The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 64: Fast Food for the Backcountry

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Prepackaged meals for backcountry travelers sure are fast and convenient, but what goes into those things? This week on The WildeBeat, Fast Food for the Backcountry.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number sixty four.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

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STEVE: I've seen people make a lot of interesting choices over the years when it comes to the food they take into the backcountry. One guy I went with nearly starved when he only brought a fishing pole and a cast iron frying pan. I've seen someone else who regularly brings only peanut butter, instant oatmeal, and instant coffee. He mixes them together at every meal. Other people bring all cold food and leave a stove and cookware behind.

But most people I see bring the pre-packaged, dehydrated meals they bought at their outfitter. These meals are convenient. They require almost no cooking. And usually, all you have to do is add water. And they have familar names like chicken alfredo and beef stroganoff.

Whenever I see one of these packages, I wonder what goes into making these things. Are they real food? Are they good food and good for you? I contacted a few of these manufacturers to find out. Don Gearing is the president of TyRy Foods.

DON GEARING: ...TyRy Incorporated is a company that I formed a few years ago. We own several different brands of food lines: AlpineAire Foods, Richmoor, Gourmet Reserves, and Natural High.

STEVE: Can you talk a little bit about the process that's used to make your meals?

DON GEARING: What Richmor and AlpineAire Foods has done over the years is basically... create, blend, and package recipes. Any recipe, just about, that you can conceive can be done in a dried format. There are many companies out there ...that will dehydrate food in some form or fashion. ...Freeze drying, is by far the best dehydration method available. And the reason for that... it is the least harsh on removing water from a product. Real quickly, basically food is put into a chamber, it is frozen and then actually it is heated-up slightly, and during that heat-up process, the water in the food goes through what is called sublimation, and water turns into a gaseous state, and then it is vacuumed out of the chamber. And what you are left with is a full, whole, complete product; whatever you happen to be freeze-drying... The only thing that's been removed is the water. All the nutrition is there, all the flavor is there. It's by far the most expensive way to dehydrate food, because it takes so much energy to have those chambers operating.

STEVE: ...when you devise your recipes or come up with your entrees and so on, what role does a nutritional expert play in the development of those recipes?

DON GEARING: It plays a big role. Alpine Aire Foods was founded in 1979 by Dennis Corn. And Dennis's background came out of the health food industry. And so in 1979 when he entered the dried food market, he noticed that not very many people paid much attention to nutrition, or having a desire to create good food with good ingredients. And so nutrition has always driven our recipes... As an example, we don't use white sugar, we'll use cane sugar or turbinado sugar. We only use ingredients who's names you can pronounce, such as peas, carrots, and corn. We don't use extenders, flavor enhancers, MSG, those types of products that a number of food companies depend upon to create taste.

STEVE: The largest of these freeze-dried food manufacturers, is Oregon Freeze Dry. They make the Mountain House line of pre-packaged meals. Melanie Cornutt is their assistant manager for retail products.

MELANIE CORNUTT: First let's talk about how we come up with the idea, and we come up with it in basically two ways: One, we look at what the competitors are doing. You know, items that are top sellers for them, we look and see what those flavors are. And then the second way is the consumer. We have an enormous amount of feedback from our consumers... So once we decide on some flavors or a new desert or whatever it may be, we then start the development phase. Which is, we have a full R&D staff here, full kitchen, we go out and we buy, let's say is was sweet and sour chicken. We'll go to like the grocery stores and we'll buy various sweet and sour frozen entrees. We'll cook them, we'll taste them, we'll kind of get a taste preference; what we're looking for, which one we like best. And then we'll start making the recipe... and then we all try it, and if we don't like it we modify something or we change a spice or add a spice, and we continue to do that until we come up with a flavor that we think is going to be pleasing to the consumer, and then we take it from there.

STEVE: What role do nutrition scientists play in the development of your products?

MELANIE CORNUTT: It seems like over the recent years... trans-fat, sodium, those things have become more and more of a concern. MSG. When these were first developed, those things were not of big concern like they are now. We did, ...a year ago, we went back and reformulated as many of the entrees as we could to remove trans-fat. That is a big project... We are removing MSG out of our eggs, which is the last remaining item that has it, and we're removing it now... But we do -- it's very important to us and we are looking at ways of improving the nutrition.

STEVE: Melanie Cornutt says that one of the key advantages of freeze dried foods is their shelf life.

MELANIE CORNUTT: Our pouches have a seven year shelf life. ...We've had many people tell us they've opened up a pouch after fifteen years and had it and it was great. And we have tested it here ourselves... Freeze drying is an amazing way of preserving food, and we feel that we've definitely perfected that.

STEVE: Enertia Trail Foods is a smaller company with a devoted following among through-hikers. John Garrett is one of their founders.

JOHN GARRETT: We manufacture dried meals for the outdoor industry, and our focus is more of a dehydrated format versus a freeze-dried.

STEVE: Could you educate our listeners a little bit about the difference?

JOHN GARRETT: From an appearance standpoint, feeze-dried food looks a lot more like fresh food. Whereas dehydrated food, ...those ingredients tend to shrink-up to where maybe you can't even tell what it looks like. Like broccoli florets is a good example. A freeze-dried broccoli floret is, you know, might be as big as your thumb, whereas a dehydrated broccoli floret is about as big as your thumbnail. But when you rehydrate that, soak it in water and cook it in a meal, it comes back. And so it pulls that water back in, and the two broccolis side-by-side are going to be very comparable at that point.

STEVE: As a small, family-run business, Enertia takes a less formal approach to their meal formulation.

JOHN GARRETT: I want to know exactly what's in that meal. So absolutely every component that is in our meals is listed on our nutrition label, and also ahead of schedule for the newest requirements coming down the pike is the listing of trans-fatty acids... So basically, we're trying to stay ahead of that curve. 'Cause we tend to approach this as a consumer. You know, when I go to the store, I don't want to read about mystery ingredients, myself, as a consumer, so that's our rule.

STEVE: In an earlier edition we heard from Mary Howley Ryan, the nutritional advisor for the National Outdoor Leadership School. Did she think these convenience meals were a good nutritional choice?

MARY HOWLEY RYAN: I think the most important thing it depends on is if you like those foods. I personally have not found a lot of those foods to be all that palatable and I've also found that the portion sizes that they claim on the packages don't really coincide with my appetite in the backcountry, and I'm not alone in that that assessment. So I would say, if you found some of those that you like, great.

STEVE: We'd like to hear your thoughts about dehydrated meals for outdoor travel. You can call our toll free comment line at 866-590-7373. You'll find links to information about dehydrated meal manufacturers, and the freeze drying process, on our web site.

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Next time -- slower food.

Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please click on the support link to make possible future editions of this free service. The WildeBeat is produced by Steve Sergeant, with help from Jean Higham, as a public service of Effable Communications.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number sixty four. Thank you for listening.

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