Center Explores Combat Rations to Optimize Warfighter Capability
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
NATICK, Mass., Sep. 27, 2012 Is your body feeling run down from all those dismounted patrols? Take a bite of lemon poppy seed cake in your combat rations and feel the Omega 3 fatty acids baked into it ease that inflammation.
Having trouble staying focused, or feeling generally low? Try a serving of salmon in alfredo sauce, a combat ration under development that’s bursting with Omega 3s shown in tests to elevate one’s mood and improve cognitive function.
Starting to hit the wall, but unable to hit the sack or pause for a cup of Joe? Munch on a caffeinated meat stick in your Frist Strike Ration and get the quick energy charge you need to get through the mission at hand.
Food scientists at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center here are exploring ways to enhance service members’ warfighting capability through combat rations.
Caffeine, for example, is known to increase the ability to think clearly when fatigued or under stress. So in addition to coming up with a caffeine-infused meat stick, Natick food scientists are looking at other ways to deliver caffeine, possibly through a bar, gum or candy product, Jeremy Whitsitt, technology integration analyst for the center’s Department of Defense combat feeding directorate, told American Forces Press Service.
They’re also exploring innovative ways to boost physical and cognitive performance by lacing foods with naturally occurring compounds such as curcumin and Omega 3s, he said.
Curcumin is an anti-inflammatory supplement, and Omega 3s found in fish oils promote a broad range of functions, including reducing cholesterol and heart disease. New research also suggests they play a role in preventing traumatic brain injury -- an obvious concern on the battlefield, Whitsitt reported.
Natick food scientists started exploring dietary additives more than a decade ago to enhance what warfighters could do -- how far and fast they could move and how much they could carry, for example.
But the focus has shifted to preserving warfighter capability, explained Danielle Anderson, a food technologist on the Performance Optimization Research Team. “Now, we’re looking at them to see if there’s a way to enhance their immune systems, stop them from getting sick and stop the decrement that happens” during demanding combat missions, she said.
Ann Barrett, a senior food engineer, said the effort crosses several lines. “A lot of what we do is focused on load injuries, muscle strain and pain, because soldiers have to carry very, very heavy loads,” she said.
So as an alternative to popping excessive oral anti-inflammatories that can irritate the stomach or cause other gastrointestinal distress, she and her team are looking into ways to introduce natural ingredients that deliver the same benefits into combat rations.
And recognizing the health consequences of dirty environments in which warfighters often operate, they’re experimenting with prebiotics -- ingredients found in yogurt and other food items -- that stimulate “good” bacteria in the digestive system.
Fortifying combat rations with these ingredients isn’t as simple as one might think.
Omega 3s, for example, are less stable than many other oils. They tend to get rancid and develop a “fishy” odor and flavor over time.
That can be a problem when they’re incorporated into combat rations that have to stand up to stringent shelf-life and temperature requirements. Meals, Ready to Eat, individual combat rations, must be able to maintain their quality for three years if stored at 80 degrees Fahrenheit, or six months when exposed to more extreme temperatures.
As food engineers here develop prototype rations with fortified products, they subject them to some pretty intensive rigors. “We produce the food and store it for six months at high-heat conditions,” said Anderson, comparable to what they’d be exposed to during a three-year shelf life.
The next step is to assess how much of the Omega 3 oils get absorbed into the body. Barrett is writing the protocols to conduct human feeding studies, with hopes of completing them within the next few months. Once they get the required official approvals, she hopes to begin testing within the year.
The test subjects -- soldiers who pull 89-day duty tours at the Natick center serving as human research volunteers -- will eat the food, then have their blood drawn at various time intervals to measure Omega 3 levels in their blood, Anderson explained.
“Hopefully, what they will get from the stored food will be the same as [if they had eaten] the fresh food or taken capsules,” Barrett said. “That’s what we’d really like to see.”
Meanwhile, the Optimization Research Team is investigating other ways to enhance warfighter capability.
One project evaluated the use of condensed tannins found in fruits and beans to determine the health benefits. Another under way now involves phytochemicals -- compounds in cranberries and other fruits and vegetables -- to determine what happens to them during the digestion, and ultimately, how they help the process.
“We’re trying to find out the mechanisms behind what is going on when you eat food and it is introduced into your body, and how it turns into something useful,” Anderson said.
She emphasized, however, that the bottom line for all the research is to support the missions warfighters conduct -- not to create “super-warfighters.”
“The warfighter is not the same as a trained athlete doing the Tour de France,” she said. “We have to demonstrate that the product will be effective in a military-relevant setting. Everything we do here has military relevance.”