July 13, 2021
By Neal S. Shera
Many people in the survival community take inspiration from the military. This makes some sense as soldiers have to prepare, and excel in very primitive conditions. Military surplus equipment can always be found in some amount for any emergency preparation. Perhaps the most common, besides ammunition, would be military-grade food. More specifically, the Meal, Ready to Eat, or MRE. MREs have long been popular with many preppers due to their containing a complete meal in a self-contained package. The question though is, whether or not they a viable option for long-term use? Let’s start our examination by taking a brief look at the history and development of the MRE, and then take a critical look at their pros and cons.
How to properly feed an army in the field has been a problem ever since the creation of armies. The first attempt at alleviating this was by having the campaigning soldiers simply forage the surrounding areas. This is why there were campaign seasons. Armies could only subsist when sufficient food was available. Later, governments attempted to provide some sort of field rations to allow armies to be in the field year-round. During the American Revolution, the Continental Congress paid for supplies of dried beef, peas, and raw rice. Later, some of these were replaced by things like hardtack. Hardtack is that infamous biscuit known for being cheap to make and able to be stored for an incredibly long time. Although not particularly appealing to eat, hardtack became a staple of soldier’s meals.
As industrialization played a larger role in providing equipment and supplies, canned goods came into use for feeding soldiers in the field. By World War II the famous C and K-rations were standard fare for GIs. A letter designation system was a simple means of denoting what type of units received which ration. The food designated “A” and “B” were cooked either on base or in field kitchens. The other letters were used so certain rations were given to different units based on their caloric needs. A wax-sealed cardboard box of these field rations would contain breakfast, lunch and dinner. These field rations, while not very appetizing, proved to be shelf-stable for decades while providing ample nutrition. The main drawbacks to these early rations were their unappealing flavor, weight and bulk as they contained canned food.
As warfare evolved, the need for long field operations required a new approach for field rations. Soldiers in the field could carry only so many C-Rations due to their weight and bulk. Real changes were slow to come, but eventually, the C-Ration was replaced by the Meal, Combat, Individual or MCI. The only real improvement was there were now a larger variety of taste options. Even these improved rations were too heavy for infantry crawling through the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam. Soldiers had a difficult time carrying the 5 pounds per day of food, so they often gambled by cutting out parts of the MCI to save weight. Typically they would settle for a single complete meal per day, with some extra cans of crackers, cakes and fruit to supplement their diet until their next resupply.
One aspect of the MCI that would continue to see development after Vietnam would later become the MRE. The MRE program was to provide the lightest and most nutrient-packed food for airborne and special operations forces in the field. It also required a flameless heating system to reduce detectability. This was to replace the old folding stove and Trioxane heating tabs previously used for heating rations. The first variations on this new meal plan arrived in 1981, but the project has continually evolved ever since.
In 1990 the water-activated flameless heating was finally added. By 1996 the menu had 16 different meals and today it’s up to 24. You can look up online how these meals are grouped together, and buy cases with more of the meals you would like to eat. Many other items such as the individual beverages, and use of biodegradable packaging, have also been incorporated. Also, having other items like matches and toilet paper are nice little comforts. Some people who eat MREs for a little camp life on a regular basis will save unused components for extra supplies when needed later. Now, the gum included in the MREs is not specifically made to include a laxative, it’s a common myth that it does. The flavoring though does have a mild laxative component. So don’t rely on it for helping to relieve constipation.
One major problem with early MREs, and some later ones as well, was the taste, or lack thereof. The original MREs were intended to have a full 10-year shelf-life, but the need to fortify the food with the necessary preservatives left much to be desired in the area of flavor. This led to them being given nicknames like “Meals Rejected by Ethiopians” or “Meals Rarely Edible”. Later some concessions were made on shelf-life in order to make them more palatable. Even then some of the flavors seemed off, or bland compared to more civilian versions. Other components like the powdered beverages and squeezable cheese packets are taken right off the grocery store shelf. Other issues will be discussed later.
Now here is where the rubber meets the road as the old saying goes. Should MREs be something to consider for long-term use in an emergency? If you are considering bulk food storage, should you stockpile months’ worth of them to feed you and your family? There will be no sugar coating this, so it’s just time to be blunt. The US military has a hard recommendation to not eat solely MREs for more than 21 continuous days. Living only on MREs can lead to gastrointestinal discomfort and fewer bowel movements.
Now, this isn’t something new to anyone who has done research into any of the old food rations used by the military. Even the somewhat beloved C-Rations were not to be consumed for more than 15 days straight. To put it simply, the human body is not engineered to consume food presented in the manner in which an MRE is prepared. It’s very nutrient-rich and concentrated compared to what people eat on average. You have to understand that in order to make the MRE as light and as small as possible it’s necessary to remove nonessential filler. The average MRE contains 1200 calories with about 500 calories being fat. They all contain around 36 grams of protein and about 48 grams of sugar. Some have as much as 8 grams of fiber but others go down to as low as 2 grams.
So, depending on which combination of what two MREs you ate the amount of fiber is equal to about two apples or one hamburger bun on the average for the day. This type of prolonged diet has triggered many people into having an auto-immune response in their digestive system. Other issues include Type 2 Diabetes and Irritable Bowel Syndrome, but severe constipation and diarrhea are the most common. Diarrhea? Yes, because the body often overreacts to the massive introduction of fluids and laxatives used to relieve the constipation.
There are some means by which to help reduce the stress that prolonged consumption of MREs brings. Popping vitamin supplements and drinking the maximum allowance of water, 64 ounces are some of those ways. One simply has to have an alternative food source stored to eat along with the MREs. So, they may be great as a field ration or short-term use, but they are not ideal for long-term survival.
The other real issue comes down to the cost of MREs and their longevity. As previously stated, the MRE was designed to have a longer shelf life, but because of the limitations on the packaging, they had to rely heavily on preservatives which gave them a horrible taste. That was changed, and so the eating experience is now more pleasant, but a lot of longevity was lost. MREs are also very temperature sensitive, so a lot of care has to made about where to store them. There are charts available to break that down, and the military-issued cases have a tag that can be used as an indicator. Needless to say, they are not the best for real long-term storage. Canned or freeze-dried food stores are a better option if you are looking for long shelf life.
Now getting into cost is always an interesting factor because of the MRE market. There are price differences between surplus MREs and those that were made specifically for the commercial market. Surplus prices fluctuate more based on how much time left it has before expiration. Shopping websites to do price comparisons show that there is little price difference (15% variation) between MREs and common emergency-specific alternatives for 14- and 21-day equivalent stores. Also never buy MREs individually as there is no way to verify their expiration date. So, for very static situations there are much better alternatives to the MRE. On the other hand, an MRE is much more portable and requires a lot less water to accompany consumption. Many freeze-dried dishes require rehydration and extra water is just more weight if you have to be mobile. Those foods also require more access to potable water, which can be a constraint depending on your location. Most other highly portable foods just don’t have the caloric content for their weight.
All in all the MRE is an option to consider when it comes to food choices for survival situations. They work well for their intended purpose. They do have short-comings, especially shelf-life in a hot environment, which makes them a poor choice for storing in a vehicle. They do provide a lot of calories, are well packaged, and can be eaten hot or cold. For short-term use on the move, they can be a good option. For long-term use, you should probably consider exploring other options.
If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.
About the author:
Neal Shera is a long-time student of small arms history, design and reloading. A serious student of military history, armored vehicles and naval vessels he is also very interested in prepping.