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Making a Three Year Pizza

Posted February 27, 2014 12:00 AM by cheme_wordsmithy

Until I was introduced to the college cafeteria, I had a poor appreciation for good tasting food. Since my reform, I've considered food to be one of the greatest simple blessings we have to enjoy in this life. And among a great diversity of delicious foods found in American cuisine, pizza ranks near the top. It's popularity and demand is no different in the U.S. Army, which is why Natick's Combat Feeding Directorate has just created the first pizza fit for the battlefield.

Making pizza for the Army was no cakewalk, though. Field rations, called MREs (Meal, Ready to Eat), need to be designed to travel with the soldier into combat, and that comes with a plethora of requirements. To be considered combat ready, an MRE must have a shelf life of around three years at normal temperatures, and must be able to survive short exposure to temperatures ranging from -60 ºF to 120 ºF. The packaging, a four-layer plastic pouch weighing about one and a half pounds, must be able to survive a parachute drop at 1250 ft and a free fall drop from 100 ft.

The real challenge, though, is making MRE pizza look and taste like pizza under these specifications. The problem lies in people's natural response to food, especially familiar food. People are usually more turned off by imitation food that doesn't taste quite right than by a completely unfamiliar dish. This stems from what is called the "uncanny principle" well known to humanoid robotics, where the human brain is more accepting of a robot than an android (i.e. a robot that looks like a human). The brain says "this looks like a human, but moves like a robot - something is wrong".

Natick senior food technologist Michelle Richardson took on the task of eliminating this response by creating palatable Army pizza. To tackle this challenge, Richardson had to address each of the four main ingredients of pizza (bread, sauce, cheese, and meat) to get the right acidity, texture, and moisture content for each.

For the bread, Richardson used humectants (like propylene glycol or sorbital) to bind moisture within the bread to reduce the change of sogginess or bacterial growth. Gums and enzymes were used to hold the water inside the starch granules to prevent stale bread.

The sauce was made with a mix of glycerin, rice syrup, and other sugars, with a focus on keeping the moisture within the sauce.

The cheese needed to be a low moisture type to increase shelf-life, but needed the stringy and soft texture of higher moisture cheeses. The solution was to blend multiple cheeses and alter the cooking schedule to prevent browning.

The meat, pepperoni, is naturally inclined to molding due to its low pH. But osmotic dehydration (process used to dry fruits) and using nitrogen as the atmosphere for the packaging were used to inhibit bacterial growth and extend shelf life.

A number of versions of the pizza are being tested to see which ones meet the MRE specifications and also meet the expectations of the soldiers' tastebuds. And taste is important - long gone are the days of hardtack bread (a flavorless, rock hard cracker used by Union soldiers in the Civil War). Everyone should be able to enjoy their food, and I'm glad food engineering can make it possible for our soldiers too.

Sources:

Three-year pizza to join US Army MRE delicacies - gizmag.com

MRE and pizza image - gizmag.com

Hardtack image - warriorstrail.com

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#1

Re: Making a Three Year Pizza

02/27/2014 12:28 PM

Having designed Industrial pizza ovens for a large frozen pizza manufacturers, I can appreciate the science behind this.

Each ingredient heat sensitivity differs, along with the ingredients moisture content interfering with other ingredients among other things. Not to mention the science involved such as with boundary layers.

It can be a lot like a symphony in motion to get it all to come out in one bake and still make it Palatable.

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#2

Re: Making a Three Year Pizza

02/28/2014 11:10 PM

I showed this to my daughter who is in the service and she said after she started to read the ingredients and stopped...says it will be a big "fail". But then any MRE is great with enough Tabasco sauce!

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