Armed with Science Saturday: Tube Food

This is tube food.

Tube food. ‘Nuff said. (Photo courtesy of the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center)

Tube food. ‘Nuff said. (Photo courtesy of the Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center)

And clearly, it’s exactly what it sounds like.

Meals encapsulated in things that look like toothpaste tubes.  They come in all shapes and sizes, too.  From entrees to desserts and even soups and meats, the assortment of tube food is varied and vast.

Pretty cool, eh?

Now, you might be asking yourself why tubes?  Well, my first response to this would be why not?  They’re convenient, they’re compact, and they just look cool.  Meals in tube form, people.  Come on!

I think I saw an old science fiction movie like this.  They called it “the way of the future”. Might have been an MST3K.

Okay, okay, so coolness factor aside, there is an actual reason for these things to exist.  And it all leads to U-2.

No, not the Bono version.

The less-human-more-plane-like U-2. (Photo from the Air Force –

The less-human-more-plane-like U-2. (Photo from the Air Force –

This U-2

This is a single-engine, very high altitude reconnaissance aircraft flown by Air Force pilots.  They fly at 70,000 feet, requiring the pilots to wear a certain kind of spacey-looking flight suit.  U-2s take to the skies in all types of weather, and are designed for intelligence gathering.  They are also capable of really long flights.

Like…18 hours long.

So how do you keep a pilot up in the air for so long without having them pass out from hunger?

Enter the tube food.  Meals designed to be ingested through a tube in a special suit.  It’s the way to eat when you just can’t sit down with a knife and fork.  Or take your helmet off.

Now, this is nothing new.  Tube food has been flying with U-2 pilots for decades.  However, in the last few years things have drastically changed.

And it’s all thanks to these two people.

Meet Dan Nattress and Deb Haley.

Say "Hi", Dan and Deb!

Say “Hi”, Dan and Deb!

Dan is a food technologist and Deb is a chef and physical science technician at the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Massachusetts.  That’s the home of the tube food, if you will.  A few years ago, Dan and Deb decided to take a new approach to making the tube food.

That is, to make it actually delicious.

“The fact is that in the last two or three years we’ve come a long way from where we were,” Dan explains.  “[Before] we tended to puree things.”

So it was more like baby food.  “Here comes the airplane” takes on a new meaning here.

Deb Haley said it was time for a change.  “In the last few years we’ve worked on changing the thought process to adding more texture and building more layers of flavor instead of just being a puree.”

So here’s how the process works:

First they start with the actual item like, say, an apple pie.

“First we then make the pie as-is,” Deb explains.  “Then we taste the apple pie as you would taste it if it was served to you on a plate.  Then we write down all the flavors that we get; all the spices and the textural changes.”

From that, they take the pie and blend it down to a goopy liquid.

“Then we taste it again to see the difference between that blended by and the actual pie.”

I imagine there would be a bit of a discrepancy there.  Then they take it a step further and pour the pie goop into a tube, thermal process it, then taste it again.

“From those three tastings we can gather a flavor profile,” Deb explains.

Once they have gone through that whole process, Deb and Dan reengineer the recipe for pie so it can fit in a tube without tasting like paste.  Believe it or not, this is no small task.

This, Deb explains, is basically to “develop the building blocks of pie without actually making a pie”.

Basically they take the pie and break it down to its elements.  Then they take the elements of the pie – the apple, the cinnamon, the crust, etc – and they determine what they need to create the flavor experience of pie, and combine them in a particular way that works for the tube restrictions.  All elements are considered here.  Even the texture.

When they’re done, they have tube pie.  Fresh from the factory.  And dare I say, even delicious.

That’s right.  I put these bad boys to the ultimate taste test.  The results?  Well they may actually surprise you:

Turns out that tube food is actually pretty tasty.  During my quest for tube food knowledge, I encountered several interesting questions from inquiring minds about the nature and construction of tube food.  Deb and Dan were nice enough to answer them.

How big are the tubes?

Portion size does vary by tube, but they’re about 5oz.

What preservatives are used to keep the food from spoiling?

“There are no preservatives,” Dan explains.  “Essentially we preserve by heat.”

“It’s like canning,” Deb says.  “It’s very similar to canning, only industrial-sized.”

By the way, the same process applies to MREs.  That is, they use heat and not preservatives to keep the food fresh.  Which was a little mind blowing for this veteran, honestly.  Take that, general presumption.

“There are two types of processed that we use,” Dan explains.  “The apple pie [for example] is a high acid product, so we don’t need as much heat to destroy the bacteria that could either cause you harm or cause the food to spoil.”

The pie only needs to be heated, he explains, to about 195 degrees for about five minutes.  Low acid foods – like the entrees and the puddings and whatnot – have to be heated at a higher temperature.  This is because you’re concerned with different types of organisms there.

How many calories are in tube food?

Anywhere between 130-300 calories, depending on which tube you get.  Keep in mind that this food is not really designed as a four course meal or anything.

This isn’t the amazing human blueberry gum that Willy Wonky created.

This food is designed to give just enough to the pilots to keep them fed and satisfied, not to put them in a food coma.  Which, considering the job at hand, is probably a good thing.

How long will the tubes keep?

About three years at 80 degrees.  No kidding.  Talk about a zombie apocalypse meal plan worth storing.

What kinds of food can you make into a tube?

Just about anything.

Dan and Deb have made tortilla soup, beef stroganoff, caffeinated chocolate pudding, key lime pie, chunky apple pie and so many others.  Pilots get to order their tube menus ahead of time, so they’re made-to-order fantastic.

Well, there you have it.  The science and application of tube food broken down to the bare elements, and thanks to these food experts, tube food only continues to get better.

“We develop food products that are tasty and nutritious and has a long shelf life,” Dan says.  Well mission accomplished, team.  Your tasty tubes passed every test with flying colors.

As for me?  I recommend the key lime pie.  Or the caffeinated chocolate pudding.

Bon Appétit.

Jessica L. Tozer is a blogger for DoDLive and Armed With Science.  She is an Army veteran and an avid science fiction fan, both of which contribute to her enthusiasm for technology in the military.


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