freeze before eating them.

      June 11, 2014 at 12:38 pm |
    • Carn E. Vore

      Apparently the only thing you've ever eaten from an MRE is the dried fruit. They are NOT dehydrated.

      June 18, 2014 at 11:28 pm |
  16. Don Parker

    This is an important issue. We must spend millions on this now!

    June 11, 2014 at 4:22 am |
  17. Kevin

    Is this project really necessary??? or simply a waste of tax money???

    June 11, 2014 at 4:09 am |
    • Soldier Supporter

      Are you a soldier? Didn't think so. STFU.

      June 11, 2014 at 6:45 am |
    • Old Enough

      They can use my tax dollars for this any time. Better investment than most.

      June 11, 2014 at 5:32 pm |
  18. Patrick Gauthier

    A pizza that would "live" for three years.... I would not feed that to my dog!!! Must be full of nasty chemicals. We do not eat fake Italian pizza anyway...

    June 11, 2014 at 4:08 am |
    • Benn

      Gee, I'll bet you're a pretentious bast@rd at parties, too.

      June 11, 2014 at 6:46 am |
    • JCK

      Never been in combat have you ? Trust me, if that is all there is to eat you will wolf it down and be thankful for it.

      June 11, 2014 at 9:00 am |
    • mnbska

      Which chemicals exactly? You should read up on something called "water activity" before assuming only bad things make food last longer.

      June 11, 2014 at 4:17 pm |
    • Old Enough

      Any food sealed in an airtight (barrier) pouch can be irradiated and last almost forever. A LOT of food you buy in the Grocery is treated like this, especially pre-packaged meats. Here is something you can do in your spare time, 1. learn to read. 2. do some research.

      June 11, 2014 at 5:35 pm |
  19. Sharkmann

    I bet this was funded by Domino's pizza. Only an MRE could be worse that a Domino's pizza.

    June 11, 2014 at 3:02 am |
    • Dan B.

      Domino's is a lot better than it used to be. I'd say Pizza Hut, and maybe even Papa John's, are a lot worse nowadays, IMHO.

      June 11, 2014 at 4:36 am |
      • Old Enough

        All of the above require the active ingredient: Beer.

        June 11, 2014 at 5:37 pm |
      • Carn E. Vore

        Yep. Domino's rocks nowadays. They reinvented themselves and beat Pizza Hut and Papa John's by a mile. Except for their wings...

        June 18, 2014 at 11:29 pm |
        • JellyBean@Carn E. Vore

          A late post, I know. Have you tried Little Caesars wings? Fan-fuking-tastic.

          August 12, 2014 at 8:30 am |
  20. better idea

    appetite supressant in the free food aid being sent to the al qeada and taliban, step the war up a notch

    June 11, 2014 at 1:37 am |
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