You’ve been out in the field for weeks without the gut truck, so Meals, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) on repeat is your reality. MREs are a staple of deployments and field training exercises for the U.S. military, but they have a reputation for causing gastrointestinal issues. 

The myth and lore surrounding MREs are unlimited and span decades of soldiers using them when hot chow wasn’t available (unless you’re in the Air Force and have lobster dinners every night). The gum found in an MRE, for example, isn’t classified as a laxative — but there is truth to that myth.

It’s a widespread belief that the gum packaged in MREs is a laxative and will clear a plugged-up gut. But Task & Purpose previously reported it’s not a laxative. David Accetta is an Army veteran and the chief of public affairs at the Army Natick Soldier Systems Center, which supplies food to the military. Accetta confirmed the gum in MREs is not a laxative but a gum with xylitol in it, which helps with oral health and hygiene in the field. A once-believed myth was finally debunked — or was it? 

Red or white gum: choose wisely

It’s no secret that MREs can cause constipation, and many will chew the gum, hoping to relieve themselves. Xylitol gum helps keep teeth healthy and combat harmful bacteria in the mouth — brushing your teeth isn’t always practical in a warzone. 

Some service members believe that red, cinnamon-flavored gum is a laxative, while white, mint-flavored gum is an anti-diarrheal. There is no evidence to support this theory, but gum, regardless of color, can adversely affect your guts. For example, prunes aren’t classified as a laxative, but that doesn’t mean drinking a whole cup of prune juice won’t have you running for the bathroom.

A study published by the University of Turku’s Institute of Dentistry, based out of Finland, found that xylitol doses of 90 grams or more caused loose stools and diarrhea in healthy adults. Some test subjects showed sensitivity to xylitol and experienced bad gastrointestinal symptoms at lower doses but were generally smaller and lighter in stature. 

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How many pieces of MRE gum would a person need to chew to cause an upset stomach? An average soldier would need to chew approximately 90 pieces or more in a day to cause diarrhea-like symptoms. 

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s authorized commercial item description, the xylitol gum content of two tablets is between 1.7 and 2.2 grams, and each MRE has a packet containing two tablets. It’s possible that a soldier could gather that much gum in a day, but the odds of that are slim. You’d need gum from 45 different MREs to complete that disaster. 

I was one of the guys who sought out the gum, as the mint or cinnamon flavor was a welcome addition to the generally bland-tasting MREs. While in the Army’s Ranger Assessment and Selection Program (RASP), I’d trade cheese spreads for the gum and, if possible, the Tabasco sauce. Besides having a refreshing flavor, I always felt the gum and Tabasco sauce helped me stay awake through several sleepless nights during RASP.

Multipurpose menu items

Besides the great flavor — if you enjoy vinegar-based hot sauce — Tabasco has a dual purpose, like many items within that impossibly thick MRE plastic case. It sounds crazy, but it wasn’t uncommon to see a soldier dropping Tabasco into the corner of their eye to let the pain snap them out of sleep-deprived semi-consciousness. 

Soldiers get creative when they lack sleep and food, especially when a tab or badge is on the line. Tabasco won’t blind you but can cause eye pain and soreness for several days. Task & Purpose advises against this maneuver and recommends that service members only use it as a garnish.

Does MRE gum make you poop? The world of Meals, Ready to Eat explained

The MRE toilet tissue has a few purposes besides aiding with good hygiene. It is a great fire starter and, with a very small amount of water, can serve as a wet wipe. Be careful with the water, though; too much may jeopardize the structural integrity. But it’s also great when combined with instant coffee. 

Service members will drop the coffee onto the toilet tissue, roll it up, and place it in the lip as a pseudo-caffeine dip for training environments where tobacco is banned. Instant coffee can also serve as a caffeinated garnish for the different cakes and sweets that come with MREs. Either way, caffeine is a valuable supplement. 

Each menu item has a perceived value widely accepted throughout the military’s rank and file. Depending on a service member’s preference, they will go to great lengths to acquire the item they need to complete their preferred MRE feast. 

MRE Bartering 101

Menu items like M&Ms, Tobasco bottles, and cheese spread are examples of hot commodities that created a bartering system within the military — especially for those attending Ranger School

Bartering is an art for those attending any training where food is limited. They can use their MREs as commodities to peer higher or to acquire the items they want but don’t come in the MRE they were given. For example, peanut butter can be traded for cheese spread, or vice versa. Trading your sweet sides for main course dishes can allow a soldier to make a better meal, like adding Italian sausage in marinara to tortellini.

Those are just a few examples of how service members can barter their way into the perfect meal. For those who don’t get a chance to trade, there are other means of getting the item you want. Anyone who’s survived off of MREs can likely tell you about their experiences with rat fucking and field-stripping MREs

Field stripping helps lighten a ruck sack’s total weight. Rat fucking is the diabolical act of plucking MRE menu items from several different cases, which is about as bad as it gets in the world of “blue falcons.” Horror stories of entire MRE cases missing M&M’s or cheese spread still echo throughout the military’s ranks. 

The perfect field MRE can be an honorable quest, though. And, in the end, maybe it’s not about getting the cheese spread or gum that makes you poop, but the friends we made along the way?

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