Cheetos, lunch meat and juice boxes were brought to you by the US military
Look in your lunch bag. Or, even better, look in your kids’ lunch bags. You might find a turkey and cheese sandwich on sliced bread, some Cheez-Its, a juice box, maybe something wrapped in cling wrap or tin foil. According to the new book “Combat Ready Kitchen: How the Military Shapes the Way You Eat,” the military has had a hand in every one of those foods and products.
Author Anastacia Marx de Salcedo says more than half the food in a supermarket has a military origin or influence.
“[In] the produce department where the military was involved in the development of something called Modified Atmosphere Packaging, which is now used for those packaged salads,” Marx de Salcedo writes. “There were all sorts of military influences in the meat department. Then, if you go in the center aisles of the supermarket, you have cans, you have freeze dried foods, including coffee. You have baking mixes. The spices and herbs because these are sterilized often using radiation which was something the Army worked on for almost four decades at the cost of 80 million dollars to the tax payer.”
Basically, if you eat processed foods, you’re pretty much eating gussied up military rations. How did this happen?
Well, after World War II, the military created a mandate. Companies like Kraft and Nabisco had to produce consumer foods that used military created food science invented to produce rations.
“And the reason for that is military preparedness. And that’s a policy that was put in place after World War II when the government decided that it never wanted to have to go through the experience of ramping up the country to enter a huge multinational conflict. So it decided to keep the military and the commercial sector that serves it in a state of readiness,” Marx de Salcedo said. “And that means that at any moment the military could engage and the commercial sector could quickly be switched over to production of military items.”
One of the military’s most profound culinary inventions was cheese powder.
“[They] took the powder and sent it overseas to Army cooks where it was used as an ingredient. After the war ended, there was a whole, little cheese dehydrating industry that had sprouted up and it had excess product and it also had no customers,” Marx de Salcedo said. “So it quickly turned to the grocery manufacturers like Kraft and Frito-Lay and Nabisco. It provided this cheese powder as an ingredient where it soon began to appear coating things like Cheetos and as an ingredient in things like mac and cheese and cheesy crackers.”
If you eat granola bars or energy bars, those were developed 100 years ago as an emergency ration.
“They started out, actually, as deliberately unpalatable chocolate bars because if you gave soldiers chocolate they wouldn’t save it and use it as an emergency ration, they’d eat it right away,” Marx de Salcedo said. “So the Army began adding oat flour and egg protein and some other ingredients to make it less tasty. That was first produced by Hershey for World War II and became the D ration.”
Marx de Salcedo says the military is still leading the way in food science. In the past couple decades, high process pressuring has allowed companies like Hormel to keep preservatives out of their deli meats. But on that note, she thinks packaged deli meats are the military’s worst contribution to modern eating.
“The military spearheaded this technique called ‘restructured meats’ in the 1960’s, which is sort of pasting together cheaper odds and ends with various ingredients,” Marx de Salcedo said. “Then these are stored in plastic packaging for a while. My sense is that’s something we don’t really want to eat much of at all, if any.”
Enjoy your lunch!
- Tune in to KIRO Newsradio on weekdays to hear Rachel Belle.
- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.