Pennington awarded grants to help make MREs more healthy, tasty

When some of the military’s most elite fighters are in the field, eating on the run in between missions, they have a tendency to toss some of the more distasteful portions of their MREs, or meals ready to eat.

The phenomenon is known as “field stripping” meals. Experts described it as similar to children refusing to eat their vegetables because they don’t like the taste.

The U.S. Department of Defense on Wednesday awarded LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center $16 million in two grants, hoping to improve solider’s overall health and to find ways to make the MREs more nutrious, more tasty and less prone to field stripping.

One grant will be used to improve battlefield nutrition.

The other will give soldiers a way to track their eating habits and fitness levels ensuring they are in optimal shape.

The meals are familiar to many Louisiana residents, as MREs often find their way into the hands of civilian disaster victims.

Jennifer Rood, an associate executive director with Pennington, said the $7.3 million grant dealing with battlefield nutrition is about finding the most efficient ways to deliver healthy food to members of the armed forces.

When the elite U.S. Army Rangers are on a mission, they often don’t have time to eat enough calories, Rood said.

“We’re getting ready to study underfed soldiers and figure out how much, and what kind of protein they need to maintain muscle mass and performance,” Rood said.

So far, researchers have come up with the “first strike ration,” a small, portable meal like a protein bar, dried fruit, nuts or something akin to a nutritious hot pocket.

The idea is “first strike rations” are small, portable, easy to eat and tasty, she added.

The study should also help military leaders get a handle on another disturbing phenomenon.

Rood said a number of soldiers participating in basic training have suffered stress fractures. Pennington, she said, is looking at developing supplements to prevent those injuries.

The plan is to find the best way to get soldiers on the mend and back into their routine, Rood said.

Tiffany Stewart, Pennington’s director of its Behavioral Technology Lab, is overseeing the second grant, an $8.2 million project to develop portable and interactive technology allowing soldiers to manage nutrition, fitness and weight wherever they are in the world.

Stewart displayed some of the work Wednesday that Pennington has already done in the form of a smartphone app. The app comes programmed with performance measures from the U.S. surgeon general.

Stewart said the tool started out as a preventive measure to keep soldiers “from getting to a place where they become unhealthy,”

The technology allows soldiers to create an account and log in to a “data dashboard” that tracks what they eat, the amount of exercise they are doing and how much sleep they are getting.

The app, using standards appropriate for soldiers, then keeps track of where they are fitness-wise, giving them warnings for such things as gaining too much weight or starting to fall under their ideal weight.

“You want to let them know when they are inching toward becoming unhealthy,” Stewart said.

The app is also available to the general public at armyhealth.pbrc.edu.

LSU President F. King Alexander summed up the work Pennington is doing for the Department of Defense “as one of the most important endeavors we could provide as a university.”

“It’s about economics and how much we’re saving ensuring good health habits soldiers can bring back to their families,” Alexander said.

“Think about the savings to the (Veterans Administration). This is an issue of national and economic security — e nsuring that we have a healthier nation and a healthier armed forces and healthier veterans.

Visit www.pbrc.edu for more information on the nutrition program known as the Collaborative Research to Optimize Warfighter Nutrition 2 project and the technology program known as the Army Healthy Eating, Activity and Lifestyle Training Headquarters program.