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  Volume No. 16 Issue No. 6 June 2019  

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  “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat”
  By Robin Widmar

   “Americans eat more processed foods than anyone else in the world. We also spend more on military research. These two seemingly unrelated facts are inextricably linked.”
   Those are the first words on the dust jacket flap for “Combat-Ready Kitchen: How the U.S. Military Shapes the Way You Eat” by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo. The statement is both unsurprising and a little alarming, but it sets an appropriate tone as the author examines the relationship between how U.S. service members are fed and the ubiquitous packaged foods that crowd the American lifestyle.
   The problem of adequately feeding armies on the move is one that has plagued military leaders for centuries. How do you provide safe, long-lasting, edible provisions to thousands of hungry soldiers fighting in extreme environments? In “Combat-Ready Kitchen,” Marx de Salcedo examines the evolution of food (and food-like products) intended to fuel large numbers of people in combat conditions. On a very basic level, not much has changed between Roman times and the 21st century when it comes to feeding soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines. They require food that is nutritious (protein and carbs), palatable, easily transported, affordable and able to survive a variety of environmental extremes. Ironically, the same could be said for modern American families on the move between home, school and other activities.
   With that in mind, Marx de Salcedo makes a bold statement: “Your child’s lunch isn’t healthful, fresh or environmentally sound because it wasn’t designed for children. It was designed for soldiers.” She estimates that half of grocery store items have military roots or influence. For example, energy bars, the processed cheese found in goldfish crackers and long-lasting bread all can be traced back to research and development efforts aimed at feeding military personnel.
   Preserving and transporting food on a scope to feed an army have posed significant challenges since ancient times. Marx de Salcedo combines history with the science behind various food preservation methods to show how military provisions and food science have progressed. She delves into partnerships among the government, universities and private industry to resolve important issues surrounding food preservation and packaging.
   Significant advancements were made; but, according to Marx de Salcedo, “In the universe of processed food, World War II was the Big Bang.” Faced with an unprecedented number of mouths to feed in far-flung locations and extreme climates, the U.S. military relied on the food industry to research, develop, and supply shelf-stable, nutritious and portable rations. After the war, food companies were allowed to benefit from their military-backed efforts to help ensure that food production could be quickly ramped up in the event of future conflicts. Recognizing the commercial potential, these companies began marketing their newly developed products as time-savers in the kitchen. The result? Myriad products we now purchase and use on a daily basis. Energy bars. Bread that stays soft and fresh for days: instant coffee, plastic cling wrap, juice pouches and processed pasteurized cheese products.
   Unfortunately, convenience has side effects. Certain types of plastic became a cost-effective solution for keeping food fresh while simultaneously lightening the load for combat forces. More recently, though, more attention has been focused on plastic’s problems than its benefits. These range from leaching contaminants into food to lack of biodegradability in the landfills. Marx de Salcedo points out that because the long-term effects of chemical food additives and exposure to all that plastic are as yet unknown, “We're the guinea pigs.”
   “Combat-Ready Kitchen” is based on more than two years of research by the author, and framed by her personal experiences as a mother, home cook and writer. Although some passages are a bit long-winded, she mostly succeeds in keeping the narrative interesting and readable by interjecting occasional witticisms (such as referring to problematic meat shipments during the Spanish-American War as the “Cuban gristle crisis”). The volume of information presented makes this a book to read for its educational value more than its ability to entertain.
   As for Marx de Salcedo’s declaration that we are feeding children like special ops soldiers, the bigger picture may not be quite that dire. By her own thorough research, Marx de Salcedo has established clear connections between the military’s efforts to feed its personnel and those ever-present boxes, bags, cans, jars, bottles, and pouches on grocery store shelves. However, the overall safety and reliability of the modern food supply system has also benefitted from extensive food research, military-backed or otherwise. The Institute of Food Technologists stated in a 2010 online article: “Our food is largely safe, tasty, nutritious, abundant, diverse, convenient and less costly and more readily accessible than ever before.”
   Another point to consider is that processed and packaged foods are not inherently evil. There is, however, a significant difference between a package of minimally processed frozen broccoli and a bag of Nacho Cheese Doritos.
   Readers should take “Combat-Ready Kitchen” for what it is: an intriguing study of the evolution of food technology as it relates to both nutrition for military personnel and modern commercial food production in this country. It is not a food industry exposé like Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” While there is little doubt that some of the processes and additives discussed in this book can be detrimental to human health, any detailed examination of what goes into our food should be undertaken separately.
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