By Karen Fanning

Two-year-old hamburgers and three-year-old spaghetti and meatballs. Doesn't sound too appetizing, does it? But that's what will be fueling U.S. soldiers as they head into battle in the war with Iraq.

During the past decade, the U.S. Army Soldiers System Center in Natick, Massachusetts, has been hard at work concocting a menu of combat food items that not only appeal to soldiers' taste buds, but also stand the test of time.

"The processing is the same as that which is used for canned food," says Janice Rosado, a physical scientist at the Combat Feeding Directorate located at the Natick facility. "A heat treatment kills off any food-borne pathogens, like bacteria. This prevents spoilage and makes the food safe for soldiers to eat."

Besides having a minimum shelf life of three years, all food items must be able to withstand extreme temperatures—from a frosty -6° to a scorching 120 °F. Meals must also be able to survive a 2,000-foot drop with the help of a parachute.

Since 1993, the Soldiers System Center has added more than 120 new items to the Meals Ready to Eat (MRE) combat rations, thanks to feedback from Gulf War veterans. In recent years, soldiers have requested more vegetarian items and ethnic foods, such as seafood jambalaya and beef enchiladas.

Each MRE contains approximately 1,300 calories so that soldiers meet their daily calorie intake recommended by the Office of the Surgeon General. Besides calories, meals are packed with an appropriate mix of fats, carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, and minerals, to provide soldiers with the proper nutrition.

"If a soldier doesn't have the food, the energy, they won't be able to perform their duties," says Rosado. "If they don't eat well, they may not be able to march that extra mile or stay alert. Just like kids need to eat a good breakfast before they go to school, a soldier needs to eat well to be able to do his job."

Many soldiers perform their military duties more than 70,000 feet above Earth. For Air Force pilots on high-altitude reconnaissance missions, the Soldiers System Center has designed tube food—pureed meals and snacks that are bottled in toothpaste-like tubes. Thanks to these easy-to-handle containers, pilots are able to slurp down everything from sloppy joes to clam chowder without removing their helmets.

Warming up meals is no longer a hassle either. Flameless ration heaters have replaced portable stoves. Soldiers stuff their MRE pouches inside these small bags, which are filled with chemicals that, once activated, heat up the meals in 10 minutes.

The Soldiers System Center is also developing several high-performance foods, such as Ergo drinks and Hoo-Ah energy bars, which are designed to build soldiers' endurance and ward off exhaustion. In the meantime, its current menu is keeping troops strong—and ready for action.

"The well-fed soldier is the ultimate weapon," says Rosado. "You can have all the planes, all the guns, and all the ships in the world, but the soldier is still the key to any mission. You still need the soldier to operate the equipment and make important decisions."