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The Dirty Secret About Dehydrated Food

I love freeze-dried food. It's lightweight, easy to carry or pack a lot of it, it stores for a long time (between 15-30 years, depending on process, type of food, and storage), usually is delicious, and is quite simple and quick to make under almost all circumstances. The one downside is that it seems expensive, although considerably less so if you compare the cost of a pouch to what you just paid for lunch at the drive through.

But there's a dirty little secret when it comes to freeze dried food, whether you buy it in the pouch or in the #10 can, and manufacturers, marketers, and retailers use it to fool you. If you don't know about it, you can easily under-prepare or think you're more stocked up than you actually are. This little known trick is what I call the “servings scam.”

Grab any package of food you have near to hand. Go ahead, I'll wait. Look at the bottom or side and find the “Nutrition Facts” label. Right at the top of that white panel it'll tell you the serving size and the approximate servings per container. Usually the serving sizes are displayed by weight, volume, or pieces. But here's where the deception comes in – there's no real mandate on serving size, and it usually does not come close to equal what we think of as a normal portion. Does anyone believe a spray can of cooking oil really contains over 1,000 meals?

Taking this a step further, when you buy survival food packs, or pick up a couple sealed mylar pouches for a camping trip, or order a tote of emergency food rations online, the marketers usually interpret “serving size” as “meal” and can readily extrapolate inflated numbers from that. In the last 24 hours I've come across two well-known freeze-dried food manufacturing companies who are guilty of this. I'm not going to name them because a quick search showed this is almost an industry standard.

One company markets a “5 Day Survival Bucket” online and in local big box and outdoor stores, and charges a pretty inexpensive price for their guaranteed 30 year shelf-life product. Until you look at their total calories per bucket and realize all those individual pouches added together are only on par with the average American caloric intake for a single day. I actually like their food a lot and use it extensively when traveling in the back country, as well as buying it for long-term or disaster food storage, but the marketing is more than misleading.

Another company rising in popularity (which exists only online right now as far as I can tell) and markets itself exclusively to preppers and emergency-minded individuals is even worse. It claims in videos and on their radio advertisements that their box provides 90 delicious full meals and drink mix packets with an additional 15 sides of fruit, and claims you have more than 30 days of food for a single person. This, again, is based on that ephemeral “serving size” and not any real meal size calculations. When I plugged in their calorie count, you had close to 6 days worth of food if, and only if, you were eating the same diet recommended for a sedentary 13 year old. To get anywhere close to their implied 30 days you would have to live on around 700 calories per day, a starvation diet which will force your body to start shutting down. You can eat a stick of butter and get more energy than that for a fraction of the price!

If you're asking yourself “Where can I find the calories of a product?” the answer is simple – right underneath the serving size and servings per container. Often you'll have to multiply the calories per serving and the number of servings, which can be complicated when manufacturers break their servings down to fractions of a unit. A general rule of thumb for freeze-dried food is one pouch per person per meal. This is a very broad rule since the caloric content and palatability varies so widely, but it's worth keeping in mind if you can't get your hands on the total nutrition facts for some reason, or need to do some quick figuring and you're as bad at mental math as I am.

When you buy emergency food, especially dehydrated food, you should completely disregard the accepted notions of weight (two pounds per person per day), and serving size being equal to meal size. Check the total calories per package (or container, or case) and figure out how many of those fit into your daily caloric needs. Remember, whether you're hiking, backpacking, or working hard in a disaster situation, you'll need approximately 1,000 more calories per day to keep your body functioning at peak efficiency than if you're sitting at home all day ordering Uber delivery from McDonalds and trolling the internet.

Where else do you notice serving discrepancies, or evidence of the "serving scam?" Feel free to drop a comment below. My wife and I have started to tease each other about how many meals we eat after I brought this subject to her attention. Last night I ate enough lasagna for 6 people, supposedly....

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