Anastacia Marx de Salcedo’s Combat-Ready Kitchen is an entertaining look at the work of the US Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center that manages to pack in a lot of the science behind food processing and preservation. The research sponsored or done by the Army since the Second World War has led, de Salcedo shows, to a lot of the techniques behind easy-to-prepare, ready-to-eat processed foods. On the more frivolous side, both Cheetos and the McRib trace their origins back to military products. More seriously, products like intermediate-moisture foods, energy bars, and plastic packaging all originate at least in part from that work.
De Salcedo frames her story by talking about the remarkable impact that Natick, which has a relatively small budget, has on the products that the commercial food industry, leading to the question of whether we really want us and our children to be eating like Special Ops. The pervasiveness of military-sponsored food research is certainly true, but casting the question as one that has anything to do with military sponsorship seems less than useful. Yes, Natick wants to have its developments commercialized – to lower the cost of production and increase the availability of supplies. But the US economy is littered with industries where the military played a formative influence and has then seen its influence dwindle. Just look at the US merchant marine (long subsidized and hired to keep it available for military purposes), airline industry (ditto, via the Civil Reserve Air Fleet), electronics, and computing (and leading to articles with titles like “Five Reasons Why Silicon Valley Won’t Partner with the Pentagon”).
Our supermarket shelves are filled with products with a military provenance not because Natick is remarkably good at influencing the food industry (though they are good), but because North Americans crave the rugged, imperishable, and cheap products that also make sense for the military. We may not have the foods that would be best for us, but it seems that – for better or for worse – we have the foods we want. That might change if someone could make the idea that health and food security was a national security issue stick. But that’s a whole separate conversation would cost a lot more than the fairly modest budgets the US military puts into food research.