WASHINGTON (AP) -- It tops a U.S. Army most-wanted list, unleashes potent chemicals that suck the immediate vicinity dry and goes great with grape jelly.
The struggle to make the classic peanut butter and jelly combination battle-ready for soldiers in the field highlights an effort by top Army scientists to develop pocket sandwiches that will keep without refrigeration for three years.
Researchers working on the latest innovation in "meals ready to eat," army lingo for anytime, anywhere munchies, were drawn to the stuffed bread rolls now in supermarket frozen food sections. Convenience is the attraction: no utensils, not much to open yet makes for a satisfying meal, at least in theory.
"The trick was to get rid of the 6,000 mile extension cord to the freezer," said Jerry Darsch, who directs the Defense Department's feeding program in Natick, Mass.
Four years later, the Army has come up with formulas for two sandwiches -- pepperoni and barbecue chicken -- that use chemical and natural preservatives to lock moisture in place and inhibit the growth of bacteria and mold.
Darsch said his sandwiches are designed to be as resilient as the troops they feed. "This bad boy will last a minimum of three years at 80 degrees, six months at 100 degrees. They will travel to the swampiest swamp, the highest mountain, the most arid desert."
Some of the stabilizing agents are manufactured, others are intrinsic to the sandwiches -- the bread in the pepperoni sandwich is more or less left alone by the sausage, which lacks moisture; in the barbecue chicken sandwich, acids in the sauce's tomato, vinegar and lemon naturally bind moisture in place.
Still, soldiers aren't likely to take a bite until 2006 because more research is needed -- principally, the researchers confessed, on PB&J, the sandwich most demanded by troops in focus groups. Other sandwiches in the works include pizza-flavored and ham and cheese.
Peanut butter has so far proven too unstable to last three years in battlefield conditions, said Michelle Richardson, a food technologist who has worked on the sandwich.
Richardson says her team is closer than ever, and has found ways of stabilizing the peanut butter -- but not without killing its stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth qualities, a sensation she says no soldier under fire should miss.
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