Three weeks, nothing but packaged, ready-to-eat meals.
It’s not a far-flung mission, nor is it a lost wager — it’s how Army researchers hope to discover how new knowledge of the digestive process could improve future Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MREs.) The work could even help protect soldiers from sickness while deployed.
Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing study, run by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine’s military nutrition division:
1. “Gut health” goals. Researchers want to learn how MREs effect the trillions of bacteria housed in soldiers’ digestive systems — microorganisms that, when fed properly, can benefit overall wellness.
By finding a base level of these bacteria under study conditions, researchers can determine how to improve MREs when it comes to minding what study head Dr. J. Philip Karl calls “gut health.”
“There’s a lot of interesting and new research looking at gut bacteria, and how those gut bacteria interact with the human body,” Karl said, adding that an “explosion” in research technology over the last decade allows researchers to “really get an understanding that we never have before.”
2. Nutrient addition. As the study continues into 2016, Karl’s team plans to determine what bacteria fuel — indigestible carbohydrates, for instance — might be lacking in the MRE menu.
By working with fellow researchers at the Army’s Combat Feeding Directorate, they can begin to incorporate these nutrients into the meals. Plant-based materials proven to benefit the bacteria could be extracted and included in a First Strike energy bar, for example.
“Research will give us some idea of what we think will work, we’ll go and test do make sure it’s doing what I think it’s doing, and at that point it starts to get incorporated into the rations,” Karl said.
3. Reaping the rewards. Soldiers may not notice the tweaks made to MRE recipes, but the changes could effectively weaponize the rations for use against other digestive threats, Karl said.
“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,” he said.
“Oftentimes, war fighters are overseas and they eat something off the local economy that can cause [gastrointestinal] distress. Potentially, what we could do by increasing the amount of beneficial gut bacteria is to help prevent some of that.”
Karl also pointed to emerging research into the cognitive benefits of “gut health,” which could improve soldier readiness in the often-extreme conditions that require a regular diet of MREs.