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Scientists upgrade U.S. military's scrambled-eggs

By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia

Troops in the war in Iraq this year had MRE's (Meals Ready to Eat) that were vastly improved since the 1991 Gulf War. But scrambled eggs weren't part of the equation.

The army stopped buying scrambled-egg MRE's five years ago because they tasted so bad, said Romeo Toledo, a food scientist who's trying to change all that.

"Eggs have been a major problem for the military," said Toledo, whose University of Georgia research team is working with a U.S. Army grant to bring ready-to-eat eggs back into military rations.

"The troops want them," Toledo said. "But the scrambled eggs in the MRE's were rubbery, had a strange aftertaste and even stranger colors, sometimes reddish and sometimes green."

MRE's are the self-contained meals soldiers carry in flexible, tough bags made to withstand everything from rats to nerve gas. A chemically activated heating pouch that can raise the food temperature to 100 degrees in 10 minutes is standard issue with the meals.

"Out of the bigger trays used in field kitchens that feed 20," Toledo said, "the army estimates that at least 30 percent of the eggs end up in the trash."

The poor flavor came from the heating process and long cooking times. "The MRE's were cooked for 45 minutes, and the trays were processed for two hours," he said. "The eggs got very rubbery and often smelled like sulfur (a rotten egg smell)."

To force the eggs down, soldiers doused them with barbeque or Tabasco sauce.

The cooking time was the first problem the UGA team tackled.

"We increased the cooking temperature to 266 degrees Fahrenheit," Toledo said. That's still below the federally approved 275-degree limit for the plastic packaging.

"This cut the cooking time of the MRE pouches down to 20 minutes and the tray cooking time down to 45 minutes," he said.

Decreasing the cooking time alone made a huge difference, but not enough. The next problem to tackle was flavor.

The eggs are mixed with water and cooked in the pouch, so the flavor was similar to a boiled egg, Toledo said. The object was to make the eggs taste more like they'd been cooked on the stove instead of in a bag.

To get this taste, Toledo and his team mixed a little liquid margarine into the egg mix, as if they were scrambling eggs in a pan.

Then they passed the eggs under a radiant heater, which heats to an extremely high temperature to brown only the surface while the rest of the eggs remain liquid. The whole batch is then blended, poured into pouches, sealed and processed.

"The radiant heater generates a fried flavor," Toledo said.

Now the research team is tackling the final frontier of the army egg problem: texture.

"We have to dilute the eggs with water or they get too tough," Toledo said. "But when you open the packages, especially the bigger trays, the eggs are swimming in water.

"We are looking at adding some products like Xanthium gum, but we need to determine the optimal levels," he said. "Xanthium gum is already being used in frozen egg products, but we want to scale back the amount."

Toledo and his team have a good taste tester: Jeff Mitchell, a chief warrant officer in the U.S. Army Veterinary Corps who begins working on a UGA food science masters degree this fall.

"I tried (the former scrambled-egg MRE's) in a field exercise about six years ago," Mitchell said. "They didn't taste much like eggs. They were more brown than yellow and the texture was strange -- thin layers mashed together."

Mitchell said the new eggs are a huge improvement already. "They actually taste like eggs," he said. "They're pale yellow, you can see flecks of pepper in them and the texture is much better."

(Cat Holmes is a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

(Cat Holmes was a science writer with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)

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