Survival food options are available nearly everywhere these days. The mega-outdoor store, the neighborhood department store and, of course, the internet “stores” are all fully stocked with emergency food products. The majority offered are freeze-dried foods and MREs (meals ready to eat). Although both can be generally grouped as “survival foods,” they differ in many important ways. Which one is right for you? That all depends on your budget, storage capabilities, preferred taste and, most importantly, your overall personal survival plan.
Freeze-dried foods are exactly what their name implies. Various types of foods, like meat, pastas and vegetables, are frozen and then, through a multi-step process, water crystals are removed, leaving dry product ready for long-term storage. MREs, on the other hand, closely mimic canned products found on grocery shelves, the difference being that MREs use flexible aluminum foil and plastic pouches instead of aluminum cans. Normal foods, such as chili or beef stew, are pre-cooked and sealed in the pouch. Then the complete package is heated to sterilize the contents, which allows the food to stay fresh for a number of years. Again, this is very similar to canned items found in a typical supermarket.
Both food options share a few common characteristics, however. Each offers the necessary nutrition and calories to keep your body functioning properly when other food choices are nonexistent, and the variety of food choices for each are plentiful to appease nearly everyone’s taste preferences.
Both MREs and freeze-dried foods take up about equal space in your pack or your bug-out vehicle during transport, although freeze-dried food pouches tend to be a bit bulkier due to their irregular shape. The main difference between both food choices while traveling is the amount of weight that each group would add to your overall load.
MREs are by far the heavier of the two. If you’re using a backpack and transporting enough food to survive for a minimum of three days, you will severely feel the excess weight upon your shoulders. From 1 pound to 1.5 pounds each, MREs could add 9 to 15 pounds to your overall load, far too much if you have miles to trek to reach your destination.
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Freeze-dried foods are much lighter. Their Achilles heel, however, is the possibility of damaging or puncturing their Mylar pouch and rendering the food unfit for further storage purposes. This is a minor point, though, and can be avoided if you pack correctly to prevent possible damage to the pouches before you venture out. Also, the necessity of carrying water to prepare most freeze-dried foods can also add weight to your load. Shelf life plays a major role in survival food storage. You first have to identify which type of storage you are prepping for: short term or long term. Short term is anywhere from a several weeks to a few years, while long term is a time frame from about three to five years to a few decades. Once you determine which timeframe fits your particular purpose, the outcome of which type of food to store will be very clear. Luckily, there is no grey area when it comes to shelf-life numbers.
MREs last only about three to five years, if properly stored. Properly stored can generally be described as being kept in a cool, dry area. If your MREs are stored where excess heat or moisture may occur, their shelf life will diminish considerably. You don’t want to be surprised when you open your MRE expecting a meal and find spoiled product, even though the box stated an expiration date of several years.
For short-term food storage, MREs will do the job. But for longer storage needs, freeze-dried food is the king! Freeze-dried foods last nearly 25 years. They have little loss of taste or consistency even after decades of storage time. This is your go-to survival food when preparing for long-term scenarios.
Basically speaking, MREs require no preparation. You can warm them with flameless heaters (which are sometimes included in MRE meals) if desired, but if you have no time or no source of heat, eating directly from the pouch without preparation is perfectly fine. This, in itself, makes MREs a worriless form of survival food when faced with unpredictable conditions or a lack of other supplies. Knowing you can replenish lost calories anywhere at any time is a comforting thought.
Freeze-dried foods, however, require water to prepare—and not just water, hot water. This is where a problem may occur. During survival situations, you may not have access to fire or another heat source, let alone water or a vessel to boil it in. Some freeze-dried food packages state that room temperature or cold water also works, but it will take longer to prepare and the overall taste and texture will most likely be negatively affected.
Again, everyone’s survival plan and preparations are different and individualized. Always examine your available resources (water, heat source, available time for preparation of food, etc.) when you choose what type of survival food to add to your overall supplies.
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Some may argue that taste should not be a factor when dealing with food while under survival conditions. Most people are just happy to have some form of sustenance. This is true, but why not have the best-tasting survival food available? Why deal with added pressure if your kids don’t like the food and want something else? Your focus should be on surviving during whatever emergency situation occurs, not spending time trying to convince your family that the food tastes great.
The general consensus concerning which survival food is more pleasing upon consumption is that freeze-dried foods taste better than MRE packaged meals. However, and this is a big factor, the water used must be at or near full boiling temperature to properly reconstitute the product for optimum texture and flavor. Lukewarm or cold water will slowly bring the food product to an edible consistency but with a severe decrease in palatable taste. MRE meals, which can be eaten cold “right out of the package” are considered fair when it comes to taste, but when warmed with optional heaters MREs are a bit more pleasing to the taste buds. Psychologically, a warm meal will feel more comforting and thus give the illusion of better taste.
So after all that this, what type of survival food is better? That can only be answered by you after you exhausted all the trial-and-error tests that should be performed well before you actually need the food to survive. Examine the weights, shapes, tastes, consistency and ease of preparation under both “normal” and extreme conditions. Only then can you make a personalized decision to fit your needs while under harsh and stressful conditions.
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This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE™ Fall 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.