The Science Behind the U.S. Military's Super Sandwich

Chris McGrath, Getty Images
Chris McGrath, Getty Images

The U.S. military has a fraught history with food. During the Civil War, soldiers munched on tooth-cracking hardtack and salt pork. By World War II, it was SPAM and M&Ms. During the Cold War, the military introduced the world to survival crackers, a.k.a. Doomsday Biscuits.

But there’s always been one problem with most of the items on the menu: Few tasted very good. Hardtack regularly contained worms. Soldiers liked to call SPAM “ham that failed the physical.” The Chicago Tribune once claimed that survival crackers were “better as weapons.”

The challenge facing battlefield rations—called “Meal, Ready-to-Eat,” or MREs—has always been multifaceted. The Seattle Times explains it nicely: "To qualify for MRE duty, a food item has to be able to survive years of storage in a dank ship’s hold or a sun-baked shipping container, withstand Arctic freezes and tropical monsoons, stave off assaults by insects, and remain intact through a parachute airdrop or a free fall from 100 feet.” Taste, as a result, has been woefully neglected.

In 2002, researchers at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts took the first tangible steps toward fixing that by concocting the world’s first “Super Sandwich.” Resembling a hot pocket, the prototype—which contained fillings like pepperoni and chicken—could last up to two or three years in temperatures of 78 degrees without spoiling or getting soggy. (At 100 degrees, its shelf life dropped to six months.)

For the food scientists working on the problem, the enemy in the battle to make the Super Sandwich was water—specifically, water activity. Put simply, water activity is a measurement of how easily moisture migrates from one food product to another. The higher a food item's water activity, the more likely it’ll give away moisture. The lower the water activity, the more likely it’ll absorb water.

Water activity is a huge hurdle for foods that contain multiple components. Take Raisin Bran, for example: Raisins are moist and have a relatively high water activity. The flakes, on the other hand, are crunchy and have a low water activity. Under normal circumstances, these two components will trade moisture, with the raisins turning hard and the flakes soggy.

The same problem faced the Super Sandwich. “The water activity of the different sandwich components needs to complement each other,” then-project officer Michelle Richardson told New Scientist in 2002. “If the water activity of the meat is too high you might get soggy bread.”

The trick to stopping the problem is to introduce a humectant, a type of substance that reduces a food item's water activity without reducing the actual water content [PDF]. In the case of Raisin Bran, food scientists solved this problem by dusting the raisins in a fine coat of sugar [PDF]. For the Super Sandwich, military scientists introduced both sugar and salt as humectants that successfully curbed creeping moisture and prevented bacterial growth. To further combat spoilage, they placed packets of iron fillings inside the packaging, which helped absorb unwanted oxygen.

Today, the Super Sandwiches—part of the military’s “First Strike” rations—reportedly come in four flavors: Bacon Cheddar, Pepperoni, Italian, and Honey BBQ Beef. According to the BBC, when Richardson first ate a three-year-old sample, it was declared a ringing success.

Well, relatively speaking. She described the taste as … “OK.”

Ninja’s Hot & Cold Brewed System Is the Only Coffee Maker You’ll Ever Need

Amazon
Amazon

Update: The Ninja Hot & Cold Brewed System is on sale for $120 ($40 off) for Sam's Club members until May 19.

For people who just want a cup of joe to help them get out the door in the morning, the French presses, Chemexes, Aeropresses, Moka pots, and other specialized devices that coffee aficionados swear by probably seem more overwhelming than appealing. Ditto the fancy cappuccino machines at local cafes. That’s where Ninja’s new Hot & Cold Brewed System comes in: It was created to give coffee addicts a myriad of options with minimal fuss, not to mention minimal equipment. And it makes tea, too!

“Coffeehouses are known for having an endless selection, but current at-home brewers haven't given users the vast variety of choice we thought possible, and certainly not all in one product," Mark Rosenzweig, CEO of SharkNinja, said in a press release. "The Ninja Hot & Cold Brewed System changes the category entirely. This innovative system is more than just a machine you use in the morning; it's your all-day brewing partner.”

The Hot & Cold Brewed System comes with two baskets: one for coffee and one for tea. It knows what you're making to make based on the basket you insert, and the available options for that basket will light up. The machine allows the user to make six different sizes of coffee or tea, from a single cup all the way up to a full 50-ounce (10-cup) carafe.

And of course, as the name suggests, the system can make both hot and iced beverages. For coffee, it has five brew options: classic, rich, over ice, cold brew, and specialty (a concentrated brew for milky drinks like cappuccinos). If you’re making tea, you can choose between hot and cold brews optimized for herbal, black, oolong, white, or green tea.

When you select an over ice or cold brew, the machine automatically doubles the strength of your beverage so it doesn't get overly diluted by the ice cubes in the carafe. Even better, the Ninja can make cold brew in just 10 to 15 minutes, whereas other systems and methods typically take hours. (Hot coffee is brewed at 205°F, while the cold brew is made at 101°F.) And the system has a hot and cold frother that folds into the side so you can make barista-level lattes, too.

These bells and whistles sound impressive on paper, but how do they perform in real life? Ninja sent me Hot & Cold Brewed System to test for myself.

Ease of Use

Though it might look like something developed by NASA, the Hot & Cold Brewed System is designed to easily work with the twist of a dial and the push of a button, and it delivers. From loading in the correct amount of grounds with the system’s “smart scoop” to picking what type of brew you’d like, it’s simple enough to use even while bleary-eyed in the morning. It’s also easy to schedule a delayed brew so you can do the rest of your morning routine while your coffee brews. (Here’s the only drawback I can think of about this machine: When it starts brewing, it’s kind of noisy—loud enough to make my cats jump. It’s not a dealbreaker, but if you live in a small apartment and plan to brew coffee so that it’s ready right when you wake up, it might be something to consider.)

The system even tells you when it needs to be descaled. The “clean” button will light up, at which point you simply fill the water reservoir with descaling solution and water and press the clean button. A countdown lets you know how much longer the clean cycle will last.

Taste and Flavor

I swapped out an old, cheap coffee maker for the Hot & Cold Brewed System, and the difference was immediately noticeable. Whether hot or cold, the coffee made by the H&CBS was a better, smoother cup of joe. That’s due to what Ninja has dubbed Thermal Flavor Extraction automated brewing technology, which, according to a press release, “knows the precise temperatures, correct bloom times, and proper levels of saturation for every possible beverage combination to ensure a great taste every time.”

Whatever tech they use, it works. The coffee I make in this machine is consistently tasty. The rich brew setting works exactly as advertised, too, providing a richer, bolder flavor than the classic brew.

Features and Accessories

One of the best things about the H&CBS is the fact that it cuts down on waste significantly. Unlike other machines, it doesn't require any plastic pods or paper filters. Instead, it comes with two permanent filters, one for coffee and one for tea.

And the cold brew function is a game changer if you prefer iced coffee to hot. Not only does it brew quickly, but it eliminates the messy cleanup that comes with making cold brew yourself.

Typically priced at $230 for the thermal carafe version (or $200 for the glass carafe), the Hot & Cold Brewed System is significantly more expensive than a simpler drip coffee machine. But if you’re a cold brew addict looking to treat yourself, it’s worth it. Consider springing for the slightly more expensive thermal carafe model, which will keep your java hot or cold for hours. (I’ve left ice in it overnight and found cubes the next morning.)

You can get the Hot & Cold Brewed System on Amazon, Walmart, Macy's, Sam's Club, or directly on Ninja’s website starting at $160.

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