PULLMAN, WASH. — Packaging additions and a microwave-assisted sterilization system have allowed Washington State University scientists to triple the shelf life of ready-to-eat macaroni and cheese to three years from one year. The researchers said they believe their shelf life accomplishment could have benefits in space travel and military meals ready to eat (M.R.E.s).

The research appeared in the September issue of Food and Bioprocess Technology. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture Research provided funding.

“We need a better barrier to keep oxygen away from the food and provide longer shelf life similar to aluminum foil and plastic laminate pouches,” said Shyam S. Sablani, Ph.D., a professor at the university who is leading research to create a better protective film. “We’ve always been thinking of developing a product that can go to Mars but with technology that can also benefit consumers here on Earth.”

The researchers are working with the U.S. Army, which wants their M.R.E.s to stay tasty and healthy for three years.

The researchers use a process called the microwave-assisted sterilization (M.A.T.S.) system developed at Washington State to sterilize the food. The food must be sterilized in plastic since meat and tin cans cannot be microwaved and glass, being fragile, is not a preferred packaging choice for M.R.E.s.

A metal oxide coating is added to a layer of plastic film to increase the amount of time it takes for oxygen and other gasses to break through. Multiple layers of different plastics make up the packaging films. Each plastic has a different purpose, including being a good barrier, being good for sealing, offering mechanical strength or being good for printing, Dr. Sablani said.

The U.S. Army plans to test the products under field conditions, and Dr. Sablani plans to talk to NASA.

“We hope to work out a way to test these products on the International Space Station in the future to show that the food is safe after long-term storage,” Dr. Sablani said.