MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) were developed in 1980 as the U.S. military’s primary ration for soldiers. Backpackers, emergency relief organizations, and other people outside of the combat environment use MREs because of their longevity, convenience, and high nutritional and caloric content. Whether or not MREs are healthy is highly dependent on the situation.
MREs are healthy when consumed for their intended purpose: nutritious, high-calorie meals in situations where regular food supply is not available. Long-term consumption could have adverse effects on someone’s digestion and overall health.
When considering the health of MREs, it’s important to consider your situation. Their high caloric content, dense nutritional value, and long shelf-life could have positive or negative impacts on your health depending on your needs. If MREs are not the healthiest choice for your situation, there are decent alternatives to choose from.
High in Calories & Nutrients
In one small pouch, MREs pack the caloric punch of a 5-course meal. Each meal is around 1,250 calories with all the fat, carbohydrates, and protein needed for a well-balanced meal (around 13% protein, 36% fat, and 51% carbohydrates). They include an entree, side, dessert, crackers or bread, beverage, sauces, and seasoning.
While this is a great option for someone without a steady food supply, this may not be the best choice for someone with alternative meal options. Each meal contains an average of 52 grams of fat and 3800 milligrams of sodium. This high fat, sodium, and calorie content of MREs mean you could survive on just one in a day.
For people who are less active than someone in a combat environment, this is a very high intake of fat and sodium. Consuming this amount of fat and sodium for long periods of time could lead to health issues like high blood pressure, high blood sugar, and more.
MREs are required to have a minimum shelf-life of 3.5 years when stored at 80 degrees Fahrenheit. They can last even longer with proper refrigeration; the cooler the temperature, the longer they last. While many assume that MREs use preservatives or additives to extend their longevity, this is not the case. MREs are completely free of additives and preservatives. The triple-layer foil pouch (now being replaced by zein), prevents flavor loss and extends the foods’ shelf-life.
However, despite being preservative and additive-free, many consumers complain about the overall taste and quality of MREs. Some soldiers get sick from eating them just because of their texture and taste. They are often nicknamed “Meals, Rarely Edible” or “Meals Rejected by the Enemy.”
Again, these nicknames have nothing to do with their ingredients, but their taste and texture. However, taste aversion can be avoided if there are alternative food options available.
Eating MREs for long periods of time can lead to digestive issues like constipation. In a report published by the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry, a group of sixty people ate varying amounts of MREs for 21 days. One group ate 2-3 MREs a day, while the other group maintained their normal diets. The group that ate 2-3 MREs a day recorded fewer bowel movements than the group that maintained their normal diet.
MREs likely cause constipation because they lack “good” bacteria. Raw fruits and vegetables contain valuable gut bacteria that help release toxins from the body. When fruits and vegetables are cooked, most of the good bacteria is killed off. Because all the fruits and vegetables in MREs are cooked, they don’t contain the needed gut bacteria for regular bowel movements. Thus, digestive issues like constipation occur with long-term consumption.
In 2016, the Independent Journal Review asked reporter Juan Leon to eat nothing but MREs for 21 days. They wanted to find out what long-term consumption of MREs did to the digestive system.
By the second week, Leon reported he “felt bloated all the time.” This persistent bloating was likely due to large amounts of sodium contained in each MRE. When the body consumes large amounts of sodium all at once (there is an average of 3800 milligrams of sodium in each MRE), the body holds onto the fluids you eat and drink. Thus, the stomach and intestines bloat, and issues like constipation can arise.
Overall, these reports and studies show that long-term consumption of MREs places a great deal of stress on someone’s stomach and intestines. It’s best to eat them in moderation (if possible) or choose an alternative.
If your situation allows for an alternative food supply, there are decent options that are still portable, convenient, and long-lasting. While most full-course “ready to eat” meals like MREs are high in calories and sodium, there are individual items you can find on the market to create a full-course meal with the number of calories you need.
Freeze-dried foods are one of the most common alternatives to MREs. While they require more preparation (adding water), they can last much longer than MREs and are lighter to carry. Most freeze-dried foods contain only a fraction of the calories and sodium of MREs, so they may be a healthier option. There are full-meal options like soups and chilis, or individual items like chicken, fruit, vegetables, and potatoes. Because most freeze-dried fruits and vegetables are considered “raw,” you’d still be getting the necessary gut bacteria to have regular bowel movements.
Canned meat items like tuna and chicken are also great options with longevity and enough protein to sustain normal amounts of physical activity. Of course, classic canned foods like Chef Boyardee® or SpaghettiOs® are options, but they pose potential digestive issues like MREs because of their high sodium content.
High-protein bars like Cliff Bars® and RX Bars® are also lightweight options that are designed for traveling and hiking. Because these bars often contain raw grains and nuts, they also provide enough fiber needed to keep constipation and other digestive issues at bay.
Overall, it’s important to consider that MREs were not designed for the general public. They were created for soldiers on active duty, who need 2-3 high-calorie meals per day to replace all the energy they exert on the field. While they are great options for emergencies and emergency preparation, they may not be the healthiest choice for someone with alternative options. So, before buying MREs, consider your options – there may be better ones.