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Oct. 3 2009 - 12:39 pm | 14 views | 1 recommendation | 4 comments

Natural medicine in the military: probiotics for tummy-troubled troops

A meal 'ready to eat' ?

A meal 'ready to eat' ?

Last week, I reported on a recent taste-test of the military’s vacuum-sealed MREs (meals ready-to-eat). A brave crew of civilians over at Popular Mechanics sampled three of the twenty-four different packaged rations, which are stuffed with calories, have a three-year shelf life and are prepped using nothing but water. The meals are also available for civilian purchase, in case you’ve got an at-home safe room or fallout shelter to stockpile. But don’t forget to stock up on condiments: according to the review, the end of the world “tasted a little like soap.”

That’s too bad for troops on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, who routinely chow down on the crud. But with dishes like sausage & creamy sauce, beef brisket and pepperoni-filled crackers (all vacuum-sealed, need I remind you), is it really surprising that the best of the rations – a vegetarian pasta with vegetables – only earned a B- on the Popular Mechanics scorecard? And that’s after nearly 15 years of menu-manipulation by the military’s food science department, a state-of-the-art lab complex in Natick, Massachusetts. The Natick crew have polled troops on MRE quality, replaced hundreds of items and introduced four meat-free meals due to popular demand. They’re also giving some love to troops keeping Kosher – or pretending they keep Kosher to avoid explosive diarrhea. Kosher-certified MRE rations are packaged and shipped fresh by American food-makers MyOwnMeals, while standard mystery-meat-and-other-gunk entrees are stored for around three years before being dished out.

And seriously, back to that diarrhea thing. It’s a real problem: 75  percent of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan reported serious diarrhea and food-related illness, costing the military around $113 million in medical costs and sick leave. That’s why the Pentagon’s food science team is investigating more than just a replacement for meat-filled crackers: they want to bring the purported benefits of probiotics to troops suffering the gastrointestinal consequences of vacuum-sealed dinners. According to Natick:

Probiotics are “good bacteria” that have been shown to decrease the incidence and severity of travelers’ diarrhea and produce immune enhancing substances in the gut. The current research focus is to increase the survival of probiotics within food systems that meet military shelf life requirements, thereby increasing the intestinal and overall health of the Warfighter.

Well, at least they got the definition right. Probiotics have been sold for years by natural health purveyors, who claim the capsules can maintain the delicate balance of healthy bacteria in the intestinal tract. But probiotics are marketed as supplements, which means they bypass the testing of another mega-government organization: the FDA. And while the New York Times reported last week that some probiotic strains can prevent diarrhea, an EU regulatory panel recently concluded that two-thirds of consumer probiotic products were ineffective at regulating digestive health.

And the stuff may actually make troops sicker, according to Dr. Mark Crislip with Science Based Medicine. He writes that probiotics trigger an inflammatory immune response, which can help ward off bad bacteria in the short-term. In the long-term, however, that same inflammation is tied to all sorts of serious health problems, including thrombosis, stroke, heart attack and even pneumonia. Crislip hasn’t substantiated his concern with adequate controlled tests yet, but with twenty years of internal medicine under his belt, military experts might want to take note:

But I will make a prediction: people who use probiotics or other substances that can measurably lead to an inflammatory response, or, have their immune system boosted, will have more strokes, heart attacks and pulmonary embolisms.

Dr. Crislip may be onto something. A 2008 study in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also cautions that probiotics can have a deleterious effect due to inflammatory response, and the supplements have also been linked to fatalities among patients with compromised immune systems.

So what’s a military man or woman to do? Chomping on vacuum-sealed beef brisket prepped with potentially contaminated water is a bout of diarrhea waiting to happen. And to give the military a little credit for once, there’s only so much that can be done to make the rations palatable. But shelling out millions on probiotics whose safety and effectiveness hasn’t been confirmed? I’m not so sure. The folks at Popular Mechanics suggest washing MREs down with a bottle or two of wine, and I’m inclined to go one step further: a few nips of Bourbon will dull the taste-buds and scour off any bacterial agent of gastro-distress.


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  1. collapse expand

    A new take on waste within the U.S. military. Well done, Katie.

  2. collapse expand

    Thanks, Steve. Trust me, they’ve got a lot of other very strange health-related spending going on…probiotics are the tip of the iceberg.

  3. collapse expand

    I’ve had a few MRE’s, and yes, they suck. But they also are easily eaten in a few minutes, they fill you up, and keep you going. I agree, it would be nice to have food that doesn’t make you sick, but in that case, there is a whole lot of people in the world we need to be concerned about.

  4. collapse expand

    Iskid2astop: Thanks for the comment. I heard similar things from former troops who’ve eaten them…”Not great but good enough.” And I definitely agree (as I write) that these are really good in a pinch and also that they just can’t be “haute cuisine”.

    …But probiotics for diarrhea? I really hope we don’t see several million invested there.

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    About Me

    I'm a full-time heath & science writer at Sphere and a contributing editor at True/Slant. I also contribute military health news to Danger Room at Wired.com, and have recently written for Marie Claire, World Politics Review and Next American City.

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