Research shows a strong relationship between strenuous physical activity and mental stress — common experiences for many military soldiers — and inflammation and negative immune system responses, which in turn can increase the risk of injury and poor mental and physical performance. Combat rations that are supplemented with natural, safe and effective fruit and vegetable compounds may counteract some of those negative health impacts and reduce the risk of experiencing them, according to Mary Ann Lila, PHHI director and project research coordinator.

“Fresh produce is a critical component in everyday diets and health, especially for soldiers who are exposed to harsh conditions and increasingly demanding mental and physical challenges,” said Lila. “Natural compounds found in fruits and vegetables can help increase physical and cognitive capacity, improve immune function and inhibit chronic disease development in soldiers.”

A primary barrier to the seemingly straightforward solution of having soldiers eat more fruits and vegetables has been storage and transportation. Most fruits and vegetables have a short shelf life, making it difficult to ship produce to certain parts of the world in a timely or cost-efficient manner.

“Soldiers stationed in certain areas of Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa or similar locations, which include both literal deserts and food deserts, are often in situations where they can’t grow or even import fresh fruits and vegetables due to climate conditions and short expiration dates,” explained Lila.

“They’re often substituting pills and traditional health bars for fruits and vegetables, so soldiers have had to sacrifice the health-promoting bioactive compounds that can only be found in fresh produce — until now.”

Fruit and vegetable powders: Cost-efficient, shelf stable and flavorful

PHHI researchers are developing food ingredients for healthy, shelf stable U.S. Army rations, which involves infusing protein powders and flours, like soy or hemp, with nutritious compounds extracted from fruits and vegetables such as muscadines and kale. The ingredients can be used in drinks, power bars and other healthy snacks for soldiers.