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During one particularly difficult five-month stretch, the British forces of Gen. Orde Wingate in India had nothing to eat—day after day, breakfast, lunch, and dinner—but U.S. Army K rations. A few months later some visitors arrived to inspect things. At the sight of the box of K rations carried by one of the new arrivals, two of Wingate’s men promptly vomited.

If the K ration was the meal GIs loved to loathe, more than a few owed their lives to the prepackaged victuals that could survive tropical heat, bitter cold, and the vagaries of combat and supply shortages, and still deliver a scientifically tested, nutrition packed formulation of 3,000 calories a day. If they were hideous—the canned “entrées” included in each waxed cardboard box were all a mysterious glop that seemed to bear little relation to the “chopped ham and eggs,” “veal loaf,” or “chicken pate” described on the labels—they were easy to carry, reasonably nourishing, and the product of some of the first real nutritional research the army had ever carried out on what soldiers needed to survive.

And the man behind the research, then a relatively obscure University of Minnesota physiologist named Ancel Keys, would go on to become famous in the 1950s for discovering the connection between cholesterol and heart disease, and in the 1970s for popularizing the health benefits of the un-K-ration-like “Mediterranean diet” of fresh vegetables, pasta, olive oil, and little meat or animal fat.

The immediate impetus for the new army ration was dissatisfaction with the C ration, which was proving far too bulky for the rapid-movement fighting America now engaged in. One day’s C rations consisted of six large cans, weighing over five pounds in all. They had been developed by an army quartermaster officer named Paul P. Logan, whose earlier claim to fame had been creating the most nutritious but unappetizing chocolate bar the world had ever known. (The idea was that if it tasted too good, soldiers would not save it for its intended use as an emergency ration but eat it right away. The Logan bar contained chocolate, oat flour, 600 calories, and some requisitely off tasting dried vegetables.) The troops referred to his greasy and oddly colored C rations as “dog food.”

Keys had come to the University of Minnesota, and science, via the strangest of routes. The only child of parents who had married in their teens, Keys led a peripatetic early life; his family moved from Colorado to California (where his uncle, Lon Chaney, was launching a career as the star of silent horror movies like The Hunchback of Notre Dame), fled the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, and eventually settled in nearby Berkeley. As a teenager Keys ran away from home to shovel bat guano in an Arizona cave, worked as a powder monkey in a Colorado gold mine, got married and quickly divorced at age 19, enrolled and dropped out of Berkeley, and signed on to an oiler bound for China. (The crew’s diet on the voyage, he later recalled, “was mainly alcohol. I don’t remember eating anything.”)

When he returned he got a degree in economics, became a management trainee at Woolworth’s, and then abruptly abandoned that career and entered a doctorate program in oceanography and biology. It wasn’t until 1936 that his interests turned to human physiology; during a 10-day expedition to the Andes, he conducted experiments on himself to ascertain the effects of high altitude on the human body.

When the army approached him to work on the new ration, Keys started with off-the-shelf products from a local grocery store—dried crackers, sausage, biscuits, and candy. After six months of testing on hapless soldiers at Fort Benning, Georgia, the final K ration was standardized as a package of three cardboard boxes: one each for breakfast, dinner, and supper.

Each brick-sized box contained the infamous canned meat or cheese; biscuits; candy, chocolate, or a dried fruit or cereal bar; instant coffee, a bouillon cube, or lemonade mix; chewing gum; salt, sugar, or a small pack of toilet paper—and always a packet of four cigarettes. The lemonade powder was a source of particular revulsion among the troops; it was so sour that it was nearly undrinkable, though GIs insisted that it worked great as a floor and oven cleaner.

Toward the end of the war, recognizing that starvation in war-torn Europe was going to be a huge problem, Keys conducted a landmark study on the effects of malnutrition, using conscientious objectors as volunteers and providing crucial recommendations on how to bring malnourished refugees back to health.

Heeding his own later advice, Keys ate lightly but well and lived to be 100, remaining intellectually active through age 97.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here