Next time you’re licking the Cheeto dust off your fingers, consider that the bright orange cornmeal snacks originated from MREs, or Meals, Ready to Eat.
That’s right. MREs get a bad wrap, but the sturdy rations are responsible for the existence of some well-known American snacks, including Cheetos.
This shouldn’t surprise you-most inventions have their roots in war. What might surprise you is that many of your everyday foods are on this list. And those that aren’t? It doesn’t mean the military didn’t have a hand in their creation: Combat-Ready Kitchen, by Anastacia Marx de Salcedo, suggests that most American grub has a “secret military history.”
Here are the five most surprising foods developed by the military.
1. The McRib
This one shouldn’t be so hard to believe, considering the immortality of McD’s french fries.
“McDonald’s McRib is as close to our product as you can get,” Natick Soldier Center for Research and Development food scientist John Secrist told Vox. After an overwhelmingly negative response to the C-rat, troops were ready for some tastier meats in their MREs. Word on the street is that the Army worked with a meat restructuring company to develop the famous McRib-a technology Denny’s eventually borrowed too-by sticking a bunch of cheap cuts of meat together.
The military can’t, however, take credit for that unmistakable McRib sauce.
2. Hawaiian Spam Roll
Never heard of a spam roll (also known as spam musabi)? Then you haven’t been to Hawaii. Try “em before you knock “em-we happen to know that they are ridiculously delicious (thanks, Fish Express). Still, most Americans stick their noses up to the “square-shaped mash-up of pork, water, salt, potato starch, sugar, and sodium nitrate,” (Eater).
Except Hawaii. The Aloha state consumes more spam than anywhere else in America at 7 million cans a year. Butwhy? The “Hawaiian steak” became a culinary sensation on the islands during WWII when the U.S. restricted fishing industries run by Japanese-Americans. Without fish-the islanders’ main source of protein-Hawaii was going hungry. Enter spam: millions of cans were provided to American GIs every week, and they quickly filled the hole left by fishing sanctions.
It was the Japanese immigrants who created spam musabi in an effort to mimic onigiri. They can still be found at most Hawaiian convenience stores today.
While the Hawaiians were gorging on spam, the military was sourcing new foods to feed the troops: processed cheese. Cheese was added to K-rats and C-rats as a spread and/or sauce, and eventually made its way into MREs.
But the military wanted something more efficient, volume-wise, so they dried and ground the new food into cheese powder. Voila: the birth of dehydrated dairy products.
After the war ended, the now enormous cheese dehydration industry needed new customers-that’s where grocery manufacturers came in. The Frito Company stepped up to unveil America’s first cheeto: cornmeal dusted in delicious cheese powder. Mmm.
OK, this wasn’t the U.S. military-technically, it was during the the Spanish Civil War that soldiers were first seen “eating small chocolate beads encased in a hard sugar shell” from their MRE rations. But the first actual “M&M” was born in the U.S.
Let’s back up. As it turns out, chocolate bars melt in high temperatures, which was a problem for hot, summertime warfare-these little beads were pretty innovative. Mars Inc. jumped on the idea and started pumping them out in New Jersey, selling the candies exclusively to the U.S. military. Like cheetos, once the war was over, M&M’s weren’t filling as many MREs, so they were instead sold to the American public.
5. Energy Bars
This is a no-brainer for some of you. The “meal-in-a-bar” took off in 1969 when Natick discovered that food’s water content affected the rate at which it spoiled – lower levels led to a longer shelf life. The “intermediate moisture” fortified fruit bar was born and, with it, all the chewy granola bars, energy bars, cookies, and pastries we know today. This technology is still used in MREs today.