I’m looking at two bowls of lasagna. These ready-to-eat meals with a 25-year shelf life come from two US-based survival food companies. Preparation is simple: Just add hot water. One can be eaten after about 12 minutes, the other after just six.
Neither looks particularly appetizing. It probably doesn’t help that I’m a picky eater, but they prove hard to swallow. There is no relation to actual lasagna in taste or texture. One is exceptionally salty, with a particularly unpleasant smell. The other has the aftertaste of a protein shake and a disconcerting mouthfeel. However, I’m not starving or fighting to survive in the middle of the apocalypse. Under such circumstances, I assume these would make an acceptable meal—perhaps even an enjoyable one.
Since the pandemic, survival food like this has been in high demand: “Covid increased our sales tenfold,” says Tim Lawlor, vice president of marketing at Readywise, which can make up to 1 million food servings a day out of its 100,000-square-foot facility in Salt Lake City.
“We went from fringe to mainstream—all of a sudden a lot of my friends were calling me and asking if they could get some emergency food. I think people now understand the importance of having a bit of food insurance, just like they have car insurance or health insurance. It’s since dropped slightly down, but people are still on edge.”
Readywise’s best seller is a four-week, one-person bundle that retails for $300 and supplies 2,000 calories a day. It includes breakfast and dinner options, such as pancake mix, pasta Alfredo, and dried banana chips: “With a month’s worth of food, you get to put together a good plan,” Lawlor says. “And so that’s what most people want to do. But we do have a very big celebrity that is buying up to $50,000 worth of food—that’s five years.”
Most of Readywise’s products can last 25 years, when stored correctly. The food is freeze-dried to pull out all its moisture, then stored in a mylar pouch with an oxygen absorber. One big problem is fat, which doesn’t last that long: “The reason we do a meat bucket separately is that fats degrade over time,” Lawlor says. “The meats have a 15-year shelf life because after about 15 years the fats will start to degrade.”
Freeze drying, also known as lyophilization, works by first freezing all the water in the food: “Then you basically drop the pressure to near a vacuum while you also slightly increase the temperature,” explains Michael Sulu, a professor of biochemical engineering at the University College London. “The solid ice turns straight to steam and is sucked away. The low temperature means you are less likely to damage proteins and vitamins, versus any other technique.”
Fat, however, resists this process: “It is really hard to dehydrate because some of the water is kind of embodied within it. So it’s harder to remove the water from fat, and therefore harder to preserve it.”
Survival food is not new. The oldest manufacturers, such as Oregon-based Mountain House, have been around since the 1960s. It has its roots in military rations: “Survival food and military rations exhibit similarities in extended shelf life, nutritional content, and portability, but they differ in purpose, taste, packaging, preservation techniques, government regulation, and accessibility,” says Carla Schwan, an assistant professor and extension food safety specialist at the University of Georgia. Military rations are subject to strict government standards, Schwan says. Survival food isn’t, meaning it comes in far greater variety.
The spike in demand during Covid has created space for entire new businesses, like Nevada-based Nutrient Survival, which launched in July 2020 and advertises its products as beings “special ops grade.”
“I was an officer in the US Army,” says Nutrient Survival CEO Eric Christianson, “We have designed our food to exceed the nutritional standards that the US military has specified for Green Berets, Navy SEALs, Marine Raiders—and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for people like you and me.”
Nutrient Survival’s best seller is a 14-day emergency food kit that provides roughly 1,400 calories per day. It retails for $315 and includes mac and cheese, apple cinnamon oatmeal, and chocolate crunch. It is more expensive than Readywise, but not at the top end of the scale: A similar kit from Mountain House, which provides about 1,700 calories per day, costs $438.
“Our largest purchase ever from an individual consumer was $55,000,” says Christianson. “That’s a Mercedes-Benz. But preppers don’t just buy one set of food—they’re coming back every single month. It blew me away when I got into this business that our repeat rate is 40 percent. The reason is simple. They don’t have all the money that they need to buy all the food that they want. So they put a little away, just like you put away a little bit of savings. This is truly an investment for them.” He adds that the delivery addresses don’t have a specific regional pattern and are mostly “modest, middle American homes.”
Not all survival food is ready to eat. Some must be cooked in a pot over a source of heat, like offerings from My Patriot Supply, which sells a four-week kit that provides 2,000 calories per day for $237. The catch is that each recipe—including mushroom rice pilaf, chili mac, and potato soup—needs to simmer for 20 minutes on average.
That doesn’t work for some: “I look for stuff that’s portable, that I don’t need a fire to cook,” says Christopher Jensen, a prepper from Idaho Falls. “I look for stuff that’s going to last a long time. A lot of calories, stuff that has nutrients—I try to get nonprocessed food because when you process food, you lose a lot of the nutrients. Price is not a factor to me. I try to buy good quality food. But also stuff that I’m not gonna get bored of.”
Jensen, a former US soldier who left the army just months ago, says he has about two years’ worth of food. During the pandemic, while stationed in Italy, he was spending about $1,500 a month on food to store up.
Marq Israel, a prepper from Bradenton, Florida, says that something in the public’s perception has shifted since the pandemic: “A lot of people are going ‘OK, maybe they’re not that crazy after all.’ I kind of went full blown at the start of the pandemic, started stocking up on stuff and doing a lot more research, but with being prior military and Boy Scouts, I kind of always was a little bit of a prepper.”
What is he preparing for? “The unknown,” he says. “Short-term, it’s storms and things of that nature, but a little bit longer-term, right now I don’t really know. There’s a lot of speculation of what could happen. I’ve kind of diversified what I do as far as precious metals, defense, food, water. I have my bugout bag, but I don’t plan on bugging out unless I absolutely have to.”
He says he has about a year’s worth of food, stashed in various locations in his property, so that if someone breaks in to steal it, they would not be able to take all of it at once. He says nutritional value and taste are important factors for him, and he swears by Nutrition Survival: “Oh man, it’s fantastic. I actually took a tour of their facility and they had a fresh batch of lasagna that was delicious,” he says. “The other survival food, like My Patriot Supply and Mountain House—you can eat it. But yeah, that’s really survival food. It’s like the last resort.”
But would that fresh batch still be delicious after 25 years on a shelf? Israel says he has set some aside, just to see what happens: “Let’s see what it tastes like in 25 years.”
According to Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University, it will be at the very least safe to eat: “I can’t think of any reason why dry foods in completely sealed, airtight packages would not last a long time. They will lose some nutritional value over time, but plenty will be left and the calories will remain,” she says.
“If this is all there is, and survival is the issue, survivors would be glad to have these. Whether people can hoard enough to last any length of time is another matter.”
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