When I was a kid, my dad, who was in the military, showed me an MRE (meal ready to eat). To my impressionable young eyes, it was like looking at food from the future. MREs have come a long way since then, and two separate projects from NASA and the Department of Defense could show us the future of food packaging tech that will one day reach store shelves.
Mars is a long ways off and last I checked, there were no bodegas to pop in at along the way. That’s why NASA is creating new ways to store food to keep it from spoiling over the course of its planned three-year mission to Mars sometime in the 2030’s. WIRED UK has a great write up of the work the space agency is doing to prepare for the journey.
Food scientists at NASA need to think of ways of preventing food from spoiling or making astronauts sick, all while ensuring the food maintains its nutritional value, caloric levels and taste. Oh, and by the way, it can’t take up too much space given the cramped quarters of a spaceship. To achieve this, NASA is experimenting with different ways of freeze drying, thermostabilizing (blasting with heat in a sterile environment), and new types of moisture and oxygen resistant packaging.
Closer to home, Food Business News wrote about how the Department of Defense has a Combat Feeding Directorate that comes up with ways for food to travel and survive in harsh conditions. Because these ruggedized meals are carried by soldiers, this food packaging must also be compact and lightweight. During a recent talk at the Future Food-Tech conference, Stephen Moody, director of the Combat Feeding Directorate, said that food for the military has to withstand high altitudes as well as extreme hot and cold temperatures. He told the audience that “our products are required to last for three years in 80 degrees Fahrenheit and six months at 100 degrees Fahrenheit.”
While these food packaging projects are limited to military and space applications right now, there’s a good chance breakthrough technology developed by these agencies will eventually wind up on our store shelves. These new types of packaging could possibly improve food safety during transportation to deliver aid to remote places, or help reduce food waste by extending shelf lives.
At the very least, perhaps we’ll get our hands on the technology that finally gave the Army shelf-stable, combat-ready pizza for MREs.