It’s easy to think of caffeine and our national obsession with stimulants as a recent phenomenon, but it’s not. Consider this statement: “A chemical substance which stimulates brain, nerves, and muscles, is a daily necessity and is used by every single nation. When there is fatigue and the food is diminished such a stimulant is indispensable, and must be an ingredient of every reserve and emergency ration.” That’s from the 1896 Report of the Secretary of War, and more than a century later, the U.S. military is still trying to figure out how best to caffeinate soldiers. A handy result of this is that military scientists have conducted some of the most useful research on caffeine.
The Science of Zapplesauce and Caffeinated Meat Sticks
Some of that research is conducted at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, half an hour west of Boston. It would look like a large suburban office park but for the soldiers standing guard at a gatehouse complete with a blast barrier. Since 1962, the height of the Cold War, researchers at Natick have been developing products to improve conditions for soldiers in the field.
One of the buildings at Natick has a brightly lit room called the Warfighter Cafe. That’s where Betty Davis, who leads the Performance Optimization Research Team, showed me a small table covered with snack foods—applesauce, beef jerky, energy bars, and nutritious “tube foods, ” which taste like pudding but come in a package that looks like a large tube of Crest. The products have two things in common. They are formulated for soldiers (“warfighters” in the current Department of Defense lexicon). And they all contain added caffeine.
Davis showed me a plastic-wrapped ration, about the size of a small hardcover book. It’s called a First Strike ration, a concentrated package of nutrition designed for soldiers moving quickly with minimal gear. The First Strike rations include plenty of caffeine.
For starters, there is Stay Alert gum, with five pieces per pack, each piece containing 100 milligrams. This was originally developed by a subsidiary of Wrigley, working with researchers at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research. And there is Zapplesauce, caffeinated applesauce. It comes in a plastic pouch and packs 110 milligrams of caffeine. There is a mocha-flavored First Strike Nutritious Energy Bar, also packing 110 milligrams of caffeine. Some of the rations also include instant coffee (which soldiers sometimes put between their cheek and gum, like a dip of Skoal, a sort of do-it-yourself version of the Grinds Coffee Pouches) or caffeinated mints. [An average 8 oz. cup of coffee has 95 milligrams of caffeine, according to the USDA.]
In a little bowl on the table, Davis had a pile of caffeinated meat sticks that looked like Slim Jims, sliced into two-inch lengths. As I chewed on one—which was delicious—Harris Lieberman, a psychologist with the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, walked in and asked, “Are they feeding you already?”