June 27, 2019 | 84° F

Center’s research improves packaging, quality of soldiers’ meals

Photo by Courtesy of Nick Romanenko |

Reiks Bruins, associate director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology, works on a sealing device at the center’s laboratory in Piscataway. One of the center’s projects is to turn a metal can into plastic.

Rieks Bruins said he hated eating spam in military meals as a solider in the 1960s. Now he is now working to develop better quality meals for the men and women serving over seas.

The Rutgers Food Development and Manufacturing Center has been actively working on making military meals more convenient, said Rieks Bruins, associate director of the Center for Advanced Food Technology.

“Our main mission is to make the product better and of higher quality,” Bruins said. “With the war still ongoing in Afghanistan, it is important to have these meals.”

In order to improve the meal and package quality, Bruins said he works with the food science department to establish which temperature range food can withstand.

“We try to identify the shelf life of the item and the temperature it can sustain ... the temperature number is color based and will change colors if it is exposed to too high heat so that soldiers know if it is spoiled,” Bruins said.

The meal packages are put in a temperature control box to test the sensory quality of the product and to see if the meals do not spoil, he said.

“This is a good experience because it allows professors and graduate students to work with real physical systems and to test what we can normally only do theoretically,” said Thomas Boucher, professor in the Department of Industrial Engineering.

The project aims to come up with an automated equipment for testing the packaged product for the amount of residual gas left in the package after is has been sealed, Boucher said.

“This involves using a sensor and is important because if there is a lot of residual gas there is a greater probability of spoilage,” Boucher said.

The research projects are funded from grants given by the Defense Logistics Agency after a proposal is written and sent to the government to receive the funds, Bruins said. He follows the progress of the research project’s course and reports it back to the DLA.

One of the projects involves packaging technology and changing a metal can to a plastic can so the container is less likely to deteriorate, Bruins said.

“When you think about how long and far these packages have to last, its shelf life is top priority,” Bruins said. “These products are traveling overseas on cargo vessels, it could take three months or more for the packages to arrive to soldiers in Afghanistan.”

Boucher said he believes the progress made with some military meals, called meals ready to eat (MREs), has been much more successful because of the new packaging.

The MREs are sealed in a brown package and can be made instantly, said University Army ROTC’s Maj. Valdon Daniels.

He said the meals are convenient for soldiers to eat on the go because the new packaging allows the whole meal to be carried in backpacks when on the move.

“When soldiers are in contact with the enemy they carry two days worth of food,” said Daniels, assistant professor of Military Science. “Unlike the older packages, there is now no need to sit down and camp to eat, which is important.”

The meals include different assortments of food in a single package, Daniels said. One pack can include meatloaf, mashed potatoes, a shortbread cookie, crackers and jam, tootsie rolls and tea and a smaller parcel contains gum, tobacco sauce, salt, matches and napkins.

“Today there is much more say for the soldiers,” Daniels said. “If for instance in a group of 12 cadets you have one who is vegetarian and another who keeps kosher, the meals can work around that. There are meals that do not have pork and allergies are kept in mind for all soldiers.”

The University Army ROTC students train every Friday at Kilmer Woods on Livingston Campus where each cadet receives an MRE for lunch, Daniels said.

By Elizabeth Kearns

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