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.”

These Food Pun Coasters Are Fun for the Whole Family

Courtesy of Marie Saba
Courtesy of Marie Saba

Romaine calm. Gouda vibes only. Everything happens for a raisin.

We at Mental Floss love puns—especially food puns—and these ones come courtesy of chef, author, and expert pie baker Marie Saba. Her food pun coasters are a delightfully "corny" take on popular motivational and endearing phrases. Keep calm and carry on? More like curry on.

As Saba tells Mental Floss, the idea for her coasters sprang from food pun Valentines she created a few years ago. She was sick of the same old sayings featured on the kind of mass-produced cards you'd find at supermarkets, so she decided to make her own. The more punny products she made, the larger her Instagram following grew. Eventually she decided to branch out and try a new craft.

"Quite a few followers asked to buy prints of the puns, so that led me to the coasters," she says. "The coasters are perfect because you can set them out at a party, or on your office desk, and they're an instant conversation piece. Most of them take some effort to figure out, and I think people enjoy the challenge."

The coasters, made of durable cardboard, are available on Saba's website. They’re priced at $18 for a pack of eight coasters, and they're grouped into different themes, including motivational, snarky, complimentary, and Christmas. Keep scrolling to see some of the different versions on offer.

A pun that reads as "Love you from my head to-ma-toes"
Courtesy of Marie Saba

The pun reads "We're a perfect matcha"
Courtesy of Marie Saba

A pun reads "Wind beneath my wings"
Courtesy of Marie Saba

A pun reads "You're my everything (bagel)"
Courtesy of Marie Saba

Wisconsin Brewery Rolls Out a Candy Corn Beer

iStock.com/AleksandarNakic
iStock.com/AleksandarNakic

Move over, pumpkin ale. A brewery in the Milwaukee area has brewed up some candy corn beer just in time for Halloween. According to WMUR News 9, the sugary cream ale will be served on tap at the Westallion Brewing Company in West Allis, Wisconsin, throughout October.

The divisive confection is typically made from sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, and artificial coloring, but the brewery decided to make its own flavoring. “Instead of smashing up some candy corns and throwing them in our beer, we made our own candy corn out of less beer-destructive ingredients and threw them into our beer!” the brewery said in a Facebook post. “At the base, we created a cream ale using lactose sugars to keep some sweetness, but added Simcoe hops to create a bit of a bite and a balance (and maybe help remind us that it’s still beer?).”

While candy corn beer is likely to be less popular than its seasonal pumpkin counterpart, other breweries have taken on the challenge in the past. In 2016, The Star Tribune reported that a candy corn imperial ale was “scary popular” at Urban Growler, a microbrewery in St. Paul, Minnesota. "It started as a joke three years ago when we needed to come up with a fall beer," co-owner/master brewer Deb Loch told the paper. "It went over so well that we had to make it every year."

Cigar City Brewing in Tampa, Florida, has also made a Candy Corn IPA in the past, and one brave soul sought advice from the Homebrewtalk.com community in 2009 on how to brew an appropriate beer for a “Hate Candy Corn Party.” Some inspiration for your next Halloween bash, perhaps?

[h/t WMUR]

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