After decades of requests from its soldiers, the US Army has finally engineered a combat-ready pizza for its latest Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) packs.

The pepperoni pizza entrée will be paired with Italian bread sticks, cheddar and jalapeño cheese spread, cookies, and chocolate protein drink powder.

Manufactured by Bridgford Foods, the pizza contains 280 calories, 12g of fat, including 5g of saturated fat, 0g of trans-fat, 10g of protein, and 2g of sugar.

Creating a shelf-stable MRE pizza is no piece of cake. For the last six years, Combat Feeding Directorate (CFD) scientists at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC) have been working with the commercial food industry to create a slice of pizza that lasts three years and withstands 80°F temperatures. In order to create heat-tolerant mozzarella cheese, scientists had to control moisture, pH and oxygen levels.

CFD director Stephen Moody said: “This product is a great example of using food science to meet the challenging and unique requirements for military rations.”

CFD deputy director Jeremy Whitsitt added:  “You know, for a pizza that has to last for at least three years…it’s pretty stinking good. Whenever we have sampled it with people, the primary comment that comes back is, ‘Hey, it tastes like the pizza I had last night that I put in the fridge’.

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“I think that is a great compliment when you think about bread, sauce, cheese and meat – all have to survive in the same pouch together for three years without going bad, or getting stale or mouldy.”

The new rations, which are available to all basic combat trainees, were displayed at the Pentagon courtyard in May, along with 50 other high-tech products designed to increase infantry squad lethality.

In addition, the new Close Combat Assault Ration pack was launched, containing a chocolate performance readiness bar, a New York-style cheesecake, vacuum-packed fruits, vegetables and Monterrey Jack cheese.

Creating healthier MREs

Initial prototypes were developed successfully in the CFD lab, which conducted three large-scale tests to ensure the pizza could be manufactured at two different locations. It also had to adhere to ‘detailed military specification’ for the nutritional profile.

The CFD has been developing new rations are not only enjoyable for soldiers but also to keep them strong. Enhancing nutritional value is crucial to improve soldiers’ cognitive functions and regulate digestion with gut microbiota. The new performance readiness bar is fortified with calcium and vitamin D, said to significantly increase bone density.

When comparing the pizza MRE to a typical pepperoni and cheese pizza from Domino’s, however, with exception of sugar content it is hard to see a difference in nutrition. The pizza MRE contains a similar number of calories, and total and saturated fats per 100g, as the Domino’s pizza, while the latter contains 2.4g more of protein. The Domino’s pizza also contains almost triple the amount of sugar, at 6.4g per 100g compared to 2.3g found in the MRE.

‘Meals, Rarely Edible’

According to Moody, US infantrymen have been asking for pizza in their rations since the modern MRE replaced the Meal, Combat, Individual rations (MCI) in 1981. Looking at MREs of old shows why.

The first five editions of MREs (1981-1985) included the notorious pork patty that has been reinvented throughout the years and is now called maple sausage; along with a sachet of applesauce, a chocolate-covered cookie, cheese spread, crackers, cocoa, and a spoon. The maple sausage entrée in 2015 contained 1,345 calories, 82g of fat (of which 26g were saturated fat and 3g were trans-fat), 39g of protein and 46g of sugar.

Nicknamed ‘vomelet’ by squaddies, another infamous entrée that made its last appearance in 2009 was the veggie omelette. It was ranked the number one worst-tasting MRE meal, according to American Grit, with the writers saying: “The veggie omelette was the most universally despised MRE that any one of our veterans ever encountered while serving. The military is not the first place that I think of when I think vegetarian-friendly.”

Nutritionally, the veggie omelette contained 656 calories, 51g of fat (23g saturated fat), and 40g of protein and 5g of sugar.

A conscious effort for better nutrition

The project signals the military’s conscious effort to bring better nutrition onto the battlefield. The pizza entrée contains significantly fewer calories, and less saturated fat and sugar than traditional MREs, while keeping protein high gram-for-gram. New inventions such as the fortified performance readiness bar add real nutritional value to the meals compared to older accompaniments, such as cheese spread and crackers.

The new pizza looks like it could be a hit with US soldiers who have long awaited its arrival – even though NSRDEC spokesperson David Accetta quipped: “You have to be cold, starving, exhausted to really appreciate them.”