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It's not delivery. It's MRE! Researchers seek secret to downrange pizza

Jan. 30, 2014 - 12:31PM   |  
(David J Kamm/Army)
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Military science is close to completing its most epic and delicious quest yet — to put pizza in a Meal, Ready to Eat.

“Since the dawn of time — almost — pizza has been one of the most requested and sought-after components in an MRE,” said Jeremy Whitsitt, of the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts. “We’re finally cracking the code in getting the crust and the cheese and the meat to all live happily in a pouch for three years, without refrigeration.”

Confronted by years of feedback from soldiers who have asked for pizza in MREs, military food technologists have finally harnessed technology that ensures the sauce will not soak into the crust and, after more than 1,000 days, it will still taste like pizza.

The next step is to test pizza varieties locally. Throughout August, officials will field test elsewhere in the U.S. If successful, it could go into production in 2015. Officials want the opinions of people who know MREs, so it’s likely to involve infantry.

And although it’s an Army project, all branches use MREs, so Marines, sailors and soldiers could eventually get a chance to chow down on pizza, too.

“Everybody loves pizza ... so it’s really something that we’ve been looking forward to,” said Whitsitt, a former soldier who works for Natick’s business operations office. “A close second would be beer, but I don’t think we’re close on that one.”

Natick goes to great lengths to gauge soldiers’ appetites, dispatching teams of food scientists, chemists and psychologists to test new foods, learning what and how soldiers like to eat. That’s because happy, well-fed service members perform better.

“It’s about providing things that are familiar to them when they are sitting 3,000 miles away on a mountainside in Afghanistan — to see something familiar, there’s an intangible benefit there,” Whitsitt said.

Enter Michelle Richardson, a senior food technologist who has worked at Natick for 24 years. Based on the research that went into nonsoggy, shelf-stable sandwiches added to the MRE in the 1990s, she has been looking for a pizza breakthrough.

The problem is that pizza has different components with different levels of moisture and acid — bread, sauce, cheese and pepperoni — and they have a great potential to combine into a soggy mess. Additives can help, but too much will hurt the flavor. And how do you make sure it doesn’t spoil?

Build-your-own pizza would solve a lot of the problems, but that would turn infantrymen into pizza chefs, so it was a nonstarter. Richardson said it’s not intended to be a war zone “Lunchables.”

“That would take time that the soldiers could be doing their mission (instead of making a pizza) and their hands are not always clean,” Richardson said.

Using trial and error, Richardson tried doughs with food-grade humectants, substances that bind moisture. The more tightly bound moisture molecules are, the less likely bacteria will grow or, for pizza, that the sauce will soak the crust.

To keep the bread from going stale, Army scientists used a combination of gums and enzymes, a departure from an expensive additive in shelf-stable sandwiches — another breakthrough, Richardson said.

To keep the moisture in the sauce, Richardson experimented with glycerol, a safe, virtually tasteless water binder. Scientists also evaluated rice syrup and different types of sugars before settling on the right mix.

“We actually have to add ingredients to the sauce. We can’t just take a sauce off the shelf because that’s no good,” Richardson said.

Alone, Natick’s low-moisture cheese browned when cooked, so scientists experimented with cooking times and temperatures, and have also looked at blends for the right flavor and texture.

A native of Rhode Island, which has a sizable Italian population, Richardson said she set the bar high.

“When I first started developing this, me and my daughter would go and taste pizza because I wanted to use that as my benchmark,” she said.

Finally, about a year ago, the effort began to come together. Richardson, after having some success with a focaccia bread she was developing, tried producing the pizzas commercially.

“That’s when it really took off,” she said.

It’s an exciting time for the team at Natick. There are several types of pepperonis and pizzas from which scientists hope to have soldiers evaluate and down-select before further testing.

“All of our scientists and engineers are proud that the work they’re doing directly impacts the morale, the well-being and quality of life of the war fighter on the battlefield,” Whitsett said. “All of the people here realize the importance of the mission we’re doing.”

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