Pizza has been the subject of some interesting science lately. The PiePal allows people to order a pizza at the push of a single button. But some pizza-lovers don’t have access to such technology — especially soldiers, whose food options sometimes look about as paltry as those for astronauts. But not for long. Soon, soldiers will be able to eat the “holy grail of comfort food.”
In the early 1980s, MREs (meals ready to eat) replaced canned foods for military rations, and ever since, soldiers have understandably clamored for pizza. Researchers at the Massachusetts-based U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center are finishing work on an MRE-style pizza, which could last in the package for up to three years. They’ve been working on the pizza for nearly two years, and the task has proven quite a challenge. I make homemade pizza pretty often myself, and I have to admit that I can’t fathom a way that something with all that cheese could possibly stay edible without refrigeration for a matter of days, let alone years. Besides the cheese going bad, I don’t know how one would stop the tomato sauce from soaking straight through the crust and leaving it a soggy mess. These were just some of the challenges faced by researchers. But in the name of pizza, they pushed on.
Researchers did all kinds of work to figure out how to contain the moisture from the sauce. They used humectants, substances that form hydrogen bonds with water molecules, to keep the sauce from seeping into the dough. Humectants are the opposite of desiccants, those little packages you find in everything from shoes to foods, and in this case the humectants of choice include salty and sugary syrups. But that’s just one hurdle of many.
There’s also the problem that this pizza would be in warm areas for long periods of time, which in any other case would cause it to become more of a brick than a slice. Scientists tinkered with the ingredients, adding acidity that would stave off bacteria and help keep out oxygen. And instead of putting desiccants in the MRE pouch, they put in iron filings to help absorb excess air. Well, that sounds delicious, and hey, no need for iron supplements!
So here’s the million-dollar question: is this pizza actually decent? Soldiers don’t know yet, as it’s still in a prototype phase, but the head of the Natick taste lab says she’s happy with the flavor of the most recent batch of pepperoni (I hadn’t even considered the meaty toppings — that’s like extra credit). She likened it to a “typical pan pizza that you would make at home.” Well, okay, if you say so. A lab spokesman who used to be a lieutenant colonel in the Army liked it too, and said that something that the soldiers associate with home can serve as an important morale boost.
One detail that would be strange about this MRE pizza is that it wouldn’t be hot or cold, but hey, if it actually tastes good, I think that’s a minor detail. Speaking of details, the lab is developing a turkey pepperoni version for soldiers who don’t eat pork. Aw, that’s considerate! But what about the, um, vegetarian soldiers? There are some of those, right? Or maybe I’m just projecting. Somehow I don’t think soy-roni would make it three years.