It seems to me that historical military ration development follows a sort of evolutionary process where BS gets weeded out. It'd be interesting to have a collection of historical ration staples.
I've heard jerky and Pemmican were standard for the 19th-c British. Any others?
The Chinese noted with surprise and disgust the ability of the Mongol warriors to survive on little food and water for long periods; according to one, the entire army could camp without a single puff of smoke since they needed no fires to cook. Compared to the Jurched soldiers, the Mongols were much healthier and stronger. The Mongols consumed a steady diet of meat, milk, yogurt, and other diary products, and they fought men who lived on gruel made from various grains. The grain diet of the peasant warriors stunted their bones, rotted their teeth, and left them weak and prone to disease. In contrast, the poorest Mongol soldier ate mostly protein, thereby giving him strong teeth and bones. Unlike the Jurched soldiers, who were dependent on a heavy carbohydrate diet, the Mongols could more easily go a day or two without food.
It seems to me that historical military ration development follows a sort of evolutionary process where BS gets weeded out.
Unfortunately, this means you know nothing about the world for defense contracting. Except for the elite forces, the typical war fighter is treated pretty badly when it comes to anything. The way it goes is that a well-meaning, but incompetent company with close ties to the government helps to write the RFP (request for proposal) that the government gives out to solicit ideas for anything from armor, weapons, food, research, anything that a war fighter might need. Then the company with the closest ties to the head of the selection committee gets the contract and they waste the money in bureaucracy ultimately providing a product that is under-performing on the specs, over budget, and late and doesn't provide the desired benefit to the actual man in the field. (You may think this is cynical and just a anti-government rant, but both me and my wife work for different defense contractors, and we see this ALL the time from the inside of the game)
Anyway, what does this have to do with food? Well, there will be big American companies that will have surplus food they need to sell. The government is great at buying surplus at over-market prices. So they'll write up some research that whatever they are selling is good and get it as part of the MRE. That includes companies like Kellogg, Mars (candy), Frito Lay, etc. It is totally possible, for example, for a soldier to get a bag of skittles in his MRE. There is nothing about an MRE (or anything else issued) that is about the health and well-being of the brave men and women who risk their lives. I think it's disgusting, but the system is just too big for me to even make a dent in it.
Sorry for the rant, but when you're inside this game, you can't help but see that there's so much more we could do for our war fighters to keep them safe and healthy, but all that happens is lowest-common denominator work from the contractors for crazy amounts of money.
Large scale military operations are entirely neolithic and historically have been sustained by two activities: plundering agricultural village economies and living on the harvest of agriculturally based civilizations. The earliest dominant military powers were grain based economies (Mesopotamia, Egypt, Harapan India, China) and no civilization has ever formed which did not use slave or serf labor and military masses fed by means of cheap, abundant grain.
Just because you can sustain a dominant labor and or fighting force with bread and water does not make it interesting from the perspective of trying to establish which dietary habits are evolutionarily based or likely most healthy.
A list of several articles that discuss military rations throughout America's history.
The NYT recently had this really neat pictorial feature and article about the current MREs produced for different nations' troops.
"We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved and our belies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace. Each man has another tin-full for the evening; and, what is more, there is a double ration of sausage and bread. This puts a man in fine trim. We have not had such luck as this in a long time."
~Erich Maria Remarque
This book had chapters on army and navy rations and another on expeditions. Very interesting read.
I believe staple of mass armies were grains. Basically that's one of the reasons why vast empires emerged after agriculture adoption as it was possible to feed large armies on marches. Grains are calorie dense and can be stored in dry conditions for thousands of years.
There were some exceptions of course, like Mongols, who ate raw horse meat which they stuck under the saddle so that it tenderized and became salted with horse sweat (balyk). Probably that was the reason why they were the strongest army at the time.