MREs, or "Meals, Ready-to-Eat," aren't the most exciting culinary experience, but they are a daily fact of life for many US soldiers deployed around the world. They are calorie-rich and flavor-deficient, designed to fuel soldiers and last for long periods of time in harsh climates and conditions. And while the men and women of the US Army seem to get by fine on the prepackaged meals, there's never been research done on how MREs might affect their digestive systems. But a new trial is looking for volunteers to eat nothing but MREs for 21 days to study how soldier's stomachs handle them—and to make better meals.
Gut bacteria, the stuff behind the miracle-level fecal transplant that can cure even the most stubborn of C. diff. infections, is hot right now. Your gut flora or microbiota—the collection of bacteria living in your digestive system—is home to tens of trillions of microorganisms. This bacteria helps the body digest food, combat infection, and keep the immune system running, to mention but a few key functions.
"There's a lot of interesting and new research looking at gut bacteria, and how those gut bacteria interact with the human body," Dr. J. Phillip Karl, the study's lead researcher, told Army Times.
The study, conducted by the US Army's Institute of Environmental Medicine, will collect data from 60 or so participants who will be paid up to $200 for their service. Researchers will look at fecal samples, blood, and urine of participants to see what effect an MRE diet, washed down with only water or black coffee, has on the digestive tract.
Maintaining a healthy gut flora in soldiers on foreign soil, where local food options don't always go down so easy, is of key importance. The study will aim to find what sort of foods sustain gut health.
"Oftentimes, war fighters are overseas and they eat something off the local economy that can cause [gastrointestinal] distress," Karl said. "Potentially, what we could do by increasing the amount of beneficial gut bacteria is to help prevent some of that."
Just as importantly, gut health can help prevent infection.
"We think we can manipulate the bacteria in a way that helps the bacteria fight foreign pathogens—things that could cause food-borne illness, for example," Karl told Army Times.
The study will provide researchers the chance to try out new MRE recipes that can be made from current offerings to make mealtime less monotonous and more interesting, like "Bunker Hill Burritos," "Fort Bliss-ful Pudding Cake," and the "Canteen Irish Cream Latte." Findings from the study will also be used in developing new vegetarian and vegan options, which are increasingly in demand. It might be an uphill battle when cooking up ideas for meals that need to be able to withstand 100-degree heat for nine months, be compact, and contain a boatload of calories, but the Army would probably like to someday create MREs that are better received than meals of the past, which earned the nickname "Meals Rejected by the Enemy."
If you're between the ages of 18 and 62, live within driving distance of the study's Natick, Massachusetts home base, and are willing to endure 21 days of MREs and let the government test your body fluids in the name of science, feel free to sign up. There is the additional requirement that you can't be trying to lose weight.
If you're not up to task, though, and want to try an MRE very similar to the real thing, you can purchase them online. Unfortunately, unlike the prized French MREs, these contain no venison pâté or duck confit.