Meet Tom Yang, senior food scientist at the US Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
Yang and his research team have just developed a new dehydrated, super-flat, sheet-like meat for our armed forces...and, eventually, the rest of us. Read on and then decide: Would you eat it?
Tom Yang's super-meat is similar to jerky, in that it can be stored on a shelf for years without requiring refrigeration.
But unlike jerky, this new meat requires much less sodium, so it's healthier. It's also more nutritious and significantly cheaper to make, despite the high-tech "osmotic dehydration" process that goes into making it. And it never gets brittle or dries out.
To create the sheets of super-meat, lean turkey is first ground up and mixed with flavorings and nutrients. This mix is then extruded onto a thin sheet on a conveyor belt.
The thin sheet of turkey is pulled through a cold, osmotic solution of sucrose, sodium chloride and water. The process removes 92 to 95 percent of the moisture from the super-meat.
The end result of the osmotic process looks an awful lot like a fruit roll-up. Production costs are approximately one-third of what it'd cost to make a similar jerky-like snack.
So how, exactly, are you supposed to eat this new super meat? First off, yes: It's OK to nibble straight from the roll. (Kinda gross, but OK.)
But food scientist Tom Yang recommends cutting the super-meat into strips and toasting it instead.
Ultimately, the new super-meat will wind up being packaged in one of the army's infamous "meals, ready-to-eat" (MREs) as turkey bacon. But only if it passes preliminary soldier taste tests first.
Many of the meats currently being used in army MREs aren't so super, as seen here. Each MRE needs to last for three years without refrigeration, so every ingredient is highly processed. Currently, military meat is sourced from the cheapest and least desirable cuts, which are ground, processed, and turned into a slurry.
Food scientists turn the meat sludge into an edible "tasty" final product with good texture through the use of additives like phosphates and (wait for it) meat glue.
It's long been military policy to integrate its food science into the US food supply. This ensures that large amounts of military food can be made on demand.
Indeed, the push to shove this new dried turkey down your patriotic American gullet has already begun, even before it reaches the troops. The inexpensive tech is drawing plenty of interest from delis (sandwich meat) and restaurants (salad bar toppings).
Don't want your forever meat in roll-up form? That's cool -- the U.S. Army has also put its edible tech inside "shelf-stable pocket sandwiches."
They're essentially Hot Pockets that require no refrigeration.
Each shelf-stable pocket sandwich is capable of lasting for 2 years at or below 80°F, and for 6 months at 100°F.
Current flavors include Barbecue Beef, Pepperoni, Italian, and Barbecue Chicken.
Breakfast sandwich options are under development.
The holy grail of pocket sandwiches -- the peanut butter and jelly -- remains out of reach because the bread would absorb too much moisture.
"We're still working on that," says Senior Food Technologist Julie Smith. "Who wants a soggy sandwich?"
Serving pizza to troops in combat situations is a huge challenge. Moisture from a traditional pizza sauce, cheese and meaty toppings is eventually absorbed by its crust. That provides the perfect environment for dangerous bacteria to grow.
Shelf-stable pizza, meanwhile, uses humectants -- a mix of sugar, salt and syrup -- to keep the top of the pizza moist and well preserved, even after years have passed. The pizza's packaging, meanwhile, contains iron filings to help absorb air.
So what does such a combat-friendly gastric prize look like?
Here it is: a slice of the US Army's new "forever pizza." It may not look appetizing, but it's been getting excellent reviews on taste from those at the army food lab who have tried it.
"It pretty much tastes just like a typical pan pizza that you would make at home and take out of the oven or the toaster oven," says Jill Bates, head of the Natick facility's Sensory Evaluation Laboratory. "The only thing missing from that experience would be, it's not hot when you eat it. It's room temperature."
The new pizza is expected to be in the hands (and mouths) of troops by 2017.
Here's an even more futuristic way for the US Army to sate soldiers' hunger for pizza: just 3D-print the damn things, layer by layer, using special ingredient-filled cartridges. And, along with meat roll-ups and everlasting pizza, that's exactly what the military is trying to do.
A special advantage of 3D food printing is that meals can be highly customized around specific nutritional requirements. And yes, that includes 3D-printed meats and meat alternatives.
"If you are lacking in a nutrient, you could add that nutrient. If you were lacking protein, you could add meat to a pizza," says US Army food technologist Lauren Oleksyk.
We've come a long way since the early days of military meat. Take this chipped beef, the original gangster of low-quality soldier meals.
The mix of flour, fat, milk and dried meat was instrumental in keeping Doughboys well fed during World War I. Its troop-given nickname, SOS (sh** on a shingle), highlights that the utilitarian brew was hardly a crowd favorite.
By the end of World War I, the US military's Lt. Jay Hormel (sound familiar?) had begun research into building a better meat. His 1918 Chicago beef processing plant was able to reduce meat weights by 25 percent and size by 60 percent, while still providing the same amount of nutrition.
By the end of World War II, Hormel Foods would provide 150 millions pounds of canned Spam to soldiers, many of whom would eat it for all three meals a day. Thus, a new age of heavily processed American foods had begun.
Spam, like the canned meat used before it (shown), was not received well by the troops. In fact, Jay Hormel kept a file of all the hate mail he received from American GIs over Spam.
"If they think Spam is terrible, they ought to have eaten the bully beef we had in the last war," Hormel said in a 1945 interview.
The US Army also pioneered the use of "restructured meat" in the 1960s -- that involved reforming meat scraps into more familiar shapes.
By the end of the Vietnam War, mechanically formed beef had become a staple in the warfighter diet.
Less than 10 years after the US military began serving restructured meat, the nation's largest fast food chain followed suit. Without the US Army, there would be no McNugget.
We also owe the invention of dehydrated cheese powder to the needs of the U.S. military.
The only catch: Though Kraft Mac & Cheese may be tasty, food scientists estimate that "cheese" only accounts for 29% of the sauce's solids.
We also owe the development of orange-juice concentrate and instant coffee to the World War II demands of the U.S. military.