The military pizza that lasts for three years

Prototype pizza Image copyright AP

Military scientists are perfecting a pepperoni pizza that will last for three years and feed troops in the field. It's the holy grail of long-life foods, writes Tanvi Misra.

The US Army's research centre in Natick, Massachusetts, is developing what is arguably the trickiest of all foods to put in the long-life Meal, Ready to Eat (MRE) pouches that soldiers eat as field rations. It's a pepperoni pizza that will last three years in temperatures of 27C (80F).

Developing a long shelf life for pizza and other bread products has been a "culinary Herculean task", says David Accetta, spokesman for the centre. Bread can quickly get soggy and stale, making it a target for mould. Scientists have now figured out how to use common ingredients like sugar, salt and syrups - called humectants - to bind water and keep it from the dough. They also played around with the acidity, achieving a pH level for the pizza components that makes them inhospitable to bacteria and oxygen. Oxygen-free packaging is also key.

It means pizza will join the ranks of long-life MREs. Accetta himself was deployed three times to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. During his first deployment, there were only 12 MREs and some - including tuna and noodles - left a lot to be desired. Even if you liked all 12, you'd easily get "menu fatigue", he says.

There are now 24 choices. Everything from beef stew to Mexican and Italian specialties that reflect "the diversity of American culture and its military", are present on the list, notes Accetta. The "more trendy" options like the chicken pesto pasta sound "like something you'd get in a restaurant".

Brandon Schraub, a member of the National Guard in Texas, served in Iraq and Afghanistan and says he has had his share of MREs. "It's not that they taste terrible, it's just that they're not home, you know," he says. He longed for real steak and potatoes in the rations.

The pizza is part of a drive to make MREs better and more varied. It's not ready yet. There are shelf life tests and soldiers will have to give their verdicts on the taste.

"It's a lot better than I expected, better than a lot of frozen pizza," Accetta says.

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