Guest post by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo:
Who hasn’t given her child an energy bar for a rush breakfast, lunchbox treat or quick pick-me-up between afterschool activities? In our household, our three girls go through them by the boxful.
But would you feel differently if you knew the snacks were developed as emergency rations for soldiers? The first version was an oat-flour-fortified chocolate bar, the World War II D Ration. The next was a system of freeze-dried bars, including cereal and dessert, that—as bite-sized cubes—went up into space. The final version, developed jointly by the Army, NASA and Pillsbury, is the soft and chewy energy bar we have today and was first munched during the 1971 Apollo 15 mission.
In fact, many of the processed foods found in supermarkets—or the key technologies used in making them—were originally created to feed troops during battle. Items as varied as TV dinners, supermarket bread, spices and herbs, cling wrap, soft cookies, juice pouches, refrigerated guacamole and even active, dry yeast all have a military origin or influence.
The reason sounds like a conspiracy theory. The U.S. military actually has a mandate to get the food science it uses in rations into the commercial sector. It’s part of our country’s general policy of preparedness, put in place after World War II in case there was another global war. And what it means is that the Army needs to be able to ask the food industry—at a moment’s notice—to convert their production lines to rations. Or, better yet, that those companies already manufacture food that meet military specifications… As is the case with many products we mothers buy.
But what the army seeks in creating rations isn’t necessarily good for consumers. First and foremost, a ration must be imperishable—able to be stored at 80 °F for up to three years without becoming dangerous or disgusting. It must also be able to withstand rough treatment and extreme temperatures, be affordable, and appeal to a very wide range of palates.
To store food for such a long time, the military—and, following suit, the food industry—turns it into what is essentially a food-flavored shelf-life system—with many of the ingredients there to reduce microbial growth, enhance stability over time, or mask flavor deterioration.
Take, for example, a chocolate chip Clif bar. Of eleven ingredients listed, fully five are a sugar or sugar product—in fact, the carbohydrates account for three-quarters of the bar’s 240 calories. The first (greatest by weight), organic brown rice syrup, and fifth, cane sugar syrup, add sweetness, but perhaps most importantly, they reduce microbial growth and impart a soft and chewy texture. (The other sugars are chocolate chips, date paste and molasses powder.) Two of the other major ingredients, the trademarked ClifPro and ClifCrunch, are engineered soy protein and engineered plant fiber, which thicken the dough and help create a uniform texture. All are very cheap. Yum-O!
Although the FDA gives these functional ingredients Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) status, many are chemically or biologically synthesized in laboratories and may never before have been eaten by humans or at least eaten in such qualities and over such an extended period. Research on how these substances affect long-term human health is just beginning, but already such things as emulsifiers and chemicals in food packaging have been implicated in obesity and diabetes.
Now when I go to the supermarket, I let my girls pick out just one sugary treat— and that includes energy bars! As for snacks, what’s quicker, easier or more nutritious than a handful of nuts or seeds and dried fruit?
Anastacia Marx de Salcedo is the author of Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat which shows how the Defense Department plans, funds and spreads the food science used in rations to consumer food items. She’d love to hear from you—on Facebook , Twitter OR handle @CombatKitchen} or by email.