Three weeks, nothing but MREs.

It's not a far-flung mission, nor is it a lost wager — it's how military researchers hope to discover how new knowledge of the digestive process could improve future Meals, Ready-to-Eat. The work could even help protect troops from sickness while deployed.

Here's what you need to know about the ongoing study, run by the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine's military nutrition division:

1. "Gut health" goals. Researchers want to learn how MREs effect the trillions of bacteria housed in troops' digestive systems — microorganisms that, when fed properly, can benefit overall wellness. By finding a base level of these bacteria under study conditions, researchers can determine how to improve MREs when it comes to minding what study head Dr. J. Philip Karl calls "gut health."

"There's a lot of interesting and new research looking at gut bacteria, and how those gut bacteria interact with the human body," Karl said, adding that an "explosion" in research technology over the last decade allows researchers to "really get an understanding that we never have before."

2. Nutrient addition. As the study continues into 2016, Karl's team plans to determine what bacteria fuel — indigestible carbohydrates, for instance — might be lacking in the MRE menu. By working with fellow researchers at the Army's Combat Feeding Directorate, they can begin to incorporate these nutrients into the meals. Plant-based materials proven to benefit the bacteria could be extracted and included in a First Strike energy bar, for example.

"Research will give us some idea of what we think will work, we'll go and test do make sure it's doing what I think it's doing, and at that point it starts to get incorporated into the rations," Karl said.

3. Reaping the rewards. Troops may not notice the tweaks made to MRE recipes, but the changes could effectively weaponize the rations for use against other digestive threats, Karl said.

"We think we can manipulate the bacteria in a way that helps the bacteria fight foreign pathogens — things that could cause food-borne illness, for example," he said. "Oftentimes, war fighters are overseas and they eat something off the local economy that can cause [gastrointestinal] distress. Potentially, what we could do by increasing the amount of beneficial gut bacteria is to help prevent some of that."

Karl also pointed to emerging research into the cognitive benefits of "gut health," which could improve readiness in the often-extreme conditions that require a regular diet of MREs.

4. Study basics. Participants must be within a reasonable drive to ARIEM's Natick, Massachusetts, location, and be willing to go without anything but MREs, water and black coffee for three weeks — no other food or drink, including no alcohol. The study, which includes multiple blood draws and other medical scans, requires a six-week commitment. Full details and registration information are available here.

Not all of the 60 or so participants will be asked to change their diets — half will be part of a control group subject to medical screenings but maintaining their regular eating habits for a month.

5. MRE makeover. Even the most dedicated prepackaged-food fan might sour on the offerings during a 21-day trial, so Natick research dietitians Adrienne Hatch and Holly McClung came up with a book of recipes pulling from multiple MRE offerings. Study participants can craft everything from specialty beverages ("Canteen Irish Cream Latte") to main dishes ("Bunker Hill Burritos") to desserts ("Fort Bliss-ful Pudding Cake") as they try to keep their palates fresh.

Hatch, who had little experience with MREs before the study kicked off over the summer, said she'd heard a few negative comments from troops enforcing negative MRE stereotypes, but "working with this cookbook project has shown me a lot about what the MRE can offer."

Kevin Lilley is the features editor of Military Times.

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